Regardless of what you thought of her career, Jayalalithaa Jayaram was an extraordinary woman who overcame massive political and social odds to become one of India’s most powerful politicians.

Yet, if you look even superficially, the actor-turned-supreme leader embodied the very antithesis of modern democratic values. Consider the epithets—not all of them undeserved. Imperious. Ostentatious. Temperamental. Aloof. Populist. Intolerant of criticism. Disdainful of the press. Builder of a personality cult. And, yes, jailed twice for corruption.

So, why did so many weep, clearly distraught, at Amma’s death on 5 December?

India’s relationship with women in public life, particularly in politics, is complicated. For the longest time after Independence, barring a Sarojini Naidu here and a Vijayalakshmi Pandit there, politics remained an all-boys club. Nearly 70 years later, as politics increasingly becomes a family business, the entry of a new generation of female leaders has its share of the bahus and betis of powerful male dynasts. But patriarchy remains entrenched.

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Jayalalithaa, like two other powerful women in politics, Mayawati and Mamata Banerjee, was single and unencumbered by either husband or children. It is true that she was mentored by M.G. Ramachandran, but she survived both a rift with him and an ouster from the party following his death. That she did it on her own minus family backing makes it all the more remarkable.

“A woman should marry only if she wants to raise a family, not just because she needs a man to support her," she once said. Perhaps Jayalalithaa recognized that her voters could only deify her if she was a Mother Goddess single-mindedly devoted to the welfare of her people.

So, the image she chose to cultivate was of the lofty goddess at whose feet devoted partymen lay prostrate. Her images and cutouts were larger than life. It was also her way of creating a figure that would be above question or suspicion. Those who “spread rumours" speculating on her health while she lay in hospital were packed off to jail and even today, we have no detail of her actual ailment.

But apart from crowning herself with glory, exactly what did Jayalalithaa do to empower her Tamil sisters?

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There are at least two ways to measure a politician’s commitment to the idea of empowering women. The first is through policy, and in this perhaps no other politician has so assiduously cultivated the female voter as Nitish Kumar. Both the cycle scheme that encourages girls’ retention in school and prohibition, to name just two, are acknowledgements of a constituency of women.

Jayalalithaa’s hugely publicized and talked about welfare measures tend to be seen as women-friendly measures. They were, in fact, part of a long line of welfare measures such as the mid-day meal scheme and uniforms for poor Scheduled Caste students that go back to the time of the late K. Kamaraj, points out feminist historian V. Geetha in a profile for Caravan. Jayalalithaa undoubtedly added a feminine angle to several of her schemes for empowering women—all-women police stations and the baby cradle scheme designed to curtail female infanticide, for instance, and later, such freebies as gold for mangalsutras and mixers and grinders.

“It’s hard to say what her ideological position was because it shifted so often," Geetha said over the phone. “But even her gendered welfare measures were designed to promote her." Worse, the lack of an independent audit of these schemes hampers an assessment.

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The second gauge of a politician’s commitment to women’s empowerment is by examining the extent to which that politician is willing to increase representation through elections. In this regard, Jayalalithaa’s All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) was just as miserly as other political parties, distributing a mere 10% of tickets to women in the 2014 general election, just above the national average of 8%, according to an analysis by the Association for Democratic Reforms. In the 2016 assembly election, the AIADMK contested 227 seats. Only 31 of these candidates were women.

If we applaud Jayalalithaa as a female leader, it is because of her success and tenacity in overcoming vicious sexism and patriarchy. The irony is that she triumphed in a man’s world, yet did so little for women. The tragedy is that patriarchy remains as firmly embedded.

Namita Bhandare is gender editor of Mint.

Her Twitter handle is @namitabhandare

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