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Why India’s poor are devoted to ‘god-like’ leaders

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New Delhi, India | AFP |

“To me, she was a goddess,” said party worker Shankar as he joined a sea of mourners bidding farewell to Jayalalithaa Jayaram, highlighting the messianic devotion of India’s poor for often controversial champions.

Hundreds of thousands of people attended Tuesday’s funeral in Chennai for the veteran Tamil leader, an outpouring of emotion usually reserved for global figures such as Fidel Castro or Princess Diana.

AFP looks at other Indian political leaders who engendered similar devotion and why they and former movie star Jayalalithaa were so popular:

Championing the poor 

Post-colonial India’s first mass funeral saw around two million people mourn Mahatma Gandhi after his 1948 assassination while millions took to the streets when Mother Teresa of Calcutta died in 1997.

Up to 15 million people reportedly attended the funeral of C.N. Annadurai, one of Jayalalithaa’s predecessors as Tamil Nadu chief minister in 1969, while Mumbai ground to a halt when local Hindu nationalist leader Bal Thackeray died four years ago.

Like Jayalalithaa, they drew their support from the legions of poor rather than from within Delhi’s corridors of power.

“People who are powerless feel compelled to look up to someone who seems to offer some kind of hope,” said veteran commentator Parsa Venkateshwar Rao. “It’s a kind of psychological dependency.”

Teresa, declared a saint in September for her work with the poor, was widely derided in her lifetime as a fraud while Thackeray was criticised for divisive rhetoric.

Jayalalithaa was twice jailed over corruption allegations and famed for a vast sari collection.

But she won the loyalty of many with a series of populist schemes, including lunches that cost just three rupees (five cents) and election-time giveaways ranging from laptops to goats.

“Economists criticised her populist schemes but the impact on the people’s psyche was immense,” said columnist Shubha Singh.

“She struck a chord with the masses, there was a direct chord between the leader and the people.”

 ‘Messiah status’ 

While the idea of deifying a living person is idolatrous for South Asia’s Muslims, India’s Hindus often elevate heroes to God-like status.

The now-retired cricketer Sachin Tendulkar was often greeted with banners proclaiming “Sachin is God” while fans of Narendra Modi wanted to open a temple in his honour last year before the Indian premier nixed the idea.

“The kind of blind adulation that we see for political leaders is not unique to India but what is perhaps unique in one respect is the fact that these leaders are perceived as superhuman beings,” said Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, editor of the Economic and Political Weekly.

“They become larger than life, they acquire a messianic status. Here is a person who is a benefactor, saviour of all, he almost becomes God.”

While neighbouring China would never allow a personality cult to develop around a politician from outside the ruling Communist party, India is free to choose its heroes.

“Ours is a mass democracy,” said Rao. “We give vent to our emotions. We are not restrained, stiff-upper lipped British types.”

One of the family 

While never marrying or having children, 68-year-old Jayalalithaa was known among Tamils as Amma, meaning mother — a powerful image in a country where the notion of “Mother India” runs deep.

The cheap meals were served in “Amma canteens” while state-subsidised products such as “Amma water” and “Amma cement” left people in no doubt over whom they should be grateful to.

Annadurai was known as Anna, which translates as elder brother, and Jayalalithaa was often compared to West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerji, another unmarried woman known as “Didi”, Bengali for elder sister.

Christina Paun, a professor who was among the mourners in Chennai, said Jayalalithaa inspired such adoration partly “because she didn’t have a family of her own”.

“She was always a very loving woman, and her love went to her people,” she said.

Singh, the columnist, attributed Jayalalithaa’s popularity to her image as “a mother figure”.

“She was a consummate politician and her followers built a kind of aura around her,” he said. “The emotional connect they felt with Amma made them blind to her flaws.”

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