Skip to main content

Amma in your face

We feature a collaborative blogpost by our Research Associates,  Nikita Taniparti and Sneha Mani.

Backpacks are a serious business. The color, the size, the functionality, and perhaps most importantly, the brand. While we often underestimate these sleek yet understated accessories, one has only to look at one of our surveyors in the field to discover the latest trend.

Here, in the middle of Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu, there is no escaping the ubiquitous ‘Amma backpack’. It hits you almost immediately: whether you’re wandering around New Bus Stand looking for a stationary store, or haggling for fresh coconut water at Old Bus Stand, Amma has seemingly pervaded every material aspect of everyday life here

Amma Salt
                            
This is not your run-of-the-mill populism phenomenon. Amma, or more formally known as Jayalalitha, is currently the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. What are her political assertions, and her claim to fame? It doesn’t really matter, because the two participating political parties – the DMK (founded in 1949) and the AIADMK (founded in 1972) – were borne out of the same Dravidian ideological tenets. While Karunanidhi spearheads the former’s agenda, AIADMK is synonymous with Amma.

“The two major Dravidian parties, both borne out of Periyar’s Self-respect movement, have come to entirely dominate Tamil Nadu politics. But their formative [and similar] Dravidian ideological tenets – social justice, anti-caste hierarchies, Tamil nationalism – have faded entirely. All that remains today of the original agenda of Dravidian empowerment are handouts: one kilogram of rice for one [rupee]; or more recently, free color televisions…The ideological rhetoric that bought the DMK to power has largely been discarded. It is now useful, clearly only for rallying the masses at election time.”
-- Vinod K. Jose (The Last Lear, The Caravan. April 2011)

The transition from a movement characterized by all-encompassing civil and social participation, to a larger-than-life populist agenda can be traced back to the leading role of cinema and the film industry in Tamil politics. The cinema fraternity was instrumental in propagating the ideology espoused by these leaders. The Dravidian parties all introduced, and heavily emphasized radical reform among their support base. It is no wonder then, that the trajectory of their political careers is marked by over-the-top-imagery and an obsession with symbolic rhetoric and association.

Take for example, the Comprehensive Health Insurance Scheme (Tamil: Kapitu Thitam) was first implemented by Karunanidhi (Kalaignar) in 2012, and was called Kalaignar Kapitu Thitam. Subsequently, when Amma came to power, the first order of business was to change the name to Amma Kapitu Thitam (note to researchers: while looking for information regarding any Chief Minister scheme in Tamil Nadu, remember to Google both names!). This was the case with many other schemes as well, and they all took Amma’s name to represent the new image of the government.

It is important at this point, to ensure a balanced regard for all that the Dravidian parties have accomplished so far. There is certainly no dearth of criticism attacking the claims of internal corruption and the mass distribution of material incentives like laptops and televisions, backpacks and grinders, and much more. It is easy to take an unfavorable view of these handout initiatives because they are doused with large blown-up images of the leaders, and an almost superficial call for attention.

However, looking beyond this popularity contest, there have been monumental strides in ameliorating some of the social and economic concerns of the people. The Mid-Day Meal scheme ensures that every child in a government school is guaranteed a complete and nutritious meal; the Old Age and Widow pension promises monetary compensation of Rs.1,000 every month, the highest in the country. Additionally, there is much evidence to suggest that Tamil Nadu has, by far, the best functioning Public Distribution System in the country (Amartya Sen, An Uncertain Glory: India and its contradictions).


