Jayalalithaa and the power of kindness

As we chase success, we tend to forget that our real achievements lie in acts of compassion.

Written by Anuradha Varma | New Delhi | Updated: December 8, 2016 5:16 pm
Former Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa passed away on December 5. Former Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa passed away on December 5.

Almost my first thought when news about Jayalalithaa’s death came in was that ultimately, she had to leave all that wealth behind, having grown up on reports of her “disproportionate assets”. When my Tamilian maid came in the next morning, she pretty much echoed the same thought, adding, “She had absolutely no family with her.” What was the point of it all, was the question that hung in the air. But, then, she talked about how much the late chief minister had done for the poor in the state. When Jayalalithaa is remembered, it will be for her kindness, which was her real greatness. It will not be the power that was responsible for the unforgettable reports of over 28 kilos of gold, 10,000 sarees and more, legal or otherwise.

There is a lesson somewhere in all of this. As we chase success, we tend to forget that our real achievements lie in acts of compassion. Among the trending topics on Quora is, “If Jayalalithaa (Amma) was so corrupt then why do the people support her so much?” The answers all talk about is the subsidies and freebies, meals starting at Re 1 and other welfare schemes. One girl relates how her Tamilian neighbour decided to stay home from work, because Amma was no more. The gentleman was quoted as saying, “She has taken care of us like her own children. Nobody can replace her. She helped the poor like us. …She knew our needs. We will miss her, her governance, we will miss our Amma.” Whether one can relate to the anguish or not, it is a moving testimony to a leader’s connect with the people.

The stories are many, including her funding the education of Gopinath, an underprivileged student and gardener, who went on to become an engineer and reportedly worked at Amazon. We will never know what motivated Jayalalithaa and whether it was pure compassion, efficient statesmanship or something else, but it definitely gave her valuable currency in terms of soft power.

Psychologist Dacher Keltner, University of California, Berkeley, in his book The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence, argues about “the surprising and lasting influence of soft power (culture, ideas, art, and institutions) as compared to hard power (military might, invasion, and economic sanctions).” We gain power, he writes, by acting in ways that improve the lives of other people in our social networks.

Supporters and followers mourn as Tamil Nadu CM Jayalalita's body was brought to her residence from Appolo hospital, Chennai. Express Photo/Nirmal Harindran Supporters and followers mourn as former Tamil Nadu CM Jayalalithaa’s body was brought to her residence from Apollo hospital, Chennai. Express Photo/Nirmal Harindran

The kindness theme is not new. This is perhaps why Microsoft founder Bill Gates famously declared that he plans to donate 95 percent of his personal fortune and is on his way to achieving that. Or closer home, the Gita tells us to keep our karmic account balanced with large doses of good deeds.

So, when we watch the power tussle that will play out in days to come and wonder what was the point of it all, the answer is that she was, perhaps, kind where it mattered. And will be remembered for it. A lesson for those who roam the corridors of power.

The writer is an editorial consultant and co-founder of The Goodwill Project. She tweets @anuvee. Views expressed are personal.

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