J Jayalalithaa (1948-2016): ‘I stand before you, having come to this point, swimming in the river of fire’

People never got to know her. Or have the courage and grit with which she had to wade through in her 68 years of turbulent life.

Written by Vaasanthi | New Delhi/chennai | Updated: December 6, 2016 3:49 pm
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THE wailing has not stopped. They had called her rosaappoo amma — the lady beautiful as a rose. They loved her; revered her and worshipped her. They saw her benign smile from everywhere — on everything they had at home that she so benevolently offered. They, in turn, brought her back again and again four times. They had prayed for her when she was jailed and when she was ill, and when the court verdict was expected, and the gods had answered, unable to say ‘no’ to their bizarre penance and rituals. But this time their prayers went unanswered. They fasted; they circumambulated the shrines and hoped their revered leader would be back home. The gods decided to take her away. They did not see that they, her admirers, were ready to give up their lives for her. They would have gladly consumed themselves in flames in the Tamil tradition of sacrificing oneself for the love of language, or their leader.

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Her face smiles from the tattoos on their arms, from the rings, their bangles, their pendants they wear like a talisman. “Even death cannot separate us from Amma,” they say with pride and grief, stretching their tattooed arms. She was their redeemer. Their saviour who had made their lives more comfortable with grinders, mixies, free rice and subsidized food. Who else, but a mother, will have such compassion? Now she was gone. It seemed like a lie. The sense of loss was unbearable.

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The party men and women knew that hers had been a turbulent life. She had often described it with passion during her election campaign: “I stand before you, having come to this point, swimming in the river of fire.”

They no longer saw her as the once glamour queen of the silver screen. She had transformed to a tough politician, crossing innumerable hurdles placed before her by her rivals and enemies. She carried on her shoulders the entire burden of the party that was rudderless when its founder M G Ramachandran, who was looked upon as demi god, died. It must not have been easy to step into his shoes and be accepted by a party that had its origin in the Dravidian Movement, in which she, a former actress and a Brahmin born in Karnataka, had never participated.

But she did, fighting singlehandedly against the crude and cruel sexist politics of Tamil Nadu. The cadres and admirers of MGR believed that she was his chosen heir. Indeed she fitted the bill. She was charismatic; she was articulate and supremely intelligent. The cadres knew her from her days as the propaganda secretary of the party. They loved her and went along with her. They never believed when she was charged with corruption and jailed. They were sure it was a lie foisted by the DMK. Amma was infallible. And as expected, wasn’t she absolved by the courts of all the charges?

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The hold that J. Jayalalithaa, Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, held over her partymen and admirers was something of a phenomenon. She was imperious, unapproachable,and inaccessible to her own ministers and yet her firm grip over them was a constant presence invoking fear and awe. She dismissed ministers at will without prior warning or notice. She relieved them of party posts, even suspended some from the party. No explanation was ever given to her actions. There would not even a whimper heard within or outside the party. Her word was law and the leader was supreme.

For more than four and a half decades, Tamil Nadu has witnessed the rule of the two dominant regional parties — the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, (DMK), and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra kazhagam (AIADMK). The feud between the two has been of epic dimensions. In combat of the nature of a mythical war, it was imperative that the leader was glorified to abnormal levels to sustain the cadres’ motivation; the intrinsic connection between political mobilization and the rise of authoritarian leadership was clear. Jayalalithaa could not extricate herself from the web in which she was caught. She realized that the leader had to be projected as an exalted being with rare or superhuman qualities and the followers necessarily were mere mortals, upon whom she showered her grace.

She knew that it was a well-tested strategy all over the world. It was more of a necessity for her, having to survive in a male-dominated chauvinistic political arena. Intellectuals ridiculed her welfare schemes, of freebies; she did not care. It was her strategy to win over the masses. It was the path that her mentor MGR had laid. MGR is still remembered as the Good Samaritan. She is called Amma, the universal mother, that emotionally binds people to her.

From the day she took oath of office as Chief Minister the first time, way back on July 24, 1991, in the name of God, the Dravidian political culture under the AIADMK changed drastically. Hitherto, atheist Dravidian leaders had always taken the oath in the name of Nature and Conscience. Some of the seniors joining her Cabinet were thereby confused but many followed the leader. After all, she had proved that it was she who was the face of the party after MGR, the charismatic founder of the party.

WATCH | Tamil Nadu CM J Jayalalithaa Passes Away After Suffering Cardiac Arrest

Ministers, new comers, fell at her feet after taking the oath of office — prostrating themselves full-length on the floor, as if before their deity, initiating a cult of leader worship. She must have been amused but did not try to stop them. To have those men at her feet perhaps gave her a sense of personal triumph and gratification. From then on, the party-men went berserk in her praise. They called her the thanga thalaivi, the “golden leader,” puratchi thalaivi, the revolutionary leader; on her birthdays, party functionaries, whom she fondly called kazhagak kanmanikal, darling party men, tried to outdo one another in showing their esteem and admiration, by organizing celebrations, putting up posters and inserting full page advertisements in the press.

The advertiser usually inserted a small photograph of himself along with his name and political standing at the bottom of the picture. It was probably necessary for them to remind her of their existence by parading their photographs to make up for the lack of opportunity to meet her in person.

Some posters depicted her as Durga, Meenakshi and various female Hindu goddesses. She was even depicted as the Immaculate Virgin Mary. When there was a protest from the shocked Christian community, she said it was the over enthusiasm of her ‘kazhagak kanmanigal’.

Yet she was utterly lonely and angry, battered by various court cases filed against her, her wealth frozen, properties sealed; she was even imprisoned twice, convicted and then acquitted; fighting and winning singlehandedly; and she kept her vote bank intact!

She always seemed like waging a war against someone — her political enemy Karunanidhi, or the press, intolerant of even the mildest criticism.

Even her detractors, however, agree that she was the most charismatic leader that Tamil Nadu has ever seen. Her administrative achievements like the one soon after she came to power — severely dealing with the LTTE insurgency and being instrumental in bringing the ban on the party; and in her second term, giving full freedom to the police to capture the sandalwood brigand Veerappan; monitoring district collectors in the efficient management of the tsunami, fighting for the rights of Tamil Nadu regarding the Cauvery; the thorough homework she did before meeting the officials; the grasp she had over problems facing the state. These were something that unfortunately do not get mentioned.

People never got to know her. Or have the courage and grit with which she had to wade through in her 68 years of turbulent life.

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