Jayaraman Jayalalithaa, the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, who passed away in Chennai on the night of December 5, 2016, after fighting for life for over two months at Apollo Hospital, could best be remembered for her starry roles in South Indian cinema and phoenix-like political life.
Born into a Tamil Iyengar Brahmin family on February 24, 1948, her journey from traditional orthodox clan to tumultuous Dravidian politics of Tamil Nadu had been as dramatic as her film career spanning two decades.
She was born to Jayaram and Vedavalli in Melukote, a small town in Pandavapura taluka of Mandya district in Karnataka (at that time Mysore State) as Komalavalli. But she got her name Jayalalitha from two villas – Jaya Vilas and Lalitha Vilas –in which she had lived in Mysore during her early childhood. But she added one more ‘a’ to her name at the end in 2001 as it was considered lucky from the point of numerology. Since then the official spelling of her name was Jayalalithaa. Whether an additional ‘a’ to the name gave her some political advantage was a matter of personal faith in esoteric sciences and an issue of speculation. Nevertheless, her name change seemed to have put her on political ascendancy in the following years.
Jaya’s early years in school and college were like those of any other South Indian Brahmin girl. But she proved herself to be a precocious child, especially with languages and fine arts which she used to her advantage later in her life as an actress and politician.
Old timers could recall her as a ‘South Indian Bomb’ when Jaya scorched the silver screen as the leading lady in Telugu, Tamil and Kannada films from 1960 to 1980. She had paired with almost all ‘big heroes’ of the South Indian cinema at that time. Altogether she acted in 140 films before changing her role as a politician in a place which shaped her film career.
Madras (at that time) was the heart of South Indian cinema where producers, directors, aspiring actors and actresses and technicians used to hobnob with ‘who is who’ of the South in and around dozens of film studios. The tinsel world was also a place where top of the legions, who later became legends, honed their skills in the art and science of making cinema but dabbled in politics.
The Tamil Cinema, then and now, is mass-centric and to turn a film a box-office hit, it has to be made in the language and style of the masses. The Dravidian movement protagonists like Anna Durai and M Karunanidhi had found their way into politics through the medium of cinema and won hearts and minds – as well as votes – of the Tamil masses.
For a young, ambitious Jayalalitha, the inexorably interwoven Tamil cinema and politics provided a fertile ground to become a star-politician. It was arguable whether her acting career had brought her closer to popular actor MG Ramachandran (MGR) who turned a politician. But she had never acknowledged that he was instrumental in making her plunge into politics although MGR said to be her mentor. However, she took to her political career beginning in 1982 when MGR appointed her as AIADMK propaganda secretary and ending as Tamil Nadu Chief Minister like a duck to water.
Two years later, she became a member of the Rajya Sabha, from Tamil Nadu, from 1984 to 1989. Chief Minister MGR’s death in 1987 catapulted Jayalalitha into limelight when she proclaimed herself as his political heir. But in the ensuing bitter political succession struggle, MGR’s wife Janaki Ramachandran too had staked her claim to be the chief minister of Tamil Nadu. As a result, the party split and Janaki ruled the state just for 23 days from January 7 to January 30 in 1988. A year later, in 1989, Jayalalitha united her splintered party as its general secretary and became the first woman opposition leader in the Tamil Nadu Assembly.
The year 1991 was a turning point in her political career. With Congress tie-up, Jayalalitha won the Assembly polls and became the Chief Minister, thus becoming the second woman CM in Tamil Nadu after Janaki Ramachandran’s brief stint. It was political baptism of fire as she had to manage a vociferous DMK opposition, keep an eye on dissidents within her own party and balance the delicate relationship with Congress. But she proved her mettle with a disarming smile and unflinching loyalty of her supporters and the mass of people.
In the seesaw battle between DMK and AIADMK in Tamil Nadu politics, Jaya lost second round to rule the state over corruption allegations in 1996. She bounced back five years later in 2001to have a second go; lost to DMK in 2006 and got back into the CM seat in 2011 and again won the 2016 Assembly polls.
Her poll losses and victories and political and legal battles over graft charges demonstrate her indomitable spirit for survival as a woman leader in the mainly patriarchic and male-dominated world of wily politicians. She proved herself as more than equal to them, outmaneuvered their machinations and strategies to gain an upper hand.
Her greatest strength throughout her political career was support at the grassroots level. And, she had never disappointed the masses. Her welfare programmes bearing the name ‘Amma’ speaks volumes of her commitment to economically uplift the poorest of the poor. When she was disqualified from holding office in a disproportionate assets case on September 27, 2014, it was the ordinary people in Tamil Nadu who protested in unison against the Bangalore court order. It was also the ordinary people who stood by her when she faced the rough and tumble of politics. They celebrated when the Karnataka High Court acquitted Jaya on May 11, 2015 and resumed office 12 days later. Even after her death, the same people were seen crying everywhere in Tamil Nadu. They feel now that they have not just lost a leader for ever but their own mother ‘Amma’ who gave them succor through various schemes.
Jayalalithaa has left her brand on Tamil Nadu. Her schemes for the poor, often announced just before the Assembly polls, had invited opposition ire and criticism. They were dubbed sops to garner votes. However, poor voters had grabbed them. The freebies and programmes included free laptops for students, subsidized Amma canteens, breakfast and mid-day meals in government schools, uninterrupted power supply, gold for mangal sutras and financial aid for marriage ceremonies, rainwater harvesting, Cradle Baby scheme and a ban on lotteries despite losing huge revenue. Her contribution to making Tamil Nadu as one of the leading industrial states in the country couldn’t be minimized.
Jayalalithaa has left this world with an iconic status and footprints in Tamil Nadu and an indelible mark on India.