Be it the party office in Chennai’s Royapettah or the Secretariat, or any other party program, AIADMK’s ministers and senior leaders were often seen prostrating or bowing down to show respect to their leader, J Jayalalithaa, fondly referred to as ‘Amma’.
In India, people traditionally fall at the feet of elders to show respect and seek blessings. No one raises an eyebrow when an elderly woman kneels at the feet of a younger man. But, when it’s the other way round, people grumble and make fun. And that’s what happened when ministers prostrated before Jayalalithaa.
The practice started when Jayalalithaa became the chief minister of Tamil Nadu for the first time in 1991. As she was leaving the premises of the University of Madras after taking oath, a young MLA fell at her feet. The MLA was KA Sengottaiyan, the currently minister of school education. Soon, other ministers followed suit.
Over a period of time, people got used to this as the chief minister emerged as a strong leader, earning the title of ‘Iron Lady’. The leader and her minions also became a laughing stock.
In 2001, when the current deputy chief minister O Panneerselvam was picked by Jayalalithaa as chief minister after she was barred by the Supreme Court from holding office, in a disproportionate assets case, he was asked to sit near her and Sasikala.
He however managed to sit near her but on the edge of his chair, which showed not only how much he feared the leader but also his servitude. During his initial months as chief minister, he even refused to sit in the chief minister’s seat, which he treated as Jayalalithaa’s throne.
In another instance, Panneerselvam and current chief minister Edappadi K Palaniswami prostrated in front of her car when she returned after filing her nomination from the RK Nagar assembly seat.
In 2011, the then IT minister Udaya Kumar was ridiculed for choosing not to wear shoes in the assembly, secretariat, party office and Jayalalithaa’s house, which he said were temples. Wherever she went, Kumar chose to go along barefoot. However, this came to an end after he received an earful from Jayalalithaa.
The tradition of prostrating before Jayalalithaa got a cartoonist into trouble with the Tamil magazine ‘Ananda Vikatan’. It ruined his chances of becoming a well-paid columnist for the publication.
Madan used to write a column for Vikatan, titled ‘Hai Madan’, a question-and-answer series. It ran successfully for many years and was identified with the magazine.
However, in 2012, when he chose to answer in terms of anthropology a reader’s question about the human habit of falling at the feet of others, the designers used the photograph of a minister falling at the feet of Jaya for that question.
Seeing this, he wrote to the magazine requesting the editors not to publish such photographs in his column since it could affect his program on ‘Jaya TV’. But the magazine did not pay heed to his request. It also ended his column.
During the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, when Jayalalithaa undertook campaigning in helicopters due to her falling health, ministers and MLAs prostrated on the ground even as she flew high above.
In 2016, when the ‘meme’ culture became a social media phenomenon, and Jayalalithaa began her last term as the chief minister, the show of respect by her ministers became regular fodder for meme-makers.
Besides her ministers and MLAs, Jayalalithaa also had control over the media. It became a rarity for the media to be addressed by her during her second term. She was careful enough to not let any photojournalist shoot her wiping her eyes or correcting her overcoat or other such unique mannerisms.
Journalist-turned-advocate S Kirubakaran, who wrote a book on her titled ‘Ammavin Kathai’ (Amma’s story), has said the reason why she resorted to such behaviour was mostly because of the men in her life.
“All through her life, she was dominated by powerful men, both in cinema and politics. After the death of (former chief minister) MG Ramachandran, many senior leaders, all men, often shamed her. All that she faced and the pent-up anger made her build an image of herself as invincible and greater than the rest,” he said.
While Ramachandran came to power because of his popularity, Jayalalithaa came to head the party but not with the same qualities. “She came as his replacement and not because her fans were attracted to her,” said Kirubakaran.
And thus she started promoting colleagues with sycophantic tendencies. “When Ramachandran was the chief minister, he carefully chose first-time MLAs and ministers after going through their experience and knowledge levels. But Jayalalithaa started appointing those who praised her,” he said.
One example could be that of the present health minister C Vijaya Bhaskar. In 2013, his speech as an MLA against the DMK during a debate in the assembly propelled him into the spotlight. Within the next couple of days, he was made a minister.
All these came to an end with the demise of Jayalalithaa. Palaniswami and Panneerselvam tend to treat their colleagues as equals. Not only the ministers but also Chief Minister Palaniswami seem ready to address the media wherever they go. The number of cases filed against media houses has also come down.
When Sasikala tried to take over the party she too received Jaya-type obeisance from ministers. However, it was short-lived.