On the evening of December 6, 2016, Marina Beach was the country’s busiest location, with lakhs thronging the Rajaji Hall, located in Chennai. At first glance, one could not be blamed for mistaking the lakhs of attendees as Hajj pilgrims as over the last two decades, the demise of no political leader in India has managed to draw so many people. It is unlikely that any politician’s funeral in the coming days would do so either, for the late Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu was beloved to lakhs of Tamilians all over the country.
Millions of non–Tamilians, meanwhile, got to witness a spectacular display of her popularity, with television channels broadcasting images of the sea of political leaders, party workers, actors, ministers and regular people who came to Rajaji Hall to pay their tributes to ‘Amma’, a moniker given to her by her followers.
The tale of J Jayalalithaa’s rise to the top of the Tamil political hierarchy would make for a biography that would sell like hotcakes. But the iron curtain surrounding her would ensure that no details other than whatever is available in the public domain would ever make it to paper. Nevertheless, the chronicle of her life is inspiring, and at times astounding.
Born as Komalavalli in the princely state of Mysore on February 24, 1948, she was rechristened Jayalalithaa at the age of one. With her grandfather serving as a physician in the court of the then king of Mysore, Krishna Raja Wadiyar IV, young Jayalalithaa was born in a family of means. She was not, however, raised in one. Her father Jayaram, a lawyer, is said to have squandered her family wealth. His demise when Jayalalithaa was two–years–old compounded their problems, and to make ends meet her mother Vedavalli had to take up a clerical job. Vedavalli’s sister Ambujavalli – a lasting influence in Jayalalithaa’s life – at the time was an actress. Eventually, Vedavalli too made a foray into the cinema industry, acting for a few years under the screen name Sandhya. It was, perhaps, inevitable for little ‘Ammu’ – as Jayalalithaa was fondly called – to enter the same profession.
By her own admission, Jayalalithaa was a reluctant actor, who starred in her first Tamil movie at the tender age of 16. She has claimed to have been forced into cinemas due to her family’s precarious economic condition. Yet her devotion in whatever she did made her stand tall among her peers.
In her school days, Jayalalithaa was known to be an exceptional student, excelling in both academics and extra–curricular activities. It is this diligence in all her endeavours that made her a top–draw star in the Tamil cinema industry as well.
Having won numerous awards and nomination in her 20–year long career, it is her association with MG Ramachandran, known popularly as MGR, that made headlines in Tamil Nadu for the next many year. Starring with the legendary Tamil actor in 28 films out of a total of 128, Jayalalithaa considered MGR as a something more than a father figure and a mentor. In an interview with famed actor Simi Garewal, she admitted being ‘in love’ with MGR, just like everyone else who met him. Tabloids, however, always had a field day writing about her relationship with MGR. Though her relationship with MGR is something that would be discussed and dissected over the next several decades, there was no doubt that it was he who paved her way into the Dravidian political scene of Tamil Nadu.
Entering the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) in 1982, she was appointed ‘propaganda secretary’ by MGR, the party general secretary. Two years later, she was elected to the Rajya Sabha, thus beginning her slow but steady rise to the top of the Dravidian party. MGR’s demise in 1987 was a low point for the party and Jayalalithaa personally. Most notably, during MGR’S funeral, she was manhandled and stopped from paying her last respects to her dear departed leader. Scenes of party workers faithful to Janaki Ramachandran – MGR’S widow – pushing Jayalalithaa from MGR’s hearse made headlines all over the country. Yet, she managed to unite the party in 1989, which had been divided into two factions after MGR’s death. This was a landmark year for Jayalalithaa, as she went on to win the Tamil Nadu assembly election from Bodinayakkanur constituency and was elected leader of the opposition in the Assembly. Her rise to this position, however, was not met with warm reception by the other Dravidian party in the state, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK). During a tumultuous Assembly session on March 25, 1989, Jayalalithaa was attacked by DMK legislators. Some of them, reportedly, threw mike–stands and water bottles at her. Worst of all, she was allegedly molested by some DMK leader in the middle of the assembly.
Far from diminishing her importance in the party, however, the incident strengthened her resolve and her stature in the landscape of Dravidian politics. One may say that these facing such adversities won her sympathy and respect from the masses, which eventually translated into votes for her party. This culminated in Jayalalithaa taking over as Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu for the first time in 1991.
Jayalalithaa’s five terms as Chief Minister (June 1991–May 1996, May 2001–September 2001, March 2002–May 2006, May 2011–September 2014 and May 2015–December 2016) have been replete with as many controversies as they have been with landmark policies and schemes. Tamil Nadu is one of the most efficient states in the nation in terms of providing welfare schemes for maternal and infant health care, education for women, young girls and minorities. The state has also, most notable, taken up schemes for the upliftment of the transgender community – a section of the society which often finds itself isolated in terms of employment and education opportunities.
Notwithstanding such progressive measures, however, the Amma of Indian politics has often been embroiled in several controversies. The disproportionate assets case which began in 1996; her mishandling of the floods situation in the state in 2015; the various poor quality freebies she distributed in the state to ensure victory in many polls; her 27–year–long vice grip over the party affairs; these are some of issues that gave her detractors reasons to challenge her supreme position in Tamil Nadu. Yet her name and fame among the masses of Tamil Nadu remain unwithered, due to her larger than life persona and the numerous obstacles she overcame to win not just votes but hearts of Tamil people.
With Jayalalithaa’s demise, there remain only a handful of women political leaders who can challenge their male counterparts in the nation. But not many played the role of a unifier of the masses as effectively as Jayalalithaa did for almost thirty years. During her interview with Simi Garewal, in a very philosophical manner, Jayalalithaa had stated that she did not believe in unconditional love and that it exists only in books and movies. The lakhs of Tamilians who gathered to bid her farewell on December 6, however, tell a different story.