Always a winner. Even in her death
The thronging crowds will no longer see her smiling benignly from behind the windscreen of her air-conditioned Tempo Traveller, looking ethereal as well as distant under the thousand-watt-bulb that hung over her head. They will no longer hear her speak, mercilessly attacking her enemies, vowing to fight evil forces, assuring the enthralled crowd that MGR’s rule would be back. She had looked a redeemer, the very embodiment of Kali, the destroyer of evil. Now, somebody more audacious has struck her down lifeless. Perhaps the crowds remember the words of her resounding voice at the sight of a sea of humanity stretching out before her in Madurai six years ago, on 18 October 2010: “I received several threatening letters that I would be killed if I came to Madurai. They say this is the bastion of anjaanenjan (‘brave heart’, as DMK leader Karunanidhi’s son Azhagiri was called by his followers). I will not be cowed down by such threats. I am standing here in front of you and I have proved who really has a brave heart.” An emotional wail arose from the cadres when she said that even if she were to die in Madurai, she would die gladly, as it would be before the people of the temple city.
Nobody dared touch her then. Not even Death. She was elected with a massive mandate in 2011, and again in 2016, becoming the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu for the sixth time, proving there was none to vanquish her.
To her party men, J Jayalalithaa was the unimpeachable leader. She seemed invincible. The party, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), depended on her for its survival. To her admirers, men and women, she was a deity, Amma, the benevolent universal mother. Her face is all over Tamil Nadu on ambulance vans, canteens, water bottles, sewing machines, students’ laptops, subsidised medical counters, bags of free rice, even bags of salt—all in the name of Amma, a name that’s had a tremendous impact on the Tamil psyche. Amma was larger than life: magnificent, unreachable, infallible. Amma was an idea.
How can an idea vanish? The chronicles of the state will record that after she was gone, Tamil Nadu politics lost its colour and verve.
The story of Jayalalithaa , a former actress—Tamil cinema’s popular glamorous heroine of the early 1970s—turned tough politician is one of the most extraordinary stories of Indian politics. She wrested the mantle of the AIADMK after the passing of her mentor, legendary screen idol and party founder MG Ramachandran (MGR). By getting elected Chief Minister not once or twice, but four times—overcoming the odds against her as a woman, a Brahmin, and a former actress—she successfully challenged the core values of mainstream Tamil Nadu politics.
I have met her only once for an interview, way back in 1984, when I lived in Delhi and she was a Rajya Sabha member. With her good looks and fluent English, she impressed senior members like Kushwant Singh while making her maiden speech. A friend of mine, Rajendra Awasthi, the editor of the popular Hindi magazine Kadambini of the Hindustan Times Group, asked me to interview Jayalalithaa, who was staying in Tamil Nadu House at the time. It surprises me even today when I remember how easy it was to speak to her then.
The first thing that struck me was her simple and elegant appearance. She wore no make-up. One could hardly believe that she had once been the most sought-after glamour queen of the South Indian film world. Perhaps it was a makeover for her new role. She had a professional demeanour, but there was a certain haughtiness about her; her answers to my questions were a torrent of words, especially when it came to praising MGR. It was as if she was addressing illiterate masses at a public meeting. When she would find my questions provocative, she’d snub me with “What do you know of Tamil Nadu? Don’t talk about it sitting in Delhi. Come to Tamil Nadu and see how people worship MGR as god.” Her tone was combative and it gave me the impression that she was haughty and unfriendly.
When I look back at that conversation with Jayalalithaa , it seems like she was challenging me: ‘Watch out , the people will one day accept me as their goddess!’ And had I understood the message then, I would have ruled out a Brahmin woman finding acceptance as the leader of a Dravidian party, leave alone becoming a goddess of the masses. In Tamil Nadu, however, the unthinkable can happen. A Brahmin can lead a party that has its roots in a movement that denounced Brahmins. People who proudly chanted ‘Tamil is our breath’ have not found it odd to accept a non-Tamil—Malayalam-speaking MGR—and a woman born in Mysore to Mandyam Iyengar parents who spoke Kannada with better ease than Tamil— Jayalalithaa—as their leaders. To accept their leaders as gods is a party compulsion, it seems, and a god can speak any language.
It is not easy for a woman with baggage to find acceptance, let alone adulation,and the leadership and charisma it took for her to win the hearts of the masses is just one aspect of what makes Jayalalithaa the most fascinating figure in Indian politics. She relentlessly challenged the male-dominated, sexist politics of Tamil Nadu that tried to block her at every step of the way. She rose to be a charismatic vote-catcher for a large party that was rudderless after the death of its founder MGR, who was looked upon as a demi-god by his followers. It would not have been easy to step into his shoes, but she did, fighting single-handedly against the crude machinations of her enemies within and outside the party. She reached the top on her own, with no lineage to flaunt. And till the end, she was the biggest threat to the DMK and its leader Karunanidhi, one of the top figures in Indian politics.
THE PAST SHAPED her present and her past indeed was a turbulent one. Jayalalithaa once described it with passion during an election campaign: “I stand before you, having come [to this point] swimming in the river of fire.” She was blessed with beauty and sparkling wit and intelligence. She once had dreams of a scholarly career, or with the IAS maybe. That seemed the ultimate goal. All this was not impossible had she led a regular life, like her friends. But it was not to be. Her life was tossed callously into a rough ocean, then steered on to an ambitious and adventurous course, one that led to encounters with demons of various hues, at once confusing and daunting. It hardened the once innocent and lonely child. It made her cynical and arrogant. Every fall was a challenge. Every victory was intoxicating, so much so that she often lost sight of the perils ahead.
