Tamil Nadu’s late chief minister, J Jayalalithaa, the iron-willed lady, was a master at creating a brand image for herself. She leaves a void in the political arena of Tamil Nadu, but her legacy as Tamil Nadu’s ‘Amma’ and ‘Puratchi Thalaivi' is what will live on. Jayalalithaa created a personality cult around herself, portraying herself as the messiah of the people of Tamil Nadu. There is a lot to learn from Jayalalithaa about creating an enduring personality cult.
Staking claim to the AIADMK throne
When the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MG Ramachandran passed away in 1987 he left a similar void like Jayalalithaa has now. He never explicitly named Jayalalithaa as his successor, even though he mentored her and groomed her. With his demise began an ugly succession battle between MGR’s wife Janaki and Jayalalithaa.
In 1989 when elections were held in Tamil Nadu following a year of President’s Rule, Jayalalithaa and Janaki both contested representing two different factions of AIADMK. Jayalalithaa’s campaign strategy was simple, crafty and resourceful. Old movie posters featuring the late MGR and Jayalalithaa were plastered across Tamil Nadu. It was a skillful use of her previous professional association with the late chief minister and matinee idol - MGR.
It is no doubt then that Jayalalithaa won 27 seats while Janaki won just 2. DMK came to power that election, but the election was a significant one, because it cemented Jayalalithaa’s position in the political arena. She had used her branding prowess and political acumen to secure her place as MGR’s political heir.
Creating Brand Amma
It all began in 1992 when Jayalalithaa first came to power as Tamil Nadu’s Chief Minister. She launched the cradle baby scheme to tackle female infanticide. The scheme gave parents the option to anonymously hand over unwanted babies to the state. With this scheme Jayalalithaa not only became the mother or ‘Amma’ to all the unwanted babies of Tamil Nadu, she also gained the moniker ‘Amma’, making her the mother of the people of Tamil Nadu.
By the time she came back to power in 2011 DMK chief M Karunanidhi had created a practice of handing out freebies post elections. Jayalalithaa adopted the practice but preferred to use the term ‘free of cost’ and ‘subsidised schemes’ instead of ‘freebies’. She also clarified that the schemes were only meant for the welfare of the poor. The placement and wording of the schemes were calculated and carefully chosen to present the most favourable image of Amma to the masses.
Soon Amma Canteens propped up around the state, where a single idly is sold at Re 1 and a plate of sambar rice costs just Rs 5. She also launched Amma Water. At Rs 10 for a one litre bottle, it continues to give stiff competition to other bottled water brands including Rail Neer which costs Rs 15 for a one litre bottle. In addition, her government also handed out Amma Laptops to higher-secondary and college students in government and government aided institutions.
In the 2015 state assembly elections, she upped her game and announced free of cost Amma mobile phones and 50 per cent subsidy for women to buy two-wheelers. In a historical win, she was voted back to power for a second successive term.
She has left behind a legacy of nearly 20 welfare schemes and Amma brands. Each of these Amma-branded products and schemes reinforced her image as a welfare-oriented leader.
Her Face, Her Brand
Jayalalithaa is known to have directed news camerapersons to not shoot her profile. The actor in her always knew what camera angle best suited her. Her face was her brand logo.
Every Amma-branded product had her face plastered on it. Her genial smile is seared into the consciousness of the people of Tamil Nadu by the numerous Amma-branded products bearing her face that her government launched since 2011. Even the 2015 flood relief packages came with Jayalalithaa’s photo pasted on them.
She was the prima donna of her party and that was not just a political ploy. It was a branding masterstroke. Seeing her face on everything, from water and salt to cement and laptops consolidated her image as the people’s saviour and leader.