On the face of it, Jayalalithaa and Mamata Banerjee are as different from each other as idli sambar is from macher jhol. 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, as the two women battle for re-election, 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: Does anyone know who is number 2 in their respective parties, someone who might be considered a potential successor? Travelling through West Bengal and Tamil Nadu on the campaign trail, one didn’t notice a single poster of any other leader from the AIADMK or the Trinamool Congress. In effect, the party is completely identified with the individual at the top with no space for any alternative power centre. In the Congress, there is mother and son, in the BJP, Narendra Modi must share space occasionally with an Amit Shah or even an Arun Jaitley.
Both Amma and Didi evoke a mix of awe and fear among their followers and legislators that borders on intimidation. Ask an AIADMK MP to appear on your television show, and the instant response is: “I will have to ask Amma,” after which the individual does a disappearing act. Trinamool Congress local leaders are a little more willing to speak up, but those who express any dissent like the former railway minister Dinesh Trivedi must know their days within the party fold are numbered.
Maybe the seemingly ruthless, mercurial style of leadership has been deliberately cultivated to keep the menfolk in their party on constant guard. In a patriarchal system, maybe a certain element of designer madness is needed to ensure that the male members don’t begin to take their leader for granted. No image better symbolises just how Jayalalithaa is perceived within the party than that of former chief minister O Paneerselvam prostrating himself before his ‘supremo’. Mamata may not approve of such a public display of obsequiousness but privately even senior TMC leaders are expected to ‘serve’ the ‘boss’ at all times.
Their governance style is also laced with similar heavy doses of populism that combine welfarist intent with occasional financial recklessness. Jayalalithaa’s ‘freebie’ culture extends from genuinely innovative measures like ‘Amma canteens’ where idlis are available for Re 1 to a system of patronage that revolves around virtually ‘bribing’ voters with a range of consumer goods from mixers and grinders to smartphones and even scooters this time. The West Bengal chief minister doesn’t have the luxury of distributing similar goodies but she too has pushed ahead with a sop-driven model that offers Rs 2 a kg rice, discounted medicines, free bicycles for girls and special grants for madrasas. Are we surprised then that both Tamil Nadu and West Bengal are struggling with large budgetary debts?
Both leaders have also earned the growing ire of the urban middle class, which accuses them of running an unaccountable regime that has institutionalised corruption. In Chennai, a businessman tells me on record of a ‘rate card’ which requires payments to be made to the top political leadership. In Kolkata, one is told of the stranglehold of local ‘syndicates’ that operate a mafia-style operation where money is collected on behalf of the party. Corruption has been a familiar charge that has haunted Jayalalithaa through her political career while Mamata, by contrast, rode to power on her reputation for being an ‘honest’ politician. But in the last year, the Saradha chit fund expose and the Narada sting where her legislators were caught on camera taking money have seriously dented her image as an incorruptible leader.
And yet, despite their many flaws, what is undeniable is that both Amma and Didi are mass leaders, able to establish an instant connect with the bulk of their voters, especially women. Both have been able to sustain their politics around a consciously shaped pro-poor image, of being leaders who can be trusted with reaching out to those outside the privileged elite. Jayalalithaa’s liquor policy may have been a breach of trust, forcing her to now course correct and push for prohibition. Mamata’s ‘maa, mati, manush’ slogan may appear hollow now, but it hasn’t stopped her from being seen as a champion of the underclass.
Their political careers have gone through many ups and downs but the two leaders have never given up the fight: For more than two decades, Mamata was a lone warrior against the Red Army in West Bengal while Jayalalithaa has been in and out of prison. Their resilience in difficult times is a reflection of their addiction to power but also a sign of their determination to triumph over adversity.
Both leaders perhaps benefit from the fact that their prime opponents in their respective states are struggling for relevance. The DMK-Congress alliance is led by a 93-year-old M Karunanidhi in what is almost certainly his last battle while the Left-Congress combine in West Bengal is an arrangement stitched together in sheer desperation. Most polls suggest that Jayalaithaa and Mamata are ahead and will return to power. Whether they win or not, one thing is certain: Their survival instincts and a larger-than-life personality cult will ensure that they live to fight another day.
Post-script: If 2016 is a year for Amma and Didi to be on test, next year could well be the year of another woman politician with similar characteristics: Mayawati, or Behenji, is yet another political ‘supremo’ who must never be discounted. Together, the ‘teen deviyan’ symbolise the strength of the democratic character of Indian electoral politics as well as its alarming decline towards authoritarianism and moral vacuousness.