Jayalaltihaa Jayaram, 68, the actress-turned-politician who held the chief minister’s office for four terms in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, died on December 5, suffering a cardiac arrest.
The end came 74 days after she was hospitalised at Apollo Hospital in Chennai on 22 September, with fever and dehydration.
Soon after doctors declared the chief minister dead, the anxiety among the people and party cadre gave way to an outright deluge of emotions. Tears welled and turned into an outburst of anger and violence, as the crowd broke the barricade outside Apollo Hospital. Police and security staff took some time to restore peace and calm.
One of the world’s longest serving women leaders, interestingly her remarkable life is showbiz began not in Tamil cinema but the Kannada film industry in the neighbouring Karnataka. He went on to rule the hearts as a popular actress in all the southern film industries before migrating to politics and holding seats of power in Tamil Nadu.
It is not that India did not have women leaders in the past. India has had prominent women leaders, such as late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who was assassinated, Sucheta Kriplani, the first woman chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, and Nandini Sathpathy, the first chief minister of Odisha.
In recent years, India has witnessed the rise of more than half a dozen prominent women leaders, such as Congress President Sonia Gandhi, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti, former Delhi Chief Minister Shiela Dikshit, former President of India Pratibha Patil and current External Affairs Minister of the country, Sushma Swaraj.
A phenomenon in Tamil Nadu
Unlike the aforementioned women leaders, Jayaraman Jayalalithaa became a phenomenon in the state of Tamil Nadu earning many titles — Puratchi Thalaivi, or a revolutionary leader, Thanga Tharagai, or the Golden Maiden.
But the most common was Amma, which means mother. It is an honorific genteelism by which Jayalalithaa was often addressed by all. Like any mother, she showered affection and exhibited authority.
Like former US President Ronald Regan, former California Governor Arnold Alois Schwarzenegger, or former Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister NT Rama Rao and her own mentor MG Ramachandran, Jayalithaa was an actor-turned-politician.
Revered by millions she was feared by her rivals.
Born on February 24, 1948 in Mandya, in the then Mysore state, as Komalavalli, Jayalalithaa moved to Chennai (then Madras) in the 1950s to live with her mother, Sandhya who had become an actress after her lawyer father died when she was a two-year old toddler.
A shy young girl, Jayalalithaa was a topper at the Bishop Cotton Girl’s High School in Bengaluru and later at the Church Park Presentation Convent in Chennai.
From movie stardom to politics
As an actor, her first Kannada movie at the age of 15 was a blockbuster — Chinnada Gombe in 1964. A year later, her debut Tamil movie was Vennira Aadai. Over the decades, she acted in 140 Tamil, Telugu and Kannada films, besides one Hindi (Izzat) and one English movie (Epistle). Epistle, was produced by former Indian president VV Giri’s son, Shankar Giri.
The turning point came when she was introduced to politics by actor-turned-politician, MG Ramachandran, who was her co-star in many Tamil movies. Mentored by MGR, Jayalalithaa became a propaganda secretary in the All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK).
This is was not an easy task given the competitive caste-based politics, which is the hallmark of the contemporary Indian political landscape.
Things were more challenging because the AIADMK, which was founded by MGR, was a breakaway group from Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam that was an offshoot of Dravida Kazgham and the Self-Respect Movement founded by Erode Venkataswamy Periyar, also referred as EV Ramasamy Nayakkar or Thanthai Periyar. The Self-Respect Movement was founded on anti-brahmanical sentiments and atheism, and Jayalalithaa was a Brahmin. Therefore, her political struggles began with this very appointment.
Elected to the Rajya Sabha in 1984, Jayalalithaa took up the challenge and spearheaded the AIADMK-Congress alliance in MGR’s absence, who was then undergoing treatment in the United States. She secured a massive victory.
Three years later, following MGR’s death in 1987, AIADMK split into two factions – each led by Jayalalithaa and MGR’s widow Janaki Ramachandran.
Janaki was elected chief minister in 1988. But her government was short-lived. It was dismissed in less than a month. In 1989, Jayalalithaa was elected to the Tamil Nadu Assembly, becoming the first woman to become leader of the opposition in the House.
Molested in the assembly
But Jayalalithaa was molested in the assembly by the ruling DMK members in front of the Speaker, allegedly egged on by then Chief Minister Muthuvel Karunanidhi. She left the Assembly in a torn saree vowing that she would return only as the chief minister. And, that she did; not once but several times.
Jalayalithaa became the chief minister in 1991, 2001, 2002 (by-election), 2011, 2015 (by-election) and 2016, despite several serious setbacks, including corruption charges and election defeats.
Nothing deterred her. She turned mercurial, unpredictable and enigmatic. She kept her party leaders, national leaders and successive prime ministers on tenterhooks to reach out to her for her support as Indian politics witnessed a paradigm shift to coalition politics. Even Narendra Modi, who had secured an absolute majority in the General Elections in 2014, was forced to keep Amma in good humour to get her support, as AIADMK has 50 Members of Parliament.
But, even though there was camaraderie between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Jayalalitaa, she stood her ground when it came to supporting issues like Goods and Service Tax reforms.
In a dog-eats-dog Indian political landscape, Jayalalithaa ruthlessly held her iron hand over her ministers, party men and rivals. To cite an example, all ministers kowtowed or offered sashtangpranams lying fully prostrate at her feet, to prove their allegiance to her. O Pannerselvam, Amma’s Man Friday, was sworn in as the chief minister soon after her death, at the Raj Bhavan amidst a pall of gloom.
This is the third time that he is being sworn in as the chief minister of Tamil Nadu. Panneerselvam has previously held the position from 2001 to 2002, when Jayalalithaa was barred from holding political office by the Supreme Court. He was sworn in as the CM again from September 2014 to May 2015 when she was convicted in the disproportionate assets case.
Interestingly, Panneerselvam refused to sit on the chief minister’s chair, preferring to keep a picture of Jayalalithaa on it and working on a chair beside it. This is the kind of subservience that was expected by Amma and displayed by her lieutenants; no questions asked.
As an administrator, she came up with ‘Vision 2023’ to make Tamil Nadu number one in terms of socio-economic growth, comparable to international standards.
Tamil Nadu received foreign direct investment inflows to the tune of USD 7.3 billion from 2007 to 2011. From April 2011 to December 2015, it went up to USD 13.94 billion. Between a short period of April 2015 and December 2015, the state had attracted USD 4.3 billion in FDI.
One may be intrigued by the widespread charisma of this empress of the south. She championed the cause of the rural and urban poor through populist socialism distributing freebies — subsidised food canteens, free laptops to thousands of students, food mixers and grinders to women.
Many publicly-funded projects in Tamil Nadu were named after her. They were dubbed Amma Canteens, Amma Bottled Water, Amma Salt, Amma Pharmacies and subsidised Amma Cement.
Finally, her government also provided washrooms that were dubbed as Namma toilet meaning ‘our toilet’.
In 1969, the movie Adimaipenn (meaning ‘Slave Girl’) featuring Jayalalithaa and MGR was blockbuster. Indeed, transformation from a slave girl on the silver screen to a cult figure worshipped by the population of the state was historic and phenomenal. Often, her followers called her ‘Adiparashakti’, which means the supreme goddess.
Amma’s death has created a vacuum that can never be filled.
The legend will live on in the hearts of the masses, and also in the temples that will be built for this ‘goddess’.