The political vacuum created in the AIADMK and in Tamil Nadu more generally, by the conviction of the chief minister, J. Jayalalithaa, tells us something about the nature of charismatic politics in India. It also shines a light on the predicament of politically powerful women in patriarchal societies.
In republican India, parties founded by individuals — M.G. Ramachandran, N.T. Rama Rao, Kanshi Ram, Mamata Banerjee — never manage to institutionalize succession. The successor is either personally anointed by the leader — Kanshi Ram’s naming of Mayavati in 2001 is a case in point — or the leader’s mantle is claimed through a war of succession. Jayalalithaa is an example of the latter route: she emerged as MGR’s undisputed successor only after fighting and winning a succession battle with his widow. This contest didn’t occur via the internal mechanisms of the party — there were none — but through fission and faction. Similarly, N.T. Rama Rao was succeeded by his son-in-law, Chandrababu Naidu, via a palace coup; Naidu claimed he was acting to forestall NTR’s plan to hand the party over to his second wife.
The single-owner parties that do manage to institutionalize political transitions do it through dynastic mechanisms. Thus, the Samajwadi Party founded in 1992 has managed a hand-over of sorts from the party patriarch, Mulayam Singh Yadav, to his son, Akhilesh Yadav. Similarly, Lalu Prasad, the founder-proprietor of the Rashtriya Janata Dal, appointed his wife, Rabri Devi, as a kind of proxy chief minister when he was forced out of office by the fodder scam, and now his eldest daughter, Misa Bharti is serving a political apprenticeship (she ran for the Lok Sabha this year and lost) as she prepares to inherit the family business.
This generalization about parties founded around an individual and the Samajwadi Party as an example of dynastic succession, helps us understand, in a retrospective, revisionist way, the nature of the Indian National Congress as it now exists.
The historical prestige of the Indian National Congress has obscured the fact that the anti-colonial, republic-founding party of blessed memory died when Indira Gandhi broke away in the late 1960s to found her own party, which came to be known as the Congress (R). R stood for ‘Requisition’ while the rump she left behind her, came to be known as the Congress (O). ‘O’ stood for ‘Organization’, which is, historically, a nice touch, because Mrs Gandhi literally left the organization of the party behind in order to invent a new party built entirely around herself.
The transformation of her party into a cult of personality was formalized a decade later, via yet another alphabetical change. In 1978, a year after being routed in the post-Emergency general election, Mrs Gandhi set up the Congress (I). This time round there wasn’t even the charade of pretending that this reinvention was about ideological issues: ‘I’ stood for ‘Indira’ and so did her party.
Mrs Gandhi pioneered both the dynasticism and the populism that characterize the politics of the majority of political parties in India, and she established a pattern that helps us understand contemporary Indian politics.
The pattern consists of a broad political movement breaking up into political factions that rhetorically lay claim to the ideological charge of the parent movement while devolving into Peronist cults where the leader is succeeded by consorts or children. In this phase, the ideological inheritance of the original movement is gestured at merely as a branding exercise. The party’s functioning has little to do with ideology: it is wholly focused on employing the charisma of the dynastic leader or the prestige of the ruling family to win elections.
We saw this pattern play out in Tamil Nadu in the early Seventies when the DMK split into two factions, one led by Karunanidhi, who kept the parent party’s name, and the other led by MGR, who laid claim to Annadurai’s ideological mantle by adding ‘Anna’ to the name of his party. So if Karunanidhi begat Alagiri, Stalin and Kanimozhi, MGR — metaphorically — begat Jayalalithaa. And thus the Dravida Kazhagam, the great rationalist, anti-caste movement founded by Periyar in 1944, spawned a bunch of parties defined by individual charisma, not ideology.
Similarly, the attempt to create a secular, pan-Indian alternative to the Congress in the 1980s, that started out as the Janata Dal, rapidly disintegrated into provincial factions, which became parties headed by dynasts or would-be dynasts: Naveen Patnaik, Lalu Prasad and Mulayam Singh Yadav.
In this transition, the original ideological impulse behind the party is dissolved into a generic populism. So, the intellectual edge of the Dravida movement whetted on a hostility to Brahmanical Hinduism and a commitment to rationalism, was blunted by its political success. Inheritors like MGR inaugurated an inspired populism. This was by no means a bad thing: initiatives like the mid-day meal scheme helped make Tamil Nadu one of the most developed states in India, as measured by the United Nation’s Human Development Index. Jayalalithaa’s ‘Amma’ schemes are a logical culmination of this populism.
Here again, Indira Gandhi is something of a pioneer, with the “roti, kapda aur makaan” slogan that won her a landslide victory in the 1971 elections. This is not a patentable populism; it can’t be ideologically branded because it is presented as flowing out of the boundless benevolence of an individual leader: as the gift of Puratchi Thalaivi or Behenji or Didi.
Jayalalithaa’s political predicament after her conviction throws into relief the gendered nature of personalized rule in India. Jayalalithaa, Mamata Banerjee, Mayavati and Indira Gandhi (especially in her later career) have been widely characterized as temperamental, authoritarian, unpredictable viragos. No male leader, however dictatorial, depraved, eccentric or corrupt, has ever been disparaged for his angularities in quite the same way. Polygamy, cross-dressing, promiscuity and corruption have been no bar to political success for Indian men; on the contrary these ‘peccadilloes’ have been worn as badges of honour. In contrast, with Mayavati and Jayalalithaa, their relationships with their political mentors, Kanshi Ram and MGR, have been the subject of endless gossip and malice.
Every Indian woman who is a political supremo — that is, not answerable within her party to a male superior — has no political lieutenants, only lackeys. The Trinamul Congress, the AIADMK and the Bahujan Samaj Party are inconceivable without Mamata, Jayalalithaa and Mayavati, just as the Congress (I) was synonymous with Indira Gandhi. Jayalalithaa’s conviction and disqualification mean that the AIADMK will have to appoint another chief minister, but no one imagines that this will be a successor; he or she can only be a proxy because all real power vests in the leader.
The misogyny built into Indian public life guarantees that a woman who reaches the top will have had to steamroller the competition. A male supremo can be as ruthless in his route to the top, but given the bias of language, he is unlikely to be characterized as a castrating virago.
Lalu Prasad’s nomination of Rabri Devi as a proxy chief minister was considered outrageous because she was his wife. When Jayalalithaa appointed O. Paneerselvam as her proxy in 2001 after the Supreme Court annulled her appointment as chief minister, it was seen, not as outrageous (Paneerselvam was, after all, a seasoned politician), but faintly unnatural because he was a male proxy for a female supremo, politically emasculated by definition.
Indian politics makes women who are dominant politicians, monstrous. If these women have children, they can be re-assimilated into humanity because then they have heirs they can trust who can, as political aides, relieve the remoteness and isolation that sustain their power. Their political constituents, and Indians more generally, understand that it’s natural for children to inherit. The Gandhis invoke their forebears without shame or embarrassment because dynastic inheritance is a familiar, reasonable process.
But the single women who own their parties can expect no relief from their monstrous, deforming isolation. They run political marathons without end. Not for them the dynastic relay where they can hand off the baton to a son or daughter; theirs truly is the loneliness of the long-distance runner.