Jayalalithaa Is Gone. What Now for South India?
Will the death of a beloved leader throw the country into chaos?
On Tuesday, women packed the streets and beat their chests in honor -- or despair -- of Jayalalithaa Jayaram’s funeral. The leader of southern state Tamil Nadu, known by millions as simply Amma, or Mother, died of cardiac arrest at 68 on Monday night.
On Tuesday, women packed the streets and beat their chests in honor — or despair — of Jayalalithaa Jayaram’s funeral. The leader of southern state Tamil Nadu, known by millions as simply Amma, or Mother, died of cardiac arrest at 68 on Monday night.
In 1991, the film star turned politician became the first female chief minister in Tamil Nadu to serve a full term, following in the footsteps of her mentor, Maruthur Gopala Ramachandran (also a film star turned politician). She would go on to serve four more times.
She was charged with corruption and imprisoned in 1996, and again in 2014 — and was back in power one year later. She was, after all, a beloved populist leader, famed in particular for her generous welfare policies, and though she was an autocrat who may have been proven corrupt, she was also Amma, who brought crime down and pushed industrial output up, who gave away wedding jewelry and food to the poor, and who made men prostrate themselves before her — charming millions of lower caste women in the process.
Tamil Nadu has announced an official three day mourning period. For some, the mourning will last longer still — 37 people self-immolated after her 2014 corruption conviction, and her death could spark many more. Her long-serving lieutenant O. Panneerselvam has been named chief minister.
After that, the political future is uncertain. “Her unexpected death,” New America International Security Program fellow Ronak D. Desai told Foreign Policy, “leaves an immense power vacuum in the region and will totally reorder the political landscape in that part of the country. While a power struggle among varying factions of the state’s major parties seeking to fill te void is inevitable, no one will want to risk public backlash from appearing to move on too quickly.”* What’s more, Jayalalithaa’s dominance was such that there is no clear plan for succession, or for what happens next. Of Jayalalithaa’s death, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said he is “deeply saddened at the passing away of Selvi Jayalalithaa. Her demise has left a huge void in Indian politics.”
Some have already ventured that the central government is looking to fill that void left in Southern India, both to stabilize the state and to start remaking the relationship between center and state.
*Updated 12:10 PM, 6 Dec. 2016 to include this quote
Photo credit: ARUN SANKAR/AFP/Getty Images
Emily Tamkin is a global affairs journalist and the author of The Influence of Soros and Bad Jews. Twitter: @emilyctamkin
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