Several hours before Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa was declared dead late on Monday night, thousands of her supporters – a large number of them women – stood vigil outside the Apollo Hospital on Greams Road in Chennai. Some wept loudly and inconsolably, others prayed and almost all of them kept up a steady chant of slogans wishing for her recovery.

“We all depend only on you, Amma,” wailed an elderly woman, her hands raised to the sky and her hair dishevelled. “Amma has to come back alive, Amma has to come back alive.”

A younger woman standing near her joined her desperate prayer. “We are raising our children by ourselves because of Amma,” she cried. “We are working for our food every day, we don’t need any support. But without Amma, what will we do?”

Amma to them all

While some may argue that this outpouring of adulation was orchestrated, there is no denying the fact that news of Jayalalithaa’s critical condition – she suffered a cardiac arrest on Sunday evening – brought thousands of groups of women from across the state to the hospital. Even more gathered after the chief minister died and her body was taken to Rajaji Bhavan.

To many of these women, Amma was not just a title they gave her. Jayalalithaa was truly their mother, they said.

“It is like our own mother has died, we’re suffering like that,” said M Yashoda, a member of Jayalalithaa’s party, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. “We have been orphaned, we are now motherless children. Whoever comes next will not be like her, and may never help us as much.”

As the sole woman leader to wield power the way she did in Tamil Nadu, Jayalalithaa is hailed as a symbol of women’s empowerment. With her numerous welfare schemes directed at women and children, she affected their lives in a big way. With her free mixies and grinders, free uniforms and textbooks for children, subsidised scooters for women, she, no doubt, took some of the financial burden off the poor, especially women struggling to run their households.

“For so many poor people like me who have children, her schemes lessened our burden,” said S Rani, a voter. “Most of my friends have husbands who drink. So, many of these women run their households with the help of Amma’s schemes.”

Grief-stricken supporters of Jayalalithaa.

In May, the Assembly elections saw Jayalalithaa win a second consecutive term as chief minister as her party became the first ruling party in the state in 32 years to hold on to power – propelled by a strong turnout of women voters. The Hindu reported that women voters outnumbered men in 143 of the state’s 234 constituencies. Of this, 83 seats went to the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and 53 to its bitter rival, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. These 83 constituencies accounted for 62% of the 136 seats Jayalalithaa’s party won.

According to S Anandhi, associate professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies, as far as identity politics goes, women felt an affinity for Jayalalithaa because here was a woman who had fought her way to the top of a predominantly male political public sphere, largely on her own strength.

“Also, she built an image of a woman who was always fighting the sexualisation of politics and that she alone understood the pains of women,” she said. “With this sentiment, she emerged as a supporter of women’s empowerment.”

Protection, not empowerment

However, Anandhi pointed out that Jayalalithaa’s politics was not about empowering women but about the way she offered them protection as part of her brand of populism.

“She has not done anything radically different from the DMK’s development welfare policies,” she said. “But she skewed her welfare policies towards women, ensuring that she covered more women with her schemes. Women beneficiaries certainly enjoyed the protection that the state offered in the last two decades through welfare programmes that enabled them to tide over family crises.”

The professor said that in the 1990s, as Tamil Nadu faced an agrarian crisis, women suffered as they made up a significant portion of the workforce involved in agriculture. This was due to the migration of men for work.

As a result, these poor women had the responsibility of providing for their families and taking care of their children’s education. Making matters worse, many of them dealt with domestic violence at the hands of their alcoholic husbands. In such a situation, Jayalalithaa’s welfare programmes targeting women helped ease their financial burden as well as the poverty-related violence they were subjected to.

The strengthening of self-help groups, maternal health policies and student welfare measures gave the state’s distribution system a social justice appeal, said Anandhi. “In other words, Jayalalithaa merely strengthened the masculine power of the state to protect women and one may know well that protectionism allows little space for substantial freedom or democracy,” she added.

True affection?

While Jayalalithaa’s schemes benefited many women, the way her party conducted itself in certain areas did not reflect its intention to empower women, said Dravidian movement historian V Geetha.

“The party worked a lot with thuggish women known for their roughness and toughness, who had dubious reputations in terms of money and the power they commanded in the slums,” said Geetha. “I’m sure that some of what she did appealed to women across the state, but she also cultivated a female sect or a caucus, none of whom respect anything other than aggression or outshouting the others.”

The historian said that many of these gangs of women organised support for Jayalalithaa, making it seem like there was an outpouring of affection for their leader – a fact that often went unnoticed by the media.

But right at this moment, as the state bids farewell to its Amma, the outpouring of grief among some of her party workers and supporters seems genuine. For many, mixed with the grief is worry about what happens to them now that she is gone. Or how the party will treat women workers from here on.

“I recently went campaigning in Thanjavur for Amma and she gave me Rs 500 every day,” said M Yashoda, joint secretary of the Anna Nagar ward in Chennai. “Now it will become very difficult for women to function in the party. I don’t even know what position I will hold.”

Supporters and media persons outside the Apollo Hospital in Chennai.