THERE IS A lot in a name. A lot more if the name is Jayalalithaa. It carries so much history—personal, cultural, and political—that it runs the risk of banalisation in an age where informality is mistaken for intimacy. So when the speaker of the Tamil Nadu Assembly said that the Chief Minister should not be addressed by her name, he was only reminding the House that she was not one of them, that she had already migrated from the real to the mythical, which should be seen as a natural passage in the life of someone who had earned her place in others’ frenzy.
This legislative fatwa is very Tamil in its cultural connotations. Political appreciation at the mass level in Tamil Nadu swings between exaggeration and vulgarisation. The sociologist MSS Pandian had called this culture of canonisation an ‘image trap’, and his study was based on the fur-cap- and-dark-glasses mythology of MGR. He earned his divinity first as a movie star and then as a ruler, and even as the script of his action scenes changed, the audience remained the same. The Anna (‘brother’) before the Amma (‘mother’) was a creation of the emotional excesses of a people for whom salvation extended from the dark hall of a movie theatre to the surreal arena of politics. It was a seamless extension, raw and elemental. It was pure kitsch.
Jayalalithaa began her career, first as a screen partner and then as political inheritor, in the sheltering shadow of MGR. She was a character in someone else’s drama before she herself became one of epic dimensions. She suffered the indignities of being the other woman as her mentor’s hearse passed through Chennai, and those loneliest of moments in humiliation only added to the aura of the avenging lady. Political fortunes are not made in a ballot box; in Tamil Nadu, they are made in the vortex of sentimentalism. The failures and frailties of Jaya, whether in power or in wilderness or even in jail, have not dented the mother legend; they have made the victimhood more complex.
Jayalalithaa has placed herself above mere mortals, somewhere even cardboard cutouts cannot reach. And she will not let a lowly MLA bring her down to earth
In a country where political longevity is assured mostly by dynasty, the Jaya story is splendidly singular. Pitted against her in the state is the sprawling Karunanidhi dynasty, very male in its script. One man made her a political possibility. She reached the summit by waging a lone battle against what she might have imagined as the worst of male instincts in politics. Beneath the kancheepuram kitsch simmers the sense of being a victim throughout. But victory is no longer vengeance by other means. It is a passage to the sacred unreal, beyond the restricting sound of her name.
And that’s how iconography is made when there is no one else to make it for you. The masses are only backdrop, feeders not creators. Call her by her name and you are dishonouring an idea by reducing it to personal familiarity. Jayalalithaa has placed herself above mere mortals, somewhere even cardboard cutouts cannot reach. And she will not let a lowly MLA bring her down to earth. She has become the one who must not be named, but only invoked.
This kind of retirement from realism is practised by politicians who dread the comforts and cruelties of everydayness. They are the me-alone autocrats, and they are also revered in some societies as strong leaders. They have a sense of higher purpose, and no morality is deeper for them than their own righteousness. Even as they withdraw further into the fragile shell of paranoia, there is always the consolation of slogans—and the mounting frenzy of the faithful. They get defeated only to come back with greater glory. They have names such as Erdo••an and Putin, and they could be joined by Trump. They are one-dimensional, as autocrats generally are, defined by power, fear and ambition. What they lack is a backstory as pulpy as Jaya’s. They are easily readable, comprehensible, whereas Jaya’s enigma is enhanced by her opacity. Her emotional intimacy with her people is unaffected by her physical remoteness from them.
Still, when you cease to be a noun and becomes a pronoun, it marks the death of individuality. It is a personal loss unlikely to be compensated by power. It is as if being a hologram is more rewarding than being human. Jayalalithaa is a great story, and it is too complex to fit into the moral straitjacket of realpolitik. It rings true when we call it Jayalalithaa. Nameless are the false goddesses.