Without J Jayalalithaa, Tamil Nadu will be rudderless. And perhaps, so will her party, the AIADMK. Although O Panneerselvam was elected yesterday night as the party’s new figure-head and subsequently sworn in as Tamil Nadu’s Chief Minister, his leadership skills are incomparable to Jayalalithaa’s natural political prowess and the larger-than-life stature she projected.
WATCH | Tamil Nadu CM J Jayalalithaa Passes Away After Suffering Cardiac Arrest
Jayalalithaa exuded an impenetrable, unbending, mother-like persona. Her magnetic pull drew supporters from all corners of Tamil Nadu – a support which was inimitable, zealously loyal, and extremely frenzied in its nature. Yesterday evening, as reports of Amma’s deteriorating health were conveyed, an unmovable crowd that had pitched itself outside the Apollo hospital began turning violent. Several women were in throes of theatrical, hysterical mourning. Last week, a man set himself on fire. Back in 2014, when Jayalalithaa was arrested, the state erupted into mass protests (some orchestrated by AIADMK) demanding Amma’s (what she is affectionately called) release. Newspapers reported people committing suicide as a sign of protest. However, despite the countless corruption allegations – charges which were inconsequential in marring her identity – Jayalalithaa emerged victorious, unscathed.
What was it about Jayalalithaa that led her to become an extraordinary political figure with cult-like following?
When she tip-toed into politics in 1982, Jayalalithaa was probably unaware at the time, of the political behemoth she stood to become – a ‘supremo’ without whom the pantheon of Indian politics would be incomplete. Jayalalithaa redefined the face of politics in South India.
WATCH | J.Jayalalithaa’s Life Journey
Throughout her political career, she intelligently and meticulously built her identity. For one, having acted in over 100 South Indian films, her repertoire as an actress helped tremendously – she was already a household name. People felt a sense of warm familiarity, which worked in her favour. What cemented her grounding in politics however, was her relationship with M.G. Ramachandran, the actor-turned-political icon, who chaperoned her into the political realm and invited her to join AIADMK, a party he had founded. When MGR passed away, Jayalalithaa had to fight for the party’s leadership. Eventually, however, Jayalalithaa – his political heir – inherited the political empire along with the impassioned love of MGR’s mass supporters. Interestingly, MGR had an overwhelming tribe of followers, who he had accumulated thanks to his cinematic charisma.
In the fabric of Tamil Nadu’s history, threads of politics and cinema have freely entangled and intertwined. It resulted into the likes of M.G. Ramachandran and even M. Karunanidhi to become political exalted figureheads, enjoying cult-like following. This dates back to 1949. It was C.N. Annadurai, the founder Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the first Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, who had written and acted in theater. A handful of his plays went on to becoming cinematic productions. Annadurai was the first politician who saw Tamil cinema as an apparatus for propagating propaganda. He fervently encouraged inserting Dravadian ideologies into Tamil films like Parasakthi. Interestingly, it was M. Karunanidhi, former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, who wrote the screenplay for Parasakthi. Actors like S.S. Rajendra and Sivaji Ganesan, who starred in the film were also members of the DMK.
But Jayalalithaa’s larger-than-life figure cannot be attributed to her relationship with MGR and cinema alone. Many have spoken about her flamboyant oratory expertise. Back in 1982, she had rallied fervent support from the crowds, when she gave her first political speech at the AIADMK conference on Pennin Orumai (Unity of Women) in Cuddalore. “I am asking you; you tell me, aren’t you all on the side of Puratchi Thalaivar MGR?” she asked enthusiastically. In return, the crowd responded with a loud, overwhelming “Yes”. Thirty-four years later, Jayalalithaa still managed to draw in massive crowds. In the 2016 Assembly elections, she managed to shepherd throngs of people; some turnouts had over a lakh of attendants.
Others argue that it was also perhaps the mother-figure that Jayalalithaa projected that played a pivotal role in garnering support. That, her followers looked at her as a nurturer, a caretaker, a protector – a sacrificial maternal figure who would always look out for their interests over her own. Jayalalithaa was comfy with that identity. It led her to play up to her image as “Amma” (mother) – a title she willfully adopted. Under that title, she introduced several schemes that were aimed at benefiting the common man, which included Amma Unavagam (Mother Canteen). The scheme introduced a restaurant chain run by the Government of Tamil Nadu, where the food offered on the menu were commendably low-priced, where a full sambar (lentil)-rice meal could be bought for five rupees.
Despite the numerous accusations of mismanagement of funds and faulty land deals, Amma has always been considered a demigod, whose image could never be tainted. As the news of her demise sends shock-waves across the country, Chennai, the epicenter of it all, will have to brace itself for the storm.