The legacy of Jayalalitha: U-M experts can comment

December 6, 2016
Mandira Banerjee


Jayaram Jayalalitha was one of India’s most flamboyant and controversial politicians. She served as chief minister of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu four times. Some say she played a key role in the economic development of the southern state, while others say she fostered corruption. She died after a long bout of illness.

University of Michigan experts can comment on her legacy:

Ram Mahalingam, associate professor of psychology, examines the relationship between power, representation of social groups and psychological well-being.

“Jayalalitha’s demise signals the end of an era of celluloid image politics in Tamilnadu where mass media access paved the way for colorful political careers for several decades,” he said.

“Her appeal to women emboldened her to expand many popular social welfare programs, a legacy of the Dravidian parties, while resisting the pressures of neoliberalism. Her charisma and connection to people enabled her to achieve this. She was a firm and independent decision maker who was the supreme leader of her party. Her success will be an inspiration for women who aspire to become a leader in India.”

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Sriram Mohan, a doctoral candidate in communication studies, studies political communications, particularly religious nationalism in digital India.

“In the era of 24/7 news television and social media, it would be tempting to stick to the script and paint Jayalalitha as a corrupt, authoritarian leader who encouraged servility from her supporters and demanded silence from her detractors,” he said. “While these concerns are neither untrue nor irrelevant, it would be a travesty to speak of her legacy only on these registers.

“It would be remiss to not touch upon her record of standing up to successive national governments over the rights of the states, or her rather consistent commitment to nutrition, education and women’s rights. They show up in the state’s impressive vaccination record, its high proportion of women police personnel to specifically address the issue of violence against women, and in her decision to provide free bicycles to girl students from Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe communities in order to sustain enrollment in high school.

“In the same vein, any account of her political career must also address the concerns around the disproportionate assets cases and her use of state machinery to suppress dissent. However, it would also be important to think of her rise through what was a patriarchal political sphere.”