Why In­dia poor are de­voted to demigod lead­ers

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS -

“To me, she was a god­dess,” said party worker Shankar as he joined a sea of mourn­ers bid­ding farewell to Jay­alalithaa Jayaram, high­light­ing the mes­sianic de­vo­tion of In­dia’s poor for of­ten con­tro­ver­sial cham­pi­ons. Hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple at­tended Tues­day’s funeral in Chen­nai for the vet­eran Tamil leader, an out­pour­ing of emo­tion usu­ally re­served for global fig­ures such as Fidel Cas­tro or Princess Diana. AFP looks at other In­dian po­lit­i­cal lead­ers who en­gen­dered sim­i­lar de­vo­tion and why they and for­mer movie star Jay­alalithaa were so pop­u­lar:

Cham­pi­oning the poor

Post-colo­nial In­dia’s first mass funeral saw around two mil­lion peo­ple mourn Ma­hatma Gandhi af­ter his 1948 as­sas­si­na­tion, while mil­lions took to the streets when Mother Teresa of Cal­cutta died in 1997. Up to 15 mil­lion peo­ple re­port­edly at­tended the funeral of CN An­nadu­rai, one of Jay­alalithaa’s pre­de­ces­sors as Tamil Nadu chief min­is­ter in 1969, while Mum­bai ground to a halt when lo­cal Hindu na­tion­al­ist leader Bal Thack­eray died four years ago.

Like Jay­alalithaa, they drew their sup­port from the le­gions of poor rather than from within Delhi’s cor­ri­dors of power. “Peo­ple who are pow­er­less feel com­pelled to look up to some­one who seems to of­fer some kind of hope,” said vet­eran com­men­ta­tor Parsa Venkatesh­war Rao. “It’s a kind of psy­cho­log­i­cal de­pen­dency.”Teresa, de­clared a saint in Septem­ber for her work with the poor, was widely de­rided in her life­time as a fraud, while Thack­eray was crit­i­cized for di­vi­sive rhetoric.

Jay­alalithaa was twice jailed over cor­rup­tion al­le­ga­tions and famed for a vast sari col­lec­tion. But she won the loy­alty of many with a series of pop­ulist schemes, in­clud­ing lunches that cost just three ru­pees (five cents) and elec­tion-time give­aways rang­ing from lap­tops to goats. “Econ­o­mists crit­i­cized her pop­ulist schemes but the im­pact on the peo­ple’s psy­che was im­mense,” said colum­nist Shubha Singh. “She struck a chord with the masses, there was a di­rect chord be­tween the leader and the peo­ple.”

‘Mes­siah Sta­tus’

While the idea of de­ify­ing a liv­ing per­son is idol­a­trous for South Asia’s Mus­lims, In­dia’s Hin­dus of­ten el­e­vate he­roes to God-like sta­tus. The now-re­tired crick­eter Sachin Ten­dulkar was of­ten greeted with ban­ners pro­claim­ing “Sachin is God” while fans of Naren­dra Modi wanted to open a tem­ple in his hon­our last year be­fore the In­dian pre­mier nixed the idea. “The kind of blind adu­la­tion that we see for po­lit­i­cal lead­ers is not unique to In­dia but what is per­haps unique in one re­spect is the fact that these lead­ers are per­ceived as su­per­hu­man be­ings,” said Paran­joy Guha Thakurta, edi­tor of the Eco­nomic and Po­lit­i­cal Weekly.

“They be­come larger than life, they ac­quire a mes­sianic sta­tus. Here is a per­son who is a bene­fac­tor, saviour of all, he al­most be­comes God.”While neigh­bor­ing China would never al­low a per­son­al­ity cult to de­velop around a politi­cian from out­side the rul­ing Com­mu­nist party, In­dia is free to choose its he­roes. “Ours is a mass democ­racy,” said Rao. “We give vent to our emo­tions. We are not re­strained, stiff-up­per lipped Bri­tish types.”

One of the fam­ily

While never mar­ry­ing or hav­ing chil­dren, 68-yearold Jay­alalithaa was known among Tamils as Amma, mean­ing mother - a pow­er­ful im­age in a coun­try where the no­tion of “Mother In­dia” runs deep. The cheap meals were served in “Amma can­teens” while state-sub­si­dized prod­ucts such as “Amma wa­ter” and “Amma ce­ment” left peo­ple in no doubt over whom they should be grate­ful to. An­nadu­rai was known as Anna, which trans­lates as elder brother, and Jay­alalithaa was of­ten com­pared to West Ben­gal Chief Min­is­ter Ma­mata Ban­erji, an­other un­mar­ried woman known as “Didi”, Ben­gali for elder sis­ter.

Christina Paun, a pro­fes­sor who was among the mourn­ers in Chen­nai, said Jay­alalithaa in­spired such ado­ra­tion partly “be­cause she didn’t have a fam­ily of her own”. “She was al­ways a very lov­ing woman, and her love went to her peo­ple,” she said. Singh, the colum­nist, at­trib­uted Jay­alalithaa’s pop­u­lar­ity to her im­age as “a mother fig­ure”. “She was a con­sum­mate politi­cian and her fol­low­ers built a kind of aura around her,” he said. “The emo­tional con­nect they felt with Amma made them blind to her flaws.”

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