How Amma beat the floods and made history

Last Updated: Fri, May 20, 2016 11:14 hrs

Since I was a child, it was a given that the state government of Tamil Nadu would change every five years. 

The DMK and the AIADMK would play musical chairs; each would spend its first year in power undoing and undermining every scheme started by the previous government; it would then replace that scheme with a similar one of its own.

We would sigh and watch helplessly as roads were laid and dug up and re-laid, as trees were cut down to make way for flyovers, as buildings were demolished to make way for parks and parks converted into buildings, as streets were blocked to allow posses of vehicles to pass and attend lavishly lit felicitation festivals while we panted through the summer power cuts.

And then we would welcome Election Day, when anti-incumbency would push the party out, and wait for Counting Day, when we could catch a glimpse of the crestfallen face of the party leader, and draw some consolation from this meagre revenge for our grief.

This time round, everything changed.

Jayalalithaa, in winning a re-election for the first time in more than three decades, has made history. She is the first Chief Minister to have retained her position since 1984, when MGR led the AIADMK to victory. She did this despite the devastating floods of 2015.

And most of Tamil Nadu is relieved.

So, how did ‘Amma’, as Jayalalithaa is popularly known, survive not just the floods, but a close call with the courts, which could have ended with a ban against her contesting another election for the foreseeable future? And why do most of us prefer her to any other alternative?  

Tamil Nadu is not Chennai

Jayalalithaa lost the 2006 election two years after the state was hit by a tsunami.

The rage against the government was twofold this time round – unlike the tsunami, the floods could have been prevented with some forethought and planning; unlike in 2004, the government was conspicuous by its absence in immediate relief work.

But there was a major difference – the floods mainly affected Chennai and neighbouring districts, while the tsunami’s worst ramifications were felt further south.

While the AIADMK has fared poorly in Chennai, with several incumbent Ministers losing their seats, the anger has not travelled to unaffected districts

Welfare schemes for the poor

The freebies promised by the AIADMK for this term make depressing reading. Why must motorcycles be subsidised for women? Why not give everyone greater incentives to use public transport? Why not increase the number of buses, and the number of women’s only buses, instead of tempting them to get their own wheels?

But five years ago, amidst wasteful schemes involving gold coins and laptops, the government did bring in several measures to aid the underprivileged, through school kits, baby kits, clothes, mixer-grinders, fans, and – most important of all – free cattle so that families could begin to sustain themselves.

Add to that subsidised schemes which catered to people’s basic needs – canteens, water, salt dal, seeds, and pharmacies – and it cannot come as a surprise that the gratitude translated into votes.

Uninterrupted electricity supply

The first few months following the 2011 election were distressing for most of Tamil Nadu. Jayalalithaa had promised to make the state a power surplus one, and she began her reign with an unpopular step – scheduled power cuts. Chennai suffered the least, losing power for one or two hours a day; its outskirts, and other districts, were not so lucky, with some enduring power cuts for more than twelve hours a day.

Five years on, the early austerity has paid off. Power failure has become a rare occurrence, and the Electricity Board is rather surprisingly quick to respond to complaints.

There are no alternatives

This could be one of the most crucial reasons for Jayalalithaa’s comeback.

The DMK is a splintered party, with a nonagenarian leader who is unlikely to live to fight another election, and his rather elderly progeny squabbling over their inheritance of the party leadership.

The DMDK, led by Vijayakanth, can claim credit for inspiring Captain memes, but little else.

The PMK has been struggling to distance itself from two major anti-Dalit caste clashes.

The remaining parties are too small to dream of anything larger than a kingmaker’s role.

And so, this time, there will be no king.

The queen has a second chance, and – for the first time in the living memory of many, many voters – a chance to capitalise on a vote for stability.

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Nandini is a journalist and humour writer based in Madras. She is the author of Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage. 

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