The hashtag #RIPAmma has been trending on twitter for the past day and a half–if you have any connection to India, you’ve probably heard that the five-time Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, Jayalalithaa just passed away. Jayalalithaa was perhaps equally beloved and reviled but her legacy is a powerful one. A talented and successful actress, Jayalalithaa moved into politics mid-way through her career and has been a force to be reckoned with. Her supporters called her “Amma” as the image Jayalalithaa projected was that of a protective maternal figure. Evidently her self-fashioning worked: when she was jailed on corruption charges, supporters beheaded themselves in front of government buildings to demand her release.
Jayalalithaa’s death of course doesn’t impact me personally–but it did get me thinking about women in politics more broadly. The Chief Minister of Bengal is also a powerful woman: Mamata Banerjee. Like Jayalalithaa, she is single, self-made, and is called “Didi” or elder sister, by her countrymen and women. Mayawati–the ex-CM of Uttar Pradesh–is a third example of a powerful woman who commanded her state for four terms. Called “Behenji,” or elder sister, she was actually the first Dalit Chief Minister in India. In 2012, these three CM’s were all in office and together controlled the lives of around 360 million Indians–over 30% of India.
Jayalalithaa, Mayawati, and Mamata Banerjee are anomalies in a country where most women get involved in politics because either their husbands or fathers are political figures themselves. I have written before on how reservations increase women’s participation in local politics–however, this doesn’t necessarily translate into the state-wide or national stage. How then did these three women manage to climb the political ladder? Much of Jayalalithaa, Mayawati, and Mamata’s success can be attributed to the self-image that they project: matriarchal goddesses demanding of respect. To demand this respect and gain authority in a deeply patriarchal country, these leaders had to “renounce their sexuality” by choosing not to marry and furthermore, publicly present as austere and pious. I too have been subject to this imagery: Mamata-di’s picture is plastered all over Bengal–she only ever wears a plain white cotton sari, her hands often folded. Furthermore, by presenting as a mother or older sister, these women are able to occupy a space that men are comfortable with women flourishing in: an authoritative mother is taken seriously.
The conflation of political power, the adoption of kinship terms, and goddess worship is one that I truly find fascinating. While researching more about the topic, I found this article which is a must-read.
As for Jayalalithaa, her legacy is complicated: by her critics, she is often painted as extremely corrupt–a true but incomplete picture. Under her guidance, Tamil Nadu has become one of the most economically successful states in India. Furthermore, Jayalalithaa made gendercide a top priority, supported legislation that offers mid-day meals at schools to reduce attrition, and subsidized essentials such as salt and cement for her poorest citizens. A truly self-made and formidable leader, Jayalalithaa will be remembered for her charisma and for her historic career–#RIPAmma indeed.