How Amma ‘frames’ the world to suit herself

Psychology has the answer to how Jayalalitha has converted dictatorship to benevolent motherhood


Tamil Nadu chief minister and AIADMK supremo J. Jayalalithaa. Photo: R Senthil Kumar/PTI
Tamil Nadu chief minister and AIADMK supremo J. Jayalalithaa. Photo: R Senthil Kumar/PTI

J.Jayalalithaa is to meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi next week—a victory lap as she begins her sixth term as Tamil Nadu chief minister; her first visit to Delhi after two years. Amma is riding high and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) needs her. She will present a list of requirements and Modi will likely woo her to strengthen the BJP’s ties with her party.

Tamil is a language I enjoy and am fluent in. Out of curiosity, I called friends and family in Tindivanam, Kumbakonam and Madurai to get their view, not only on the forthcoming Delhi trip but also about how Amma managed to pull off this resounding election victory in spite of mismanaging the Chennai floods. The responses came fast and furious, but they were clichéd and unsurprising; ones that I had heard before. She was born under the “magam nakshatram” or star, said one. No wonder she is ruling the world, or at least Tamil Nadu. She is the lesser of the two evils. Who wants M. Karunanidhi with all the family infighting?

My analysis is rooted not in politics but psychology. Jayalalithaa is a superb politician—gritty and resilient, rising like a phoenix after defeat and savouring power. She may have won the election because she has taken the freebie culture to a new level. But the reason she has prevailed is because she—like most good politicians—is adept at what psychology calls “framing”.

Framing is how you see the world and make your decisions. Stimuli come at you from all sides. People tell you things and in Tamil Nadu, they will have no hesitation in calling you names to your face. How you process this input—or rather how you “frame” this input, is up to you.

We all frame the world, all the time. It is a “cognitive bias” first brought to light by economists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. When we say that we are putting our dog “to sleep” instead of killing it, that is framing—a way of coming to terms with something awful. When we say the boyfriend broke up with us rather than “he dumped me”, that too is framing reality to suit our mental frame. Salespeople take advantage of our desire to frame reality: by putting three shirts beside each other—one for Rs.2,000, another for Rs.5,000, and the third for Rs.10,000. Suddenly the middle one seems reasonable and you walk out with it though you don’t even need a shirt.

Memory researcher Elizabeth Loftus has proved that simply replacing a word can alter a reaction. When witnesses to a car accident were asked, “How fast was the car going when it smashed into the victims?” they would give higher speeds than if the question simply said, “How fast was the car going when it hit the victims?” That’s framing. Put another way, there is no one reality. It all depends on how you see the world.

The reason Jayalalithaa is so good, the reason she has lasted this long in the pugnacious, sometimes puerile world of Tamil Nadu politics, is because she has learnt to frame the world to suit her ideology; to convert insults into infomercials. She learnt this not now, when she is reigning queen of the sycophants around her, but on the way up, when she was a stumbling starlet and novice politician. She learnt it early on when men in starched dhotis called her names. She learnt it when men—and they were usually men—in her own party treated her with contempt and eventually betrayed her; when the public ousted her even though she believed she was doing her best to help them; when even the courts had her arrested. For a woman with as much hubris as Amma, the list of pinpricks is long.

It cannot have been easy for this comely, fetching former actor. She rose to power under M.G. Ramachandran; ousted his widow from the chief minister’s chair; and has been scrambling, fighting and defending her position ever since. Unlike her nemesis, Karunanidhi, she has no family.

Along the way, she cultivated a thick skin and political savvy. She made enemies and gained resilience. She took control and got even. She settled scores without flinching. She wore body armour when the death threats came fast and furious. Quite simply, Jayalalithaa learnt to convert her rage into rhetoric. And what rhetoric that is. She isn’t in the same league as Modi, who speaks without a script, but Jayalalithaa knows how to use metaphor and timing. She speaks with pause and gravitas and knows how to raise and inflect her voice for maximum results. “Only the mother knows what her children need,” she said at an election rally in Virudhachalam in April, riffing on her title “Amma”, which means mother.

To convert dictatorship into benevolent motherhood is the power of framing and Amma’s genius. In her, Modi may have met his match.

Shoba Narayan once asked Jayalalithaa what her favourite ragam was and Amma replied, “Abheri”. Shoba tweets at @ShobaNarayan and posts on Instagram as shobanarayan. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com

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