At the funeral of the iconic MG Ramachandran, the former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, in 1987, a solitary woman stood her ground behind his mortal remains. The sadness was writ large on the face of the 39-year-old J Jayalalithaa, who had been encouraged to enter politics five years earlier by her mentor MGR.
Most of her colleagues in the party – predominantly men – hated her for her swift rise through the ranks of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. This animosity reached its peak at the funeral, when she was heckled and subjected to verbal abuse and questioning about the relationship she had with MGR. She had even been pushed out of the vehicle that was to carry the body to the funeral site on Marina Beach.
But nothing could shake Jayalalithaa’s resolve. She bore it all, without shedding a tear. Decades later, it was clear that her resolve had won the day. The men who attempted to humiliate her at MGR’s funeral had either been forced to accept her as the leader or found her bulldozing their careers into oblivion. The grit and determination with which she took on her opponents were traits that defined her life.
The party MGR founded split into two after his death. His widow VN Janaki led one faction of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and briefly became the chief minister. His protégé Jayalalithaa Jayaram led the other.
But in two years, Jayalalithaa had unified the party. In 1989, after several months of drama that involved horse trading, the Centre invoking Article 356 to dismiss the government, and an Assembly election in which the Janaki faction was routed, Jayalalithaa emerged as the first female Leader of the Opposition in Tamil Nadu. She was 41 years old.
The rise of Jayalalithaa transformed the face of the Dravidian movement, whose offshoots have ruled the southern state since 1967. Founded in 1916 on the principles of fanatical anti-Brahminism and rationalism, the male-dominated Dravidian political circle could never have imagined that its tallest leader would one day be a God-fearing, Brahmin Iyengar woman.
Despite the setbacks she faced, including two stints in prison on corruption charges, Jayalalithaa never lost her iron grip on her party. Her audacious comebacks in 2001 and 2016 meant that no political opponent, not even her prime rival M Karunanidhi, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam president, would dare write her off.
Born Komalavalli in Melkote in 1948, in what is now the Mandya district of Karnataka, Jayalalithaa lost her father when she was two. This early loss, however, did not mean that she remembered him with fondness. On more than one occasion, Jayalalithaa blamed her father’s penchant for callous overspending and laziness for the financial troubles of the once-prosperous family, whose members had served as surgeons to the Mysore royals.
As a result, the family of three, including her brother Jayakumar, became dependent on her mother Sandhya, who was also known as Vedavalli. When Jayalalithaa was in primary school, Sandhya moved to Madras and found work as an actress on the stage, as well as a few minor parts in films. The 1950s and ’60s were the golden age of Tamil theatre and there were opportunities aplenty. Jayalalithaa was left in the care of her maternal grandparents and aunt Padmavalli in Bangalore.
In 1959, after her aunt got married, Jayalalithaa moved to Madras to join her mother. Soon, she would master Bharatanatyam under the tutelage of KJ Sarasa. Her break came when she performed for an audience that included the legendary actor Sivaji Ganesan, who praised her “maturity in expressions” and predicted a great future for her. Little did he know that the girl would go on to become his co-star in several films.
Along with her mother, Jayalalithaa began acting in plays directed by YG Parthasarathy. In 1964, her mother played a role in Karnan, a film starring Sivaji Ganesan that went on to became a blockbuster. At an event to celebrate the the film’s success, the director of the movie, BR Panthulu, chanced upon Jayalalithaa. Because of the family’s strained finances, Sandhya agreed to allow her teenaged daughter to play the lead in Panthulu’s Kannada film Chinnada Gombe, launching a screen career that would see her appear in more than 100 movies.
Jayalalithaa loved William Shakespeare and quoted from English and Tamil epics with ease. During shoots, each time there was a break, she was known to retreat to her van with a book in hand. She was a polyglot who spoke English with elan.
