Home / Politics / Policy /  The phenomena of Jayalalithaa and Mamata

New Delhi: Out of the four states and one Union Territory that announced their assembly election results on Thursday, only two chief ministers managed to beat anti-incumbency to return to power with big majorities. While All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) chief J. Jayalalithaa won Tamil Nadu, Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee retained West Bengal.

On the face of it, Jayalalithaa and Mamata Banerjee are as different from each other as idli sambar is from macher jhol, wrote Rajdeep Sardesai a few days before the results were announced. The Tamil Nadu chief minister is the self-styled empress of Poes Garden, a remote, inaccessible figure who thrives in imperial grandeur; the West Bengal chief minister, by contrast, likes to project herself as a plebeian folk heroine in crumpled sari and chappals who revels in her street-fighting image. Jayalalithaa is the convent-educated cinema star who took over the MGR legacy while Mamata is the “outsider" from the backstreets of Kalighat who pushed ahead without a political godfather. And yet, their common traits are intriguing as they mirror both hope and despair in contemporary Indian politics.

Both Jayalalithaa and Mamata run their parties as tightly-controlled one-woman shows. Despite their many flaws, what is undeniable is that both Amma and Didi are mass leaders, and are able to establish an instant connect with the bulk of their voters, especially women.

Jayalalithaa on Thursday created a history of sorts by becoming the first chief minister to be sworn in for the second consecutive term in the state in nearly three decades.

There was no strong wave in her favour in the state ahead of the 16 May polls. In fact, there was disenchantment over the seeming absence of governance when she was convicted in 2014 on charges of possessing assets disproportionate to her income, disqualified from holding office and sent to jail, before being acquitted by the Karnataka high court and restored to office last year. There was also anger against the AIADMK government’s mishandling of the November-December floods in Chennai.

So how did Jayalalithaa achieve this feat?

Jayalalithaa elicits a curious mix of reactions. While the fandom that makes Amma is well-known, freebies is another effective tool. Stories about her extravagance are legendary, and many of her worshipping followers are known to profess their loyalty through bizarre acts such as walking on hot coals or drawing her portrait with their blood. Incidents of her followers setting fire to themselves whenever she faced political setbacks are not unknown, says a BBC profile of Amma.

Also, the laundry list of freebies that the AIADMK chief announced last week—from a waiver of all farm loans and free laptops for Class X and XII students to free cell phones for all ration card holders and government reimbursement of education loans—shows that she deploys it as well as her mentor MGR ever did.

Jayalalithaa’s governance and policies may have been politically and economically unsound for experts and analysts but for the common man, her manifesto of freebies as well as improvements in the power sector gave them a breather. Amma canteens, meanwhile, are legends in themselves.

In fact, the slew of freebies promised ahead of the polls by AIADMK may be a key reason for its victory in Tamil Nadu.

From being an actor to acquiring the title of Amma, Jayalalithaa has been a constant figure in the life and time of the state.

Fondly called Amma by her supporters and fans, Jayalalithaa has known struggle since her earliest days in politics. Though the legendary M.G. Ramachandran (MGR) was her mentor, she had to fight to become the party’s general secretary, a post she has held since 1989. She started her political career in 1982.

She has been in and out of the courts, defending herself against allegations. The allegations made against her over the years have been extensive - from arranging for her opponents to be beaten up to spending large amounts of taxpayers’ money on lavish wedding ceremonies. Some of these allegations have veered towards the outlandish - on one occasion she was accused of losing her temper with her auditor and assaulting him. In most cases Jayalalithaa’s lows have been followed by dramatic political comebacks in which she has been reinstated as Tamil Nadu chief minister, according to the BBC profile.

An insightful piece in New York Times, which is a tell all, draws an interesting portrait of her, “You know you’ve entered Tamil Nadu when you begin to see Jayalalithaa’s face everywhere: a double-chinned Mona Lisa, her long, dark hair pulled back in a demure chignon. In the cities, her party members line the avenues with giant Jayalalithaa billboards to prove their fealty, and her likeness stares out from posters all over the villages, where her biggest vote bank resides. Her face appears on the outside of the free laptops she distributes to students and then again on the desktops. There are Amma pharmacies for subsidized drugs and Amma canteens for 5 meals; soon there will be Amma cinemas for cheap movies. The ubiquity of that face gives the state the feel of a cartoon dictatorship, much to the annoyance of Tamils indifferent to her charms." The piece traces her history in politics and films and tries to make sense of the “histrionic devotion" that Amma commands.

