Many outsiders have quite a bit of stereotypes and misunderstandings about Tamil parties. While I’m not a fan/voter of any of the Dravidian parties, it would be a grave injustice to reduce Jayalalitha to mere freebie politics.
For many Tamils Jaya and her mentor MGR provide a deeply emotional connection that cannot be reduced to a mere materialism of her branded canteens and TVs. For many women Jayalalitha is an inspirational role model who stood through ignominy and sexual harassment even in the legislative assembly and grew her politics from scratch – with no family background. For a group that was used to getting beaten by drunkard husbands, she is a shining sun.
For many her guts and the ability to stand up to any kind of central government is a real attraction. For the last few decades, Tamils feared our own central government more than anything else. Language imposition and loss of economic sovereignity were real worries. For those who worried, Jaya proved that she can easily fend off any kind of central government or Prime Minister.
For a few others, she was an educated, suave leader standing out from the cacophony of goondas. For a few others she was a policy expert who had the right scheme at the right time.
While her first term as CM [1991–96] was truly horrible and a hallmark of corruption, her subsequent terms were quite measured and relatively clean. It is in these terms where she really earned the respect of the people. She was charismatic and people looked up to her.
Here are a few things Jaya is known for:
- Rainwater harvesting. TN is a leading state in the country for this and most of the credit is owed to Jaya.
- Cleaning up the LTTE terror apparatus after Rajiv’s death.
- Bringing down female infanticide with her cradle schemes.
- Being able to bring top investors to Chennai. A guy in the know recounted a story of top investors visiting Bangalore. They were welcomed by some low level functionaries at the airport. When the same visitors came down to Chennai, Jaya personally received them. That sealed the deal.
On the whole Tamil Nadu is a reasonably run state by Indian standards. It is a fairly safe, healthy, educated state with some decent infrastructure. Not all of this is due to Jaya and Karunanidhi, but these leaders do deserve some of the credit.
Anybody who doesn’t understand Jayalalitha’s popularity doesn’t understand Tamil politics at all.
By Balaji Viswanathan at quora