It was only a matter of time before MG Ramachandran, popularly known as MGR, the biggest icon of Tamil cinema, took notice of her. In 1965, Jayalalithaa was cast as the lead actress opposite MGR, who was 30 years her senior, in Ayirathil Oruvan. It was her second Tamil movie. A silver jubilee hit, the movie became a cult classic.
This association with MGR would sow the seeds for Jayalalithaa’s future political career.
Jayalalithaa’s relationship with MGR has been the subject of much controversy. Their personal relationship has remained enigmatic, and her political opponents often suggested that it wasn’t as platonic as the two made it out to be.
But there was no doubt that MGR left a lasting impression on her. For instance, the way Jayalalithaa transformed her image in politics showed an eagerness to replicate, and at times improve on, MGR. While MGR was fondly referred to as Puratchi Thalaivar, or revolutionary leader, by his followers, Jayalalithaa made sure that she was called Puratchi Thalaivi, the revolutionary woman leader.
If anything, Jayalalithaa was aware of the limitations in her appeal and built a formidable system to overcome it. Leaders with even a semblance of popular support, or a mind of their own, were shunted out of the party. The All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam became synonymous with her with no independent identity.
While the outpourings of adulation for MGR were clearly spontaneous, in the case of Jayalalithaa, they looked quite orchestrated. The sycophantic devotion displayed by Jayalalithaa’s followers had an underlying artificiality. The more they pleased the leader, the greater their rewards. The common sight of her party men and women falling at her feet or waiting for her helicopter to land with hands folded in reverence was their strategy to gain proximity to power.
Of course, AIADMK leaders will dismiss any such reading into their fervent devotion to the leader they referred to as Amma. But the reward mechanism Jayalalithaa put in place for such comical veneration, and the ruthlessness with which she dealt with any transgression, proved the case.
The rise of O Panneerselvam, who became chief minister twice when Jayalalithaa was prevented from doing so because of cases of corruption, is an exemplary example of how she rewarded loyalty. From an obscure legislator from Theni, he was transformed as the number two in the party in a matter of hours in 2001. However, this was only a decorative post with no decision-making powers.
No chief minister has ever shuffled their Cabinet as frequently as Jayalalithaa did. For most party leaders, sustaining her trust was a monumental task.
However, this does not mean that she did not have mass appeal. Jayalalithaa steadily cultivated the image of the benevolent mother, or amma, who showered on her people all that they wanted. Unlike the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, which mostly favoured grand infrastructure monuments, Jayalalithaa’s realm was the personal. Every scheme she announced was consciously created to touch the lives of the people, especially women.
The Amma products that her government released, from canteens and salt to water bottles and maternity kits, reflected a shrewd political idea that direct benefits always left a lasting impression. Populism packaged as welfare came of age under Jayalalithaa’s reign in 2011.
Around the time Jayalalithaa became the leader of the party in 1989, she met Sasikala Natarajan, who would, barring brief intervals, live with her at her Poes Garden residence till the end of the chief minister’s life.
Sasikala’s husband, R Natarajan, was a Public Relations Officer in the government. Sasikala ran a video rental shop and, through her husband, came into contact with a woman who worked in the Indian Administrative Services. It was this civil servant who introduced Sasikala to Jayalalithaa.
In local parlance, Sasikala’s extended family, which has strengthened its hold on the party in complete secrecy due to her proximity to Jayalalithaa, is called the Mannargudi mafia, a reference to the town in Tiruvarur district from which Sasikala hails.
Over the last two decades, members of the clan have grown to control big industries and cinema halls and are known to dictate decisions such as distributing election tickets and selecting ministers. Nobody dares to talk about them in public. While Jayalalithaa was Amma, or mother, Sasikala was often called Chinna Amma, or younger mother.
Perhaps, it was this association that led to Jayalalithaa’s first political blow in 1996, when AIADMK was all but wiped out in the elections. It won only four seats in the 234-member Assembly. Even Jayalalithaa, who was chief minister from 1991-’96, lost her seat.
