From Ammu to Amma was a long journey for Jayalalithaa Jayaram, the chief minister of Tamil Nadu, who passed away in Chennai, aged 68, after a prolonged illness on Monday. Ammu, as mother Vedavalli would call her, was a bright student and wanted to become a lawyer. Instead, she found herself pushed into cinema, and, thereafter, prodded by her hero in many films, M.G. Ramachandran, into politics. As in school, Ammu, now Jayalalithaa, finished ahead of competition in both films and politics. It was not easy, she once recalled: She had to fight her way, and she was always lonely in her journey. As a single woman in the intensely patriarchal worlds of cinema and politics, Jayalalithaa proved to be a winner: She rewrote the script given to her and left opponents with no choice but to admire her self-belief, intelligence and ability to work hard and stay the course. Autocratic and whimsical she was, and several corruption scandals tainted her record in office, but Jayalalithaa will be remembered as a leader who commanded awe and admiration across parties and regions.
Her mentor, MGR, inducted Jayalalithaa into the AIADMK in 1982 and sent her to the Rajya Sabha two years later. Impressed with her oratorical abilities, he made her propaganda secretary of the party. When MGR passed away in 1987 after a prolonged illness, she hardly had a foothold in the party. But in two years’ time, in the 1989 general election, Jayalalithaa proved she alone could keep the AIADMK afloat as a resurgent DMK led by the stalwart of Dravidian politics, M. Karunanidhi, returned to office. In the years that followed, Jayalalithaa single-handedly led the AIADMK to office four times. She expanded its mass base, adding to the cadres and communities MGR had cultivated, shrewdly making and breaking alliances according to the political climate. She left her footprint on national politics when she played king-maker in Delhi in the late 1990s. Like MGR, she was bigger than the AIADMK: Both encouraged a personality cult and refused to build a second-rung leadership. She acknowledged the AIADMK’s debt to the Dravidian Movement and its pet causes — Tamil pride and identity, social justice, and welfarism — but her politics was not confined by ideology: Her personality defined her politics. The welfare schemes she launched were presented to the people as evidence of her generosity and patronage.
MGR initiated Jayalalithaa into politics, but she alone built her career. She inherited the support MGR had among women and poor, and turned it into a loyal and winning constituency. Her skills as an administrator enabled the growth of Tamil Nadu as an industrial powerhouse with exceptional social development indicators. The welfare politics she promoted focused on the delivery of a range of goods and services to citizens at subsidised rates. From rations to healthcare, salt to cement, sarees to WiFi, subsidised cinemas to marriage halls, all under the brand name Amma, the largesse meant she became an ubiquitous presence in the lives of citizens. The enigma of Jayalalithaa was thus immortalised in the idea of Amma, the mother and giver.