As Sivakami, our domestic help and an ardent AIADMK supporter, dropped by yesterday morning, she was in tears. Watching the thousands throng Rajaji Hall for a last glimpse of J. Jayalalithaa on television, she was worried about her family’s welfare entitlements. Her mother and maternal uncle, living in a village 200 km from Chennai, feel that a proposed increase in their old age/widow pensions, from Rs 1,000 per month to Rs 1,500 per month, may not happen with Jayalalithaa’s death. A widow with three teenage daughters, Sivakami was also concerned that the promised increase in marriage assistance for girl children may be stalled.
The adulation for Jayalalithaa continues to perplex political observers, especially since her unexpected return to power, despite being seen as a “non-performer”, in the recent assembly elections. Defying pre-poll predictions, a three-decade electoral history and poor management of last year’s floods in Chennai that resulted in huge destruction of lives and property, Jayalalithaa’s victory raised questions, especially about her popularity among the Tamil voters.
WATCH | J Jayalalithaa’s Life Journey
One factor that really requires understanding is that women voters tend to vote for the AIADMK disproportionately. Two sets of data put forth by the Lokniti-CSDS survey, conducted around the recently concluded TN assembly elections, support this proposition. In regions where the women voters outnumbered male voters, the AIADMK had done exceedingly level. The survey also suggests that it was the women’s vote, transcending caste divisions, that actually tilted the scales in favour of the AIADMK, despite several pre-poll and exit polls suggesting otherwise. Though a greater share of Dalits and minorities favoured the DMK, the AIADMK also won a bulk of the reserved constituencies.
Big ticket investments and mega-infrastructure projects, that are seen as synonymous with “development” by the middle class, were hardly visible in her last tenure. In June 2015, The Economic Times carried a piece on the flight of firms from the state on account of what entrepreneurs perceived as inordinate delays, and demands for exorbitant “payments”. In a state with the highest share of youth in higher education, unemployment levels, especially among the more educated youth, continues to be high. Work is increasingly becoming casualised and precarious. Expectations that the huge investments made in private education by rural households will translate into gainful and dignified employment are belied. Lack of inner party democracy in the AIADMK mirrored the slew of defamation cases against political opponents and the increasing opaqueness in decision-making. It is this context that makes Jayalalithaa’s popularity even more confounding. While observers perceive a continuity in women’s support for the AIADMK since MGR, it is important to recognise that this support has been sustained, reworked and probably enlarged through a consolidation of a model of welfare politics that the state has come to be known for.
Scholars attribute the success of Dravidian politics in the state to appeals based on two strands of populism — assertive and paternalist. Assertive populism rested on a mobilisation of a range of subaltern groups around a Tamil identity and involved efforts to address questions of social justice through reservations in higher education and public sector employment. Paternalist populism sought to cater to segments that tend to be excluded from schemes of assertive populism by providing them with subsidised wage goods, the nutritious noon meal scheme being the most well known. Though both parties may have adopted the twin strands of populism at different points, the DMK has historically been more associated with assertive populism and AIADMK with paternalist populism. In neoliberal India, however, the spaces of assertive populism have shrunk. Public sector employment has shrunk and so has the appeal to shoring up of Tamil identity given the rise of a middle class whose interests are no longer confined to the state. Since 2006, both parties have sustained paternal populist appeals. While the two parties have implemented several growth measures that are suggestive of neoliberal policy shifts, they have sought to simultaneously expand the social welfare net by competitive welfare politics. While clientelist practices such as distribution of public contracts to those close to party leaders are common, this has been accompanied by an expansion of what Andrew Wyatt, a longtime scholar of Tamil Nadu’s politics, refers to as “programmatic politics”. Programmatic politics refers to appeals made on a more universalist plank and involves offer of services or goods to anyone independent of party affiliation or support. Beginning with the offer of 20 kg of free rice through the PDS, programmatic welfare by both parties has extended to include provision of free gas stoves, television sets, laptops, mixer-grinders, goats and cows to rural households and upward revision of assistance given through pension schemes for different vulnerable groups. Since 2011, Jayalalithaa also launched the popular Amma canteens providing subsidised food in various urban centres. In other words, while there has been a decline in both quantity and quality of employment, the state has managed to sustain political support through provisioning of social security. What Jayalalithaa has not done is less apparent compared to what she has.
Under these circumstances of declining employment potential in terms of both quality and quantity, the male bread winner model of sustaining reproduction of households is no longer tenable. Such a model, that informs many a radical demand for jobs and employment-related social welfare, is increasingly being called into question in the current phase of economic transformations in the low-income world where non-agricultural employment has been “indecent” at best and absent at worst. It is in this context that Jayalalithaa’s appeal to women voters through the slew of welfare measures, listed above, worked. She managed to position herself as a benevolent provider of social security amidst large-scale employment and income-related insecurities. The state has in a sense therefore replaced the male bread winner.