The public anger was largely fuelled by the perverse display of wealth that the chief minister chose to put on the previous year. The entire city of Chennai seemed to have come to a grinding halt as the wedding festivities of Jayalalithaa’s foster son, Sudhakaran, spilled onto the streets. He is Sasikala’s nephew, who she later disowned following cases booked under the Narcotics Act by the DMK government.
That defeat seemed to herald the end of Jayalalithaa’s public career. Over the next two years, more than 20 cases of corruption were filed against her. She was put in jail in 1996 and was written off as a spent force.
But changes at the national level would give her a new lease of life. That had also been her good fortune in 1991, when the sympathy wave following the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi brought the AIADMK-Congress alliance to power and made Jayalalithaa the chief minister for the first time.
In 1998, she chose to ally with the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The Coimbatore riots and bombings that year would lead to a communal polarisation of which the AIADMK-BJP alliance took full advantage.
Just two years after she had been thrown into prison, Jayalalithaa emerged with 18 of the 39 seats in Tamil Nadu in the Lok Sabha polls and helped form the National Democratic Alliance government in New Delhi. This alliance lasted just a few months. She pulled the plug on the BJP after it refused to dismiss Karunanidhi’s government in Tamil Nadu. That was a bad decision. Jayalalithaa was politically outplayed by the DMK veteran, who quickly filled the spot Jayalalithaa’s party had vacated at the Centre. He ensured that his party had a slice of power in the Union government for the next 17 years.
During this phase, Jayalalithaa’s whimsical temperament got the better of her. She made several decisions, such as pulling out of the BJP alliance, based on short-term considerations. She once even walked out of an National Democratic Alliance coordination meeting in 1998 and later cited the death of her dog as the reason. A year later, she jumped from the BJP alliance to that of the Congress, but fell out with Sonia Gandhi in 2001.
Her response to criticism was always aggressive and she often misused state machinery to silence her critics. Under her rule, governance in Tamil Nadu was transformed into an opaque superstructure. Officials were unofficially barred from speaking out and anyone who dared to was condemned to obscurity. This one-person command meant governance suffered on many occasions, such as during the floods which ravaged Chennai in December 2015. It is possible that no one has ever filed as many defamation cases against opponents and the media as she did.
Jayalalithaa’s rivalry with Karunanidhi requires its own book. They shared a mutual animosity. Much of it relates to one day in 1989. On March 25 that year, during the Budget session in the Tamil Nadu Assembly, an altercation over a privilege motion moved by Jayalalithaa quickly escalated into a free-for-all bout between members of the AIADMK and the ruling DMK. Amid the fracas, as Jayalalithaa’s party members attempted to escort her out of the Assembly, a DMK member pulled her sari. A dishevelled Jayalalithaa vowed to return to the House when she became the chief minister – which she did two years later.
In 2001, after five years out of power, buoyed by the support of GK Moopanar’s Tamil Maanila Congress, Jayalalithaa made a stunning comeback as chief minister with a thumping majority. No political pundit had given her a chance due to the stain of corruption that had sullied her image. Even opinion polls predicted that she would be defeated. For her arch rival, this was a bolt from the blue.
Jayalalithaa’s rage against Karunanidhi for throwing her in prison in connection with corruption cases against her had been simmering all the while. In 2001, she saw a chance to draw blood. The police arrested the patriarch of the Dravidian movement in connection with a flyover scam past midnight. Jayalalithaa had got her revenge.
All through her career, Jayalalithaa never acknowledged any other person as worthy of being her rival except Karunanidhi. Her statements in the Opposition were mostly responses only to Karunanidhi. It was as though others did not exist. For the array of other political parties in Tamil Nadu, finding a mention in Jayalalithaa’s statements was an occasion for rejoicing.
