Tuesday, December 6, 2016
Business Recorder editorial Dec 6, 2016
Death of a popular icon The passing away of 68-year-old long serving Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa Jayaram on December 5 evoked among her supporters the expected tsunami of grief. She had been ill in hospital since being admitted with a fever in September. Hundreds of people had mounted a round-the-clock vigil at the hospital since she was admitted. This crowd of supporters swelled on December 4 as her condition worsened. It was left to her party, the AIADMK, to mournfully announce the sad news that the “Iron Lady of India…beloved…Amma, is no more.” Jayalalithaa was known popularly in her home state as Amma (mother). Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted his condolences. Jayalalithaa started her career as a popular Tamil cinema heroine. She was introduced to politics by her cinema screen partner M G Ramachandran, also an actor-turned-politician, and went on to serve as chief minister of Tamil Nadu five times. She enjoyed a god-like stature with her people, with her ministers on occasion prostrating themselves at her feet. The reclusive leader was said to run her party with an iron hand and has failed to leave any clear line of succession to govern the South Indian state that is home to major auto and IT outsourcing businesses. In the emotive atmosphere following her demise, some analysts fear the uncertainty surrounding who will inherit her mantle could lead to violence. Jayalalithaa during her long political career garnered the loyalty of many voters in Tamil Nadu through a series of highly popular schemes, including the well known “Amma canteens” providing lunch for just Rs three. She was also one of the most polarising figures in Indian politics, accused of being dictatorial and even being jailed for corruption. Her conviction in 2014, overturned later on appeal, evoked such emotion that several of her supporters resorted to self-harm and even reportedly some suicides amidst widespread mass protests. Jayalalithaa combined in her person the melding of art and politics, in both of which she was a high achiever. Her devoted supporters dismissed the corruption charges against her as the motivated work of rivals. In their eyes, Amma could do no wrong. This conviction sprang from her pro-people policies and welfare steps. As to corruption, the obsession with the issue by our Imran Khan notwithstanding, it appears inherent in politics, if not in human affairs generally. There is no cure for the malady except systemic erosion of all avenues for such wrongdoing, which must include the rule of law and a prosecution and justice system that works efficiently. In South Asia generally, and all over the world, such systems present a mixed picture at best. But such systems, despite flaws and warts, can only improve themselves and the situation over time if continuity in the political process and democracy are ensured. There are no short cuts in this endeavor, so long as greed and material acquisition define the human condition. In Jayalalithaa’s case, the charges of corruption were washed away by the adulatory worship she evoked amongst her supporters for all she had done for them in her repeated tenures. After all it was not for nothing that they kept returning her to high office again and again. In that respect therefore, the people’s welfare orientation trumped the corruption taint, whether deserved or not. Tamil Nadu is a highly educated state, but that did not prevent the extraordinary love reminiscent of worship she evoked in the hearts and minds of her diehard supporters. There may never again be the like of Jayalalithaa Jayaram on the political horizon of Tamil Nadu, India, or indeed the wider world. Her charisma fed off the Hindu cultural penchant for anointing deities with gifts of gold and other precious commodities. Whether that culture was at the heart of her alleged corruption is an enigma she takes with her to the funeral pyre. Love her or hate her, there is no denying the giant stature of Jayalalithaa Jayaram, who for so long defined her state and shone on India’s political firmament.