By Special Invite
Lavanya Mohan, Chennai

When Jayalalithaa regained power during the 2001, many political pundits attributed her rise to the opposition underestimating her pull with women. In the years to come, Jayalalithaa would be renowned for her legion of adoring women party workers who revered her like they would a goddess.

Jayalalithaa’s electoral promises have always focused on women, and their welfare. When she came into power in 1991, she introduced the cradle baby scheme, where women were allowed to give their unwanted newborns anonymously to the care of the state who would take care of their papers and put them up for adoption and fostering, instead of abandoning them on the roads, as was the practice then. The scheme was introduced with the view of keeping in check the alarming female foeticide and infanticide rates that prevailed in the state during that time. The scheme continues to exist, although it should be noted that the number of babies who have been handed over to the state, thankfully, have reduced drastically.

An even more remarkable scheme that was announced during the same tenure was putting in place a 30% quota for women in all police stations. The increased presence of women in stations made them far safer to approach for women, and enabling better reporting of crime. Her government was also the first to introduce all women police stations, and established as many as 57. She even set up an all-women police commando force, albeit in her tenure as CM during the years 2001 to 2006.

Today, Tamil Nadu boasts of one of the highest female labour participation rates in the country. There is no doubt that her endeavours to create all-women establishments encouraged this trend, but greater credit belongs to her much criticized freebie schemes.

During her election campaign for the 2011 elections, Jayalalithaa announced that all women who held a certain kind of ration card would receive a grinder, a mixie and a fan, free of cost. The AIADMK government said that their measure was ‘pro-poor’, and that with the help of these electronic appliances, women in these households had more time to dedicate to productive work. This move turned out to be one of her most successful ideas to date, to the point where the government even opened up service centers exclusively for the repair of these mixies and grinders. She also gave away well thought out baby-care kits, free laptops for students, introduced ‘Amma Unavagam’, or subsidized canteens where it was possible to get a fresh cooked meal cooked in a neat environment for very low prices (an idly was Rs. 1/-).

Many developmental experts termed her freebie politics to be unwieldy, and bad for the state’s economy, but Jayalalithaa wasn’t really one to back down to criticism. In the next election, she increased the number of subsidized goods and services that she had been providing under her name, and even announced free mobile phones for women.

Twenty-two days before her unfortunate hospitalization that led to her demise, Jayalalithaa revealed the last of her grand plans for women in the state. A fully paid maternity leave of 9 months for the female government employees3, a plan that to put to shame the benefits offered by even the most benevolent of corporate firms.

Millions of women across the state, across all social and cultural classes, will mourn the passing of Jayalalithaa – not just because she was a great leader who was a woman, but because she was a great leader for women.

Lavanya Mohan is a Chartered Accountant and writer who lives and works from Chennai.
Views expressed are personal.