J JAYALALITHAA, known as Amma for her popularity and people-oriented policies as the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, died on Monday night, according to authorities at Apollo Hospitals in Chennai, where she had been undergoing treatment since September 22. She was 68.
Jayalalithaa, who started as a teenaged actor and followed in the footsteps of her political mentor, the movie superstar and former chief minister M G Ramachandran, was the first mainstream woman leader at the helm of a political party in Tamil Nadu. She led the All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), India’s second regional party and the third largest in Parliament currently, with 37 Lok Sabha seats. Well-mannered, sometimes short-tempered, at times faulted for her autocratic style of functioning, Jayalalithaa led AIADMK to four straight election wins and was chief minister in separate stints for almost 15 years.
Jayalalithaa’s first term as chief minister in 1991 — three years after the death of MGR and following a series of tussles within the party with another senior leader R M Veerappan and MGR’s wife Janaki — was a mixed bag of successes and setbacks. Known as the youngest chief minister of the state, who drew a token salary of Re 1, that stint is still being remembered for various several social welfare programmes, which were later recreated in other states.
Apart from the “cradle baby” scheme for the adoption of abandoned girl children, Jayalalithaa also kickstarted several notable public-health programmes, including the formation of state-run pharmaceutical companies and distribution of medicine.
But her second stint from 2001-06 was controversial with several policies grabbing the headlines for the wrong reasons — for instance, she was forced to repeal the anti-conversion law to appease minorities ahead of the 2006 elections.
However, her rise as a political leader also saw the emergence of multiple power centres operated by her trusted aide Sasikala that attracted charges of nepotism, corruption and extravagant displays of wealth and eventually went on to tarnish the reputation of Jayalalithaa herself.
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Jayalalithaa’s subsequent political career was marked by famous electoral victories and controversies, which left admirers and opponents in awe and fear. Close associates have described Jayalalithaa as a woman of firm decisions and bewildering contradictions. They described her as one who was often misunderstood, misled and misinterpreted by her aides and the media; one who viewed most outside her inner circle with distrust.
Born to a Brahmin family from Mysore, and fondly named Komalavalli by her mother, Jayalalithaa completed her schooling from the Bishop Cotton Girl’s School in Bengaluru and Sacred Heart Matriculation School in Chennai.
An ambitious student, Jayalalithaa wanted to study further. But Vennira Aadai (A Widow’s Robe), directed by C V Sridhar, altered the course of her life after her mother, Sandhya, an actress known to MGR, made her act in the movie instead of sending her to college at the age of 16.
Once she turned to politics after pairing with MGR in 28 films, Jayalalithaa copied the slogans of her idol and popularised his achievements in massive public rallies in 1980s across the state as his party’s propaganda secretary and star campaigner of several elections and by-elections. She was made a Rajya Sabha member in 1984 by MGR and led the party’s charge in the 1984 Assembly and Lok Sabha polls when he could not campaign following illness.
But Jayalalithaa’s moment of reckoning came a few years later when MGR died in 1987, with AIADMK at the crossroads. She was humiliated as MGR’s body was lying in state when another leader tried to push her from the rostrum. The AIADMK subsequently split into two factions — AIADMK (J) and AIADMK (Ja) after Jayalalithaa and Janaki.
Jayalalithaa successfully contested the Tamil Nadu Assembly election in 1989 from Bodinayakkanur and became the first woman Leader of Opposition in the House.
However, there were challenges, enemies and potential threats awaiting her within the party and outside. She is said to have faced death threats and in one disturbing incident, she alleged that she was assaulted by a group of DMK MLAs who tried to disrobe her in the Assembly. She was also imprisoned twice, first in 1997 on corruption charges by the then Karunanidhi government, and retaliated by arresting the then 80-year-old leader from his home after she became the chief minister in 2001.
Jayalalithaa also had to step down from the chief minister’s post twice following adverse court orders in corruption cases, only to bounce back on both occasions.
A close associate told The Indian Express that it was the second imprisonment — following conviction in a disproportionate assets case in September 2014 — in a Bengaluru prison for three months that worsened her health condition, compounded by acute diabetics and arthritis.
Over the last 30 years, Jayalalithaa brought about a change in the political character of Tamil Nadu. A Brahmin, her strategic moves destroyed several smaller parties even as she held the powerful, dominant OBC Thevar votes close to her party in a state that had always celebrated anti-Brahmin sentiments.
As a ruler, she wielded an iron hand to break the power of labour unions, struck alliances with the Left parties and championed the rights of minorities and asserted her secularist credentials.
As the undisputed leader, with a vice-like grip on her party, she hardly faced any dissent or criticism from within. She went on to achieve massive victories in 2014 Lok Sabha elections and the 2016 Assembly elections with a whopping majority that helped her even break records set by MGR. Her policies did not really spur industrial growth or make the middle-class happy but she managed to retain her position in 2016 despite reports of her illness.
Jayalalithaa was never really accessible to the public, her own party leaders or the media but that did not reduce her significance in print columns or TRP ratings.
In one candid interview from the 1990s, she said that while her mother and MGR dominated her life completely, she “was never in awe of anyone”. On MGR’s role in her life, she said: “I respected and admired him (MGR). He, too, had a hard life, maybe he was possessive.” And, that she never found “unconditional love”. It “exists only in books, novels, films. I have never come across anything in life,” she said.