Tamil Nadu has suddenly been plunged into the heart of uncertainty. A Tamil Nadu without ‘Amma’, the matriarchal leader, grand disciplinarian administrator, unpredictable mercurial personality, one who emerged against the odds – revered and feared alike – looks almost unimaginable for both admirer and opponent alike.
She was a fighter all along. Long before entering the political arena, she had to face the wrath of egos in a male-dominated film industry. Yet, she stood her ground and succeeded. In retrospect, it looks miraculous. Even today, heroines are at best objectified. They are mere substitutes for the commercial value of the female artist mandated by public expectations. But Jayalalithaa as an actor carved for the female character a dominant niche. Despite the stature of the top-most heroes of her time, the movies revolved around her. Even superhero actors like 'Sivaji' Ganesan and M G Ramachandran (MGR) gracefully acceded to this fact.
In politics, she was initially seen as a passing fancy brought in by her mentor MGR. What most political commentators and senior politicians failed to note was that MGR himself had probably seen her as a potentially strong-willed leader. And she proved him right. Nothing could be more disadvantageous to any aspiring politician than what Jayalalithaa faced immediately after the passing away of MGR. Senior politicians of her own party publicly humiliated her. A major section of the media was openly hostile to her. Still she soon emerged as a grand unifier of All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and political heir to the MGR.
After her first election, where her wing of the AIADMK turned out to be the larger of the two factions (the other being led by MGR's wife), she entered the legislative assembly as leader of the opposition – the first woman in the history of the state to occupy that chair. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) storm-troopers in the assembly humiliated her. The day of 25 March 1989 shall forever be considered as a dark day in the state’s history. She endured the humiliation and emerged as a winner in the next state elections. She became the youngest and the first woman chief minister of the state in 1991. The victory almost eliminated the DMK as a political party, and her gigantic victory was enhanced by the sympathy wave created by the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991. The AIADMK at the time had an alliance with the Congress.
But in the years after that, she neutralised the goodwill she had gained. MGR's AIADMK had emerged as a party that appealed to all sections of society, including the SCs , STs, , Brahmins and non-Brahmin castes. Jayalalithaa's party, in a short while, came to be perceived as the party of a specific backward community which was notorious for its anti-SC violence.
Meanwhile, the Maran brothers had come up with the Sun TV network in 1993 even as Jayalalithaa began alienating journalists. She was increasingly perceived as arrogant and secretive. She was rumoured to be held hostage to a specific group. Photos of her in lavish jewellery along with her close friend Sasikala during her foster son's wedding did not go down well with the people. Sun TV, meanwhile, had established itself as the foremost private entertainment channel in Tamil Nadu. Using its vast viewership, the channel aired damaging propaganda throughout the campaign of 1996. Even close friends like Cho Ramaswamy and actor Rajinikanth lent their voice against her. Her regime was mired in corruption charges in an unprecedented way. These developments led to a massive defeat for Jayalalithaa in the 1996 assembly elections, and almost everyone began writing her off.
In Mani Ratnam's Iruvar, a movie that purported to tell the story of the Dravidian parties in a fictional manner, a character similar to Jayalalithaa was made to die in an accident – symbolic of the thinking at the time that she would not bounce back in the politics of Tamil Nadu.
In 1998, she entered into an alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and after the Coimbatore bomb blasts, which were seen as having happened because of the proximity of the DMK leadership to Jihadist elements, the AIADMK won a significant number of parliamentary seats. The Vajpayee government was dependent on her, and she used this to threaten the government every now and then. Maverick MP Subramanian Swamy engineered a tea party through which Jayalalithaa was made to withdraw support from the Vajpayee government and an election was imposed on India. The DMK entered the National Democratic Alliance after AIADMK left it.