Jayalalithaa’s appeal transcended caste and religion. As a Brahmin, she should have been anathema to a political circuit of Tamil Nadu that is dominated by non-Brahmins. That was what observers had predicted in the ’80s when it emerged that MGR might be grooming Jayalalithaa as his political heir.
In a way, Jayalalithaa’s rise was also a significant commentary on the Dravidian movement itself and how it evolved. Its majoritarian worldview allowed the powerful Other Backward Classes to gain power. Some of these communities, while benefitting from the anti-Brahmin rhetoric, were not serious participants in the rationalist movement. As a consequence, such communities found it easier to compromise with a Brahmin as long as their interests were taken care of. For instance, Sasikala’s sustained proximity to Jayalalithaa has often been attributed to her roots in the powerful Thevar community, which now dominates politics in the state.
While she projected herself as a leader transcending caste and religion, Jayalalithaa knew how to use caste and religion to her advantage. This had a clear impact on Tamil Nadu. Given the appropriation of soft Hindutva by Jayalalithaa’s party, the BJP’s spread was kept in check. Her overt religiosity, combined with policies such as anti-conversion laws, meant that Hindus, and castes that exhibited Hindutva tendencies, found no necessity to move to the BJP.
This deft handling of religion was the game-changer for Jayalalithaa and helped her outmanoeuvre the DMK, which held on to its atheist image. With Jayalalithaa’s death, it will be interesting to see how the vacuum is filled and if the BJP can finally emerge from the background.
In her political decisions, Jayalalithaa was fiercely independent. Whether it was the Centre or a neighbouring state, she never backed down from a fight when it involved the rights of Tamil Nadu. At the same time, despite her image as a stubborn leader, she was ready to alter her positions drastically when the situation demanded it. Nothing proves this more than her stand regarding Sri Lankan Tamils and Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination.
A fierce critic of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, Jayalalithaa was instrumental in decimating the group’s infrastructure in Tamil Nadu following the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991. But once the civil war in Sri Lanka was finally suppressed in 2009, she took a nuanced position and transformed herself into a champion of human rights. So drastic was her change that she even sought the release of Gandhi’s assassins.
When she passed away on December 5, Jayalalithaa was in the last laps of the biggest battle of her life, one that could have smeared her legacy forever.
The disproportionate assets case that the DMK government filed in 1996 came back to haunt her in 2014 when a trial court in Bengaluru sentenced her to four years imprisonment. This was months after she ran a brilliant campaign for the Lok Sabha polls. The AIADMK won 37 of the 39 Lok Sabha seats in Tamil Nadu in that election, while DMK drew a blank.
In 1996, the raids connected to this case painted a very negative picture of Jayalalalithaa, who, citing the poor state of government’s finances, took Re 1 as her monthly salary between 1991 and 1996. Hundreds of jewellery sets, thousands of saris and several pairs of footwear that the police said were unearthed from her Poes Garden residence were displayed to the media, and were splashed across the newspapers the following day.
After her conviction by the trial court in 2014, Jayalalithaa had to step down from the chief minister’s chair for the second time. She had done so once earlier, in 2001, after she was convicted in another corruption case involving public land.
However, in 2015, the Karnataka High Court overturned the trial court verdict, and acquitted her, paving the way for her return as chief minister. The High Court judgement was challenged in the Supreme Court, which, in June, reserved its verdict on the appeal.
This was perhaps why Jayalalithaa’s victory in the 2016 elections was monumental. Despite all the corruption allegations against her, and her failing health that restricted her movements, Jayalalithaa managed a majority. In doing so, she also defied something that was considered unbreachable in Tamil Nadu: anti-incumbency.
Since 1984, the state has alternated between the AIADMK and the DMK every five years. MGR was the last chief minister to win two consecutive terms. While she could never be as popular as her mentor, this feat has definitely put her in the elite league of which MGR was the only member in the Dravidian pantheon.
In Jayalalithaa’s death, Tamil Nadu has lost one of its last two mass leaders.