When thinking of J Jayalalithaa’s life, the image that flashes first is from a Tamil Nadu Assembly session on March 25, 1989. The Opposition leader then, she was physically attacked by members of the ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, right before the speaker’s eyes and at the provocation of M Karunanidhi, who was chief minister at the time. She came out of the Assembly with her sari torn. That incident generated a massive sympathy wave for Jayalalithaa.

In Tamil Nadu, the creation of a leader and the amount of trust the voters place on them is purely a function of the grudge they bear against the ruling party. The only two exceptions to this rule were K Kamaraj of the Congress and MG Ramachandran.

In that way, Jayalalithaa owes a lot of her initial popularity to Karunanidhi. The other reason why she captured a firm place in the minds of people were the events in the immediate aftermath of MGR’s death in December 1987. For several hours after her mentor’s death, she was the only person to be seen standing beside MGR’s body. Millions of people watched those images on television. However, she was later literally kicked out of the open-top hearse.

When disenchantment set in

For someone who came into public life riding on a political wave of epic proportions, the first signs of disenchantment appeared in 1992 when the Kumbakonam temple stampede occurred during the Mahamakam festival. It was an avoidable tragedy. Chief Minister Jayalalithaa and her friend Sasikala went to the temple tank for a holy dip when there were thousands of other pilgrims. For her security, the authorities sealed off the northern and southern approaches and exits from the tank. This led to the death of 50 people, while many others were injured.

Close on the heels of the Mahamakam tragedy came the disastrous wedding of Jayalalithaa’s foster son VN Sudhakaran – a relative of Sasikala – in 1995. Its brazen opulence and scale would have put any medieval sultan to shame. The wedding made it to the Guinness Book of World Records on two counts: for being the wedding with the biggest guest list and for feeding an unprecedented number of people.

Several photographs from the wedding contributed to public opinion on Jayalalithaa turning viciously hostile. The most egregious was one of Jayalalithaa and Sasikala bedecked in more gold than you would find in an entire jewellery megastore.

Adopted by Jayalalithaa in 1995, Sudhakaran was disowned by her a year later. Those events contributed immensely to her crushing electoral defeat in 1996. Subsequently, a case of heroin possession was slapped against the foster son, and he even had to go to jail.

In 2000, when Jayalalithaa was sentenced to jail for owning assets disproportionate to her income, workers of her party, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, set fire to a bus in Dharmapuri, killing three college girls. That is yet another incident from the leader’s long political life that people are unlikely to forget easily.

The almighty

Since Jayalalithaa was admitted to the Apollo Hospital on September 22 this year, there has been an element of fear among the public. In 2014, during her incarceration at a Bengaluru prison after her conviction in the wealth amassment case, it felt like the lumpen were running affairs in Tamil Nadu. Nobody could control anybody. Even before the ink on her conviction had dried, shops had downed shutters. Those that didn’t were ransacked by her supporters.

Karunanidhi is the pioneer of such use of muscle power. In July 1971, Karunanidhi, who was then the chief minister, was conferred an honorary doctorate by Annamalai University in Chidambaram. Protesting the decision, a section of students paraded a donkey around campus with a board around its neck that read “doctor”. The police stormed the hostel and brutally thrashed the students. The next day, the body of one student, Udayakumar, was found floating in a pond on campus. The police denied his identity. Intimidated by the police, even Udayakumar’s parents denied his death.

In the last 45 years, three politicians – MGR, Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa – have had the biggest influence on the history and lives of the Tamil people. Jayalalithaa’s maiden speech as a Rajya Sabha member in the 1980s marked her out as remarkably intelligent and unusually well-read among contemporary Tamil politicians.

There was mild consternation about the prospect of a Brahmin Jayalalithaa infusing a flavour of English education into the culture of Dravidian politics. All such fears were misplaced. The same Jayalalithaa ushered in the by now commonplace but cringe-inducing practice of ministers and apparatchiks falling at her feet.

AIADMK leader O Panneerselvam bows to Jayalalithaa. Photo: IANS
AIADMK leader O Panneerselvam bows to Jayalalithaa. Photo: IANS

A lonely legacy

Jayalalithaa had led a lonely life for a very long time. She lost her father at the age of two. She grew up in Bengaluru, living with her aunt till she was 10. That was when her mother, Vedavalli, was working in the Chennai film industry under the screen name Sandhya. It was only after she reached the age of 10 that Jayalalithaa started living with her mother. She has spoken about this in the television show Rendezvous with Simi Garewal. During her childhood, it was her mother who controlled Jayalalithaa’s life. Later, it was MGR, and finally the Mannargudi group or the Sasikala family.

Jayalalithaa has followed in the footsteps of Karunanidhi when it comes to politics. She should have learnt some lessons on living a long life as well from her bête noire. After turning 60, Karunanidhi started learning yoga under TKV Desikachar. But Jayalalithaa’s doctors had to be those related to Sasikala.

In the last 45 years, the standards of education or healthcare among the poor of Tamil Nadu have remained pretty much the same. Jayalalithaa ensured that the poor did not, at least, die of hunger. Her much vaunted Amma Canteens serve food for as little as Rs 5. The state’s people settled for cheap food and assorted freebies over meaningful development.

I recently watched the TV series Narcos on the life of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar. If you take out the killings, Narcos is pretty much the story of Tamil Nadu politics. Every councillor or local body leader in the state is a mini Escobar. The rule of law is subservient to their whims and ambitions. It is a myth that the police are more empowered during Jayalalithaa’s rule. The spate of murders in all the state’s major cities proves that. You can trace almost every murder to a councillor or the land mafia – and in most cases, the two are the same.

How was the life of the average Tamil in the last 10 years, six of those under Jayalalithaa’s rule?

The loneliness that accompanied her childhood was once again a constant feature of her life in her final 10 years. It is inconceivable that the Mannargudi gang could have helped her overcome this loneliness.

Tamil Nadu, too, suffered the effects of Jayalalithaa’s loneliness. How else do we even try to make sense of O Panneerselvam’s interim chief ministership? Is it possible that one woman’s angst and angularities shape the course of a democratic society in this fashion in the 21st century?

We, the people, are mere props in this fairytale of epic proportions.

The writer is a leading Tamil novelist whose works include Zero Degree and Exile