Vaasanthi in conversation with Sudha Sadhanand
Prachi Bhagwat, Official ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival Blogger
Jayalalithaa’s life has been a contradiction in terms. She occupied the position of a fierce female leader in a political scene overwhelmingly populated by men, for over three decades. In a political party founded to represent the Dalit voice, she – a fair-skinned Brahmin woman – managed to firmly consolidate unquestionable power, and emerged as Tamil Nadu’s matriarch: ‘Amma.’ This session was a fascinating exploration of veteran journalist Vaasanthi’s book Amma: Jayalalithaa’s Journey from Movie Star to Political Queen, the political climate of Tamil Nadu after Amma’s death, and concerns about the troubled future of the state.
Vaasanthi first met Jayalalithaa in the 1980s in Delhi. During an interview, Jayalalithaa advised Vaasanthi to come to Tamil Nadu to understand the state and its political culture in depth, since writing from Delhi would give her little real insight. Unfortunately, Jayalalithaa did not keep her word: over her ten-year long tenure as the editor of the Tamil edition of India Today magazine, Vaasanthi regularly sent faxes, requesting a further interview with her, to no avail.
When Penguin India approached her to write a book on Amma, Vaasanthi dived deep into the project, and after a process of rigorous research and interviews with Amma’s early acquaintances, Vaasanthi put together a book. Unfortunately, a news item brought out by Outlook magazine described the book as ‘an untold story’, before its release. Jayalalithaa found out about it and successfully gained a permanent injunction against it being published. ‘I couldn’t even think of going to Chennai as I lived under the fear of being assaulted by her men. I am ashamed to say that I was very scared of her,’ Vaasanthi admitted.
The secrecy of the Jayalalithaa administration and its workings contributed to the mystery surrounding her persona. Journalists in Tamil Nadu were forced to tread with fear and caution. Vaasanthi believes this was part of a larger political strategy, as well as the fact that Jayalalithaa was a ‘woman in a male-dominated political environment.’ The image of her working closely with male colleagues would have caused discomfort in Tamil society. By manufacturing a mythical persona, Jayalalithaa could maintain a safe distance from her male colleagues while continuing to exert power over them. The practice of the male cadres prostrating before ‘Amma’ also fed into the narrative of her being a larger-than-life figure, inaccessible, even by her own cadres and colleagues.
Vaasanthi’s book also explores an episode of Jayalalithaa’s life that has been the subject of much speculation: her relationship with MG Ramachandran, who was known to be her political mentor. Vaasanthi observed that although MG Ramachandran facilitated her entry in politics, Jayalalithaa’s rise should mostly attributed to her intelligence and ruthless ambition. She proved herself, time and again, as an adept administrator and a formidable political player. Her welfare schemes, which involved the ‘cradle baby scheme’ and the ‘Amma baby care kits,’ among numerous others, contributed to the image of the ‘universal mother.’ By conforming to this traditional stereotype of women as mothers, Jayalalithaa’s larger scheming was much harder to criticise.
Jayalalithaa has certainly left an indelible mark on Tamil Nadu’s politics, but Vaasanthi firmly believes that change is absolutely necessary. The situation at present is ‘not pleasant to talk about. I shudder to think what will happen to Tamil Nadu.’ Now that Tamil Nadu has lost its ‘mother’, Vaasanthi hopes that young people will galvanise society in new ways, and ‘try to think about what is good for the state,’ rather than fall prey to the slogans they are hearing.
Photo Credit: Chetan Singh Gill