At another end of the country, there’s Mamata Banerjee, a phenomenon in herself.

After an acrimonious campaign that saw her party confronting allegations of corruption, Banerjee showed her rivals just who is the Didi in West Bengal. In the build-up to the polls, the Trinamool was mired in allegations of corruption, with the twin scandals of Narada and Sarada engulfing her partymen.

But with a substantial gain in vote share in the 2016 assembly election, the chief minister of West Bengal has established that her politics of redistribution and largesse give her an unassailable strength, with which she can overcome even her own party’s shortcomings.

The opposition tried hard to dislodge her. To take on Didi, the Congress fielded Deepa Dasmunsi, wife of veteran Congress leader Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi and also called Boudi (sister-in-law). The BJP candidate Chandra Kumar Bose, the grandnephew of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, was backed in the campaign by party president Amit Shah and actor Paresh Rawal, among others.

Banerjee, the first woman chief minister of West Bengal, is regarded as a maverick who has little respect for customs and protocol, and that is precisely one of the drivers of her popularity," says an article in Hindustan Times.

Banerjee started her political career with the Congress in the 1970s. On 1 January 1998, she formed the Trinamool Congress and has led the opposition against the Left rule in the state.

She became one of the youngest parliamentarians in Lok Sabha, beating CPM veteran Somnath Chatterjee from the Jadavpur parliamentary constituency in south Kolkata in 1984. Since then she has been elected to the Lok Sabha a number of times and has headed several ministries including the minister of state for human resource development, youth affairs and sports, and women and child development. Read more.

As a student leader in India, she jumped up and danced on the hood of a politician’s car to keep it from advancing. As one of the nation’s youngest parliamentarians, she occupied government offices to protest impunity. And now as chief minister of West Bengal, India’s fourth-most populous state, she meets global investors wearing crumpled homespun clothes and flip flops. That image as a champion of the masses has Banerjee, 61, poised to win another term, predicted Bloomberg.

Didi, like Amma, too has not ignored the importance of freebies.

She worked as a milk booth vendor to battle poverty early in her life. Over the years, Banerjee became an uncompromising street fighter against the Communists in West Bengal. But, as she became the chief minister in 2011, Banerjee channelised her abundant energy to usher in development and implement socio-welfare schemes that ultimately helped her retain power in the eastern state.

She doled out scholarships to girls, loans to the jobless youth for self-employment, arranged for free medicine and treatment in state-run hospitals, and most importantly, put in place a massive propaganda machinery to apprise the people about the Trinamool Congress government’s development efforts and welfare schemes.

But there’s more to her. From day one, Banerjee has tried to provide governance while continuously learning on the job, writes Sandip Ghose for Mint, listing out her many achievements.

S.A. Aiyar gives the leader’s snapshot in The Times of India, “The urban middle classes hate her, the rural masses love her. The middle classes hate to admit it, but in elections the rural masses matter more. Most of the bhadralok castigate her for ruining university autonomy, filling institutions with her loyalists, and “selling" not just university teaching posts (as the Left Front used to) but even student seats in the best colleges. They say she has brought her own thugs to every district, replacing those of the Left Front. Often, the old thugs have simply switched sides… She is frankly contemptuous of intellectuals, and proudly says she represents the masses."

Delhi-based writer Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay draws attention to her growing importance in national politics. “After the 19 May verdict, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee is the biggest challenge for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. While having the potential to be his rival in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, she, however, can also turn into a tactical ally of the BJP in Parliament over the next two years," he writes.

He also observes that more than anyone else Jayalalithaa would pose a challenge to Banerjee in the national arena. “But at 61, Mamata is more youthful than her Tamil Nadu counterpart and also has the advantage of better personal relations with leaders of other parties," he adds.

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