In 2001, she again became the chief minister and did not hesitate to seek the support of Islamist forces. But by 2004, the political alliances again got reversed. She joined hands with the BJP, but the alliance lost in most parliamentary constituencies in Tamil Nadu. One reason for this loss was that she had taken on a government employee strike head-on with mass dismissals of striking employees. She shone briefly like Margaret Thatcher of Tamil Nadu and then she fell.
It was during this period that she also arrested M Karunanidhi. After her washout with the BJP alliance, she suddenly got Jayendra Saraswathi of the Kanchi Mutt arrested during a pre-dawn operation just before Diwali. She also launched a vigorous witch-hunt on the Mutt. To this day, many devotees of the Mutt have not forgiven her for this. But to her credit, she also authorised an operation which had the forest bandit Veerappan killed.
But these developments antagonised large sections of the population. The DMK came back to power in 2006, but the regime soon became synonymous with corruption in public perception. Jayalalithaa was seen as the saviour and she became the chief minister in 2011. But she again had to face legal hurdles. In one of the many corruption cases against her, the disproportionate assets case, she was convicted and she became the first chief minister to be convicted while in office. What followed was a display of hysterical loyalty to her by caretaker ministers who cried and sobbed as they took oath. Soon, she got freed of her convictions by the Karnataka High Court. In 2016, she was re-elected chief minister of Tamil Nadu, a feat that was accomplished only by her mentor in the last four decades.
She was born a Brahmin – or an 'Aryan' in the Dravidian narrative. She faced unspeakable vulgarity in the form of street-level propaganda by many opposition parties. Even within her party, she was initially considered a lightweight nuisance to be humiliated. Every one of her opponents thought she would run away. Unlike Indira, she had no political family legacy. She was a self-made woman. Yet she made it. From her cradle-baby schemes for kids abandoned by their biological parents for various reasons to her 'Amma restaurants', where she gave quality food at affordable cost, she followed the populist but humanitarian legacy left behind by her mentor MGR.
That Tamil Nadu accepted her essentially indicates the deep rejection of the racial politics of the Dravidian parties. Her actions, like the midnight arrest of Karunanidhi and that of Jayendra Saraswathi, were controversial. The way she imposed an election on India by toppling the Vajpayee government showed a negative streak in her headstrong personality, someone who cared nothing about the consequences to the nation.
As a Hindu, she never shied away from wearing her religion on her forehead. She supported the Kar Seva at Ayodhya. She also publicly regretted her alliance with the BJP and assured the Islamists that she would never again align with the BJP. After the 2004 debacle with the BJP alliance, she openly turned to vote-bank politics of minority-ism, accepting cakes from bishops at public functions and declaring a Haj-like subsidy for Christians travelling to Jerusalem.
In the case of the LTTE, she made a U-turn after the perceived treachery of the DMK to the Sri Lankan Tamil cause. She also attempted to take over the Tamil nationalist vote bank by ordering the freeing of those convicted for assisting the Rajiv Gandhi murder. This hasty action was later stayed by the Supreme Court.
Her ministers often indulged in acts which made Tamils the butt of jokes throughout India. Prostration before her vehicle's wheels, saluting the helicopter, eating soiled food as a ritual for her well-being are regular acts by her party cadre. But behind such success was her connect with the average Tamil woman. While MGR was always the heart-throb of Tamil women, Jayalalithaa symbolised woman power for many Tamils. A woman once exclaimed to this writer, "Look at such powerful men falling at her feet. You think it is because of devotion? No. It is fear. And as a woman I am happy she shows us what men are and what we are capable of!"
Jayalalithaa was a paradoxical mixture of shrewd politician, mercurial personality, steely determination and a complex administrative acumen. Her greatest contribution was perhaps the fact that she held at bay the DMK in 1991, 2011 and 2016. Her greatest failing was that she allowed her opponents to revive due to her own blunders and arrogance.
But Amma has proved one thing: she was meant to rule. And she did. Tamil Nadu will never be the same again.
Aravindan is a contributing editor at Swarajya.
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