As Tamil Nadu mourns the loss of its Puratchi Thalaivi (revolutionary leader), Jayaraman Jayalalithaa, it is imperative to articulate the importance of her life in the male-dominated bastion of Indian politics. The number of hurdles she crossed to achieve god-like status among millions in the state holds lessons for anyone who wants to understands her significance. The convent-educated, English-speaking woman from a Tamil Brahmin Iyengar family in Karnataka, found her way deep into the hearts of millions through the silver screen first, and then the rough and unforgiving arena of Tamil politics woven with sexism. As a multi-faceted actor trained in various traditional dance forms, she was the glamorous star of the 1970s, who acted in over 100 movies, most memorably alongside legendary movie-star turned mass leader, MG Ramachandran. Her association with MGR would shape her destiny in ways even she wouldn’t have imagined. Every enigmatic personality’s life is dotted with moments that go on to shape their legacy. The story of Jayalalithaa’s first tryst with fame, as a shy 16-year-old, starring opposite MGR in Ayirathil Oruvan, presented a marker of things to come. While the entire cast and crew of the movie would stand up in respect every time the actor entered the sets, the young Jayalalithaa was found nonchalantly reading a book, sitting cross-legged. It was this audacity, allied with her wit, intellect, and her prolific ability to speak in English, Hindi, Kannada, and Tamil, which made her right for politics. Attributing her entry and eventual success in politics to merely her association with MGR would be disrespectful. There was another facet of her personality, probably the most important, which facilitated her rise to demigod status among the masses—her unbreakable will in the face of adversity. Her struggle to take control of the All India Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), after the death of MGR, against the faction led by his widow, has been well-documented. In a poignant Facebook post after the announcement of Jayalalithaa’s demise, Charanya Kannan presents a view that should seal the argument about her significance. Some excerpts: “She won against all the odds. She was a white skinned Brahmin in a party that thrived due to its Dravidian anti-class rhetoric. She was a glamorous actor who cannot, by definition, be taken seriously. Above all, she was a woman trying to ascend to power in the 1980s in Tamil Nadu as an unmarried, childless woman. To put it in context, she was not only walking a path of thorns, she did it in an oxygen-less chamber while her arms and legs were tied. It’s a feat that she survived at all, not to mention that she actually thrived.” The next significant moment came in 1989, when as leader of opposition she was reportedly assaulted, molested and nearly disrobed in the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly, following her decision to repeatedly interrupt Chief Minister M Karunanidhi’s Budget speech. In response to the assault, she vowed never to step inside the Assembly premises till she knocked the DMK of their perch. Two years later, she won a resounding majority and became Tamil Nadu’s Chief Minister. “She came out of that incident (at the TN Assembly) more guarded than ever before. She wrapped herself in layers of clothing and stopped wearing any jewellery at all. She succeeded at ‘desexualising’ herself and branded herself as ‘amma’ (mother), the only known way to gain respect in that highly testosterone-filled environment,” Kannan goes on to write.
To attribute the delirium witnessed outside Apollo Hospital on Monday night merely to the well-documented sycophancy of AIADMK workers would be a mistake. These are also the everyday people, some of them the poorest of the poor, whose lives were in one way or the other touched by her policies. Her mass appeal was down to an ability to brilliantly leverage state-funded populism. Cultivating the image of a benevolent mother, or Amma, Jayalalithaa’s mode of populism had a touch of the personal. Every scheme was directed towards touching the lives of people, especially women, in tangible ways. The Amma brand, slapped on canteens and maternity kits to salt and water bottles, was the imposition of direct benefits to the people. Despite all her faults, of which there were many, Jayalalithaa’s policies, backed by an efficient bureaucracy and a legacy of universal and well-functioning public services from the 1980s, ensured that hardly anyone went hungry in Tamil Nadu. Her social welfare initiatives are reflected in the state’s social indicators. Tamil Nadu continues to have one of the most efficient public distribution systems in the country, all of which are derisively dismissed as 'freebie culture' by those who take five-star dinners for granted. But her administrative capabilities and independence in her decision-making are not merely limited to leveraging state-funded populism. Following the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991, her government was instrumental in destroying the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)’s infrastructure in Tamil Nadu. But once the civil war in Sri Lanka ended in 2009, she took a more measured position. In a complete about turn, she fought for the rights of Sri Lankan Tamils across national and international platforms. She had even sought the release Gandhi’s assassins. It was realpolitik in motion.
Of course, amidst all her trials and tribulations, it is impossible to view Jayalalithaa’s life through rose-tinted glasses. In her first term as Chief Minister (1991-1996), she was dogged with numerous corruption charges, including amassing assets disproportionate to her known source of income—a case that is still pending in the Supreme Court. She suffered a thumping defeat in the 1996 elections to the DMK as a result of these corruption charges. Amma never took criticism very well. Her response was laden with brute aggression and vengeance, often misusing the state machinery to silencing anyone who criticised her or her government. The litany of criminal defamation suits against many journalists, opposition party members and even artists is a testament to this fact. Even the Supreme Court of India pulled up the former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister of misusing the state machinery to file criminal defamation cases against political opponents. Last year, the Tamil Nadu government arrested Kovan, a folk singer associated with a radical leftist group, under the draconian sedition law (Section 124A of the IPC) for his songs critical of the liquor policies of the Jayalalithaa government. Despite claims of several civil servants, who claim they function with lesser interference under her leadership than under the other party, governance in Tamil Nadu was indeed reduced to an opaque top-down structure. Bureaucrats were unofficially not allowed to speak out, and anyone who dared to break that line in the sand was condemned to the sidelines. Probably the one-person command system witnessed its greatest failure during the Chennai floods late last year. Within her party, no one else was allowed to rise beyond a certain limit. Anyone perceived to be growing ever-more popular was often taken down a few notches. She always rewarded unfettered loyalty, resulting in sycophancy witnessed among some in the AIADMK cadre. And then there is the Mannargudi mafia, the moniker given to the extended family of Jayalalithaa’s closest confidante, Sasikala Natrajan, which has strengthened its hold on the party and government under a veil of secrecy. There is little discussion on the extended clan in the media or public. Accusations of nepotism against Jayalalithaa often stem from this apparent association. The AIADMK will have to convince their electorate that Jayalalithaa’s passing does not dent the credibility of its government. Political commentators argue that she has failed to establish a credible second rung leadership in her party. Only time will tell if this is indeed a correct assessment.
Whatever said and done, here was a woman, who became an all-powerful leader of her own making. It’ll be a long time before we see another figure like her.