Little would have Tamil Nadu expected that J Jayalalithaa would be as feisty in her death, as she was in her life. When Jayalalithaa breathed her last on the night of December 5, she had dashed the hopes of millions of citizens who had fervently hoped that she would, yet again, stage a powerful comeback from the "adversity" as she always did.
The sight of her mortal remains in the Rajaji Hall served as a stark reminder of the personality that she had come to be in three decades of Tamil Nadu’s political history. Three decades ago, it was from the same Rajaji Hall that Jayalalithaa’s political career had pretty much begun. On a similar December morning in 1987, Jayalalithaa was sitting next to the mortal remains of her mentor M G Ramachandran, braving the humiliations heaped on her by supporters of V N Janaki, MGR’s widow. For hours together, Jayalalithaa sat there even as she was jeered, called all kinds of names and even physically assaulted. They were detractors who had always resented her proximity to M G Ramachandran and her astonishing rise in the party. After hours of heaping humiliation, the detractors were successful in sending her home banishing her from attending MGR’s funeral.
For hours together, Jayalalithaa sat there even as she was jeered, called all kinds of names and even physically assaulted.
They had thought she was banished, politically too. But those who had known Jayalalithaa, knew she would come back. Even though MGR had not announced her as his political heir, the party threw its lot behind her. After some minor squabbles for about two years, V N Janaki relinquished her rights in the party, paving way for Jayalalithaa to become AIADMK’s supremo, something that she would continue to be till her death in December 2016.
Like her mentor M G Ramachandran, Jayalalithaa largely relied on her screen persona to cultivate among the masses an emotional bonding bordering on hysteria. In fact, when MGR made her AIADMK’s propaganda secretary in the 1980s, it was also because that he couldn’t go to public meetings as often as he would like to and he needed a leader with a mass appeal to maintain the party’s ties with the public. Jayalalithaa used the opportunity to the hilt. Old timers recall how her public speeches evoked hysterical reactions. She always made impassionate speeches, giving attention to detail.
Jeevasundari Balan, biographer of Moovalur Ramamirutham Ammal – a Dravidian woman icon who worked towards ending the Devadasi system – recalls how she had first heard the name of Ramamirutham Ammal in a public meeting of Jayalalithaa. “It was 1984 and Jayalalithaa was addressing a public meeting in Moovalur. Pointing to a house in front of the venue, Jayalalithaa said it was where Moovalur Ramamirutham Ammal had lived and that she was proud to be standing in front of the Dravidian leader’s house and delivering her speech. That was the first time I heard Ramamirutham Ammal’s name. My search to document her began from there.” For many others in the meeting too, Jayalalithaa had probably disclosed an information that not many were aware of. But Jayalalithaa had always loved to do that – strike a deeply personal chord with the audiences.
But Jayalalithaa had always loved to do that – strike a deeply personal chord with the audiences.
But unlike her mentor MGR, Jayalalitha perhaps loved to exhibit her tough exterior. While MGR was very cautious about maintaining cordial ties with the power centre in Delhi, Jayalalithaa sought to firmly establish her authority in Delhi. When she declared that the Congress-AIADMK combine swept the Assembly elections in 1991 not because of Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination but because of her own charisma, it was considered an audacious statement. Jayalalithaa would continue to be almost recklessly audacious throughout the rest of her life.
She was the first leader from Tamil Nadu to align with the BJP, allowing them space to grow in a rigidly Dravidian land. But the Central Ministers were made to wait at her beck and call, were made to attend to her whims and fancies. In a year, Jayalalithaa walked out of the Central government, and the alliance, paving way for another election in 1999.
From putting an end to the forest brigand Veerappan to arresting Shankaracharya Jayendra Saraswathi, Jayalalithaa did the unthinkable. Her admirers always say how "such acts" would not have been possible in any other regime. But during her tenures as the chief minister, Jayalalithaa also did the unthinkable in terms of large-scale corruption and gross misuse of office. Critics were brutally silenced. Sycophancy was blindly encouraged. Vaasanthi, a seasoned journalist and author of Amma: Jayalalithaa’s journey from movie star to political queen, mentions in her book how Jayalalithaa had "initiated a new cult of leader worship when ministers prostrated themselves full length on the floor in front of her" soon after she took over in 1991. The leader worship would continue to dominate the state’s political scene though the world continued to ridicule it.
Jayalalithaa’s supporters also point to her vulnerability as a woman and claim that she would have been finished off in no time, had she not been so ruthless.
But Jayalalithaa’s supporters also point to her vulnerability as a woman and claim that she would have been finished off in no time, had she not been so ruthless. Perhaps for a woman to be as successful as she had been in a heavily male dominated political scenario, required a certain amount of ruthlessness. But it will never be easy to judge if Jayalalithaa over did it.
In public domain, Jayalalithaa made up to her ruthlessness by unleashing a slew of populist measures just as her mentor MGR did. There were some schemes like cradle baby to put an end to female infanticide that was largely seen by activists as a token measure, but there were other schemes like free bicycles to rural girl students that meant well. When she won the elections in 2016 and was re-elected as the chief minister, she again created a record of sorts. She became the first leader to be re-elected to office in thirty years and the victory was credited to freebies announced by her.
But beneath the tough exterior that she had always loved to show, was a reluctant leader and a vulnerable woman. Her huge dependence on Sasikala Natarajan was perhaps a demonstration of this vulnerability. Jayalalithaa needed someone who would take care of everything in her life, who would accept her unconditionally.
But she had never wanted to exhibit this vulnerability. Jayalalithaa perhaps wanted to be remembered as a tough politician, and in fighting death for over 70 days in the hospitals, she proved to her followers that she was a fighter always.