Ultimately, is it just a matter of Amma’s face on backpacks and water bottles, or is it a larger thrust to realize social transformation: a kind of social transformation that ensures basic levels of sustenance for all? At this point, some would argue that there exist many examples of populist movements in India, and that many of these have lost momentum quickly. Akhilesh Yadav, the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, failed in his similar attempt at earning support by issuing laptops to the masses. So what makes Tamil Nadu – and Amma – so special and more successful at this strategy? There are many possible explanations: the DMK and the AIADMK have perfected the model of direct transfers; that is, the voter is the only and the final recipient of the scheme in question. With its long history of political power, these parties now not only have to provide for, but more importantly, they have to cater to, the expectations and demands of the people. It is a constant feedback loop that both reinforces and is reinforced by the actions of the ruling party. It is unlikely that this model can be replicated outside the state of Tamil Nadu. Through all the years since their inception, the two parties are the only parties that have maintained their status quo.  

Amma Laptops
Amma backpacks

The verdict regarding Tamil Nadu’s politics is an ongoing discussion, and there are relevant issues to support both positions. Periyar entered the picture as an atheistic revolutionary; he envisioned a socially just Dravidian state. Today, the DMK and the AIADMK have moved away from this ideal, and are mainly concerned with their image. A popular image equals political allegiance. It is therefore of paramount important to promote themselves, venerate the self, and aggrandize their voters bank.


We now proudly present to you the Amma effect! We are on the ground, and as we survey local samples to measure information about their livelihood, we are adamant about the need to control for the Amma effect. Especially as so many of her schemes are endowment oriented, this makes it easier to account for and quantify when one looks at poverty alleviation. She has become entrenched in the welfare of most people in the state, and with each new scheme to either improve urban sanitation, or to subsidize salt, she is most definitely a force to be reckoned with. So, economists and researchers, beware! This is one bias you can’t afford to neglect.

Comments

Popular Posts

Vocationalisation of education in India: Current Scenario, Key Challenges and New directions

“Every handicraft has to be taught not merely mechanically as is done today, but scientifically. This is to say, the child should learn the why and wherefore of every process.” - Gandhi’s Philosophy of Education

The greatest challenge in Indian education system today is to provide skill based education to the youth. This is exacerbated by a mismatch in demand and supply for the skilled workforce. The penetration of vocational education and training remains poor not only in rural areas, but also in urban regions where there is a higher installed capacity to impart the same. This post is an attempt to make the readers understand the need of vocational education in India. Also, this is an attempt to summarise a few recommendations on the same. 
A recent survey (61st round) conducted by the NSSO found that:

1. The percentage of population that completed primary education was 70%, but less than 10% went on to complete a graduation course and above. Almost 97% of individuals in the age bracket…

Rockstar of Financial Inclusion: Business Correspondent Model of India

About Author:  Jatinder Handoo is a social business enthusiast and a branchless banking practitioner. Currently works at FINO PayTech Ltd and is based out of Mumbai. He is reachable at jatinder.handoo@fino.co.in
India is a hot bed of financial exclusion. A country which houses nearly 16% of the global population  has more than 65% of its people outside the formal financial system (Global Findex 2012). The Indian banking system has adopted multiple approaches to make universal financial inclusion a reality right from early days Indian post-independence banking system. Be it bank nationalization in 1969 or formation of Regional Rural Banks. Formation of NABARD or fostering microfinance through Bank-SHG linkage programme in early 90’s. A shimmering ray hope was rekindled with the growth of JLG based microfinance, however later studies made it clear that the model is credit led, concentrated predominately in the southern region of India thus could not be seen as painting complete financial…

A Platform for Knowledge - Enabling people to learn ..

I received a rather interesting link/website via my email today. The link read as MR University and all I could think of was, "Ok, this must be another website portal of some university or college". Well, on clicking the link and looking through the contents of the site, I was pleasantly surprised. The site http://www.mruniversity.com/ is an online education portal or platform that allows users or teachers to upload short videos on topics or lessons they wish to impart. First topic that I come across is Development Economics.
The intent of the website is eloquently put out by the two economists, Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok in the intro video. What started as a blog focusing on economics and its various implications in understanding why things are the way they are around us, has now an interesting addition. A video portal titled MRUniversity or Marginal Revolution University that focuses on online education with subjects pertaining to economics. It brought back to my mind,…