Her fits of rage and tantrums are legendary. So are the other stories: her troubled childhood, her fondness for books, her erudition, her impeccable English. There have been reams of gossip columns written about her tragic love affairs; her love-hate relationship with MGR and her terrible sense of loss after his death; her friendship with Sasikala that was strangely and crudely interpreted by her enemies. No one discusses openly her deep hatred for Karunanidhi that invariably coloured every political action of hers.
There was an inexplicable anger deep in the dark labyrinths of her subconscious. It would manifest itself even when she was in school. During breaks and while chatting with her close friends in class, she would go behind the blackboard and sketch caricatures on the other side. Her strokes would be fast and savage, and her comments, as she drew, were equally sharp. “Look at this man staring at me,” she would say and strike at the figure she had drawn. Her friends could sense a pent-up fury.
When I look back at that conversation with Jayalalithaa, it seems like she was challenging me: ‘Watch out , the people will one day accept me as their goddess!’
It only increased when she stepped into the big bad world outside. It was an anger that would propel her into action. Her admirers were right. She was the embodiment of Kali. She equipped herself to be the destroyer—of her enemies.
In the process, she transformed herself. It helped her survive in a male dominated society, but the result was not always positive. Arrogance and cynicism became her masks. Intolerance of dissent became her birthright. Fear gripped the corridors of government when she was in office. Party members and ministers prostrated before her, not sure if they would be axed the next morning. No one spoke without getting her nod. All her tenures in power were arguably the most secretive that Tamil Nadu has seen.
MGR was already a phenomenon, a power to reckon with in the world of Tamil cinema when Jayalalithaa put her foot reluctantly into it, forced by her mother Sandhya. People who saw her on the film sets could see that she was different. There was something regal about her, though she was just in her teens. She would not stand up and greet the hero—it could even be MGR— when he entered, as was the practice. MGR, more than 35 years her senior, was absolutely charmed by her. This alarmed his close associates who tried to nip it in the bud. Her relationship with MGR had a series of ups and downs due to their machinations, but survived it all—even a gap of nearly ten years in between, a period when MGR was drawn deeper into politics. He split from the DMK, of which he was a member, and started a new party, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. He made Jayalalithaa the party’s propaganda secretary, which gave her an opportunity to stay in touch with party cadres at the grass roots level. It would later prove to be the source of strength that she could rely upon to claim MGR’s political legacy after his death. He had left her in limbo, without giving her a senior party position or official role in the government despite her repeated pleas.
WHEN MGR DRIFTED away from her in his preoccupation with politics, it became known that she developed a fondness for the Telugu actor Shoban Babu. He was a married man, but it was not unusual in the film world for an actor to have more than one wife. It is said that Jayalalithaa’s efforts to get married to him failed in the end. The affair ended as quickly as it began. But she had written about her closeness with him and that gave her enemies an opportunity to call her ‘a loose woman’. A reunion with MGR held the promise of a serious relationship between the two. But MGR was an authoritarian, and though she grew more and more dependent on him after her mother’s death when she was barely 22, there were times she felt stifled. People around MGR tried their best to drag him away from her, warning him that she was over ambitious and not trustworthy. When MGR fell ill and was flown to the US for treatment, the coterie succeeded in cutting her off completely.
MGR’s return, her desperation to meet him and the way she was not allowed to see his body after his death are details that can make a poignant film script. That she still managed to stand vigil with the leader’s body as it lay in state at Rajaji Bhavan for more than 16 hours, like the boy who stood on the burning deck, spoke volumes of her willpower. It had been a day of shock and betrayal. As she stood, she must have been filled with grief as much as rage, furiously planning her next course of action in response to the treatment meted out to her by partymen. She knew that her only source of strength came from the masses, and the way out was to appeal to them and get elected. It was a gamble. And she plunged into it unsure of what lay ahead. The rest is history.
When she appeared before the electorate, people believed she was the chosen heir of MGR. Whether they were charmed by her beauty or expressing their love for their dear departed leader, they voted for her.
When she emerged as the leader of the opposition, the ruling DMK did not take her seriously. On budget day, Chief Minister Karunanidhi did not know that the floor of the Assembly would come to invoke the fury of a Panchali. A point of order was raised about a breach of privilege of a member (Jayalalithaa) ,who as leader of the opposition had been harassed by the police, which had searched her residence without her permission. When the speaker did not allow it, pandemonium broke out. Jayalalithaa was physically assaulted and someone pulled the pallu of her sari. Shocked and humiliated, she left the House saying she would never set foot inside it “until conditions are created under which a woman may attend the Assembly safely”, adding perhaps to herself, ‘Or till I enter the House as Chief Minister.’
The ruling DMK found her outburst funny and guffawed at the audacity of a former actress—and a Brahmin too—setting herself such an improbable bar. What they saw as improbable, however, would become a magnificent obsession with her. Significantly, the Assembly incident transformed her into the politician she would become, an avenging Kali. She became a symbol of the ‘wronged woman’. She also developed an obsessive hatred towards Karunanidhi that almost consumed her.
For all his shrewdness, Karunanidhi ignored her growing popularity, firmly believing that the Dravidian psyche would reject Jayalalithaa’s leadership outright. Wasn’t she a former actress, not initiated in the Dravidian movement and its ideology? Wasn’t she, above all, a Brahmin, the symbol of ridicule in the movement’s eyes? How could she possibly challenge him, a seasoned politician with a large fan base of his own? She would not survive a season in the all-male domain of Tamil politics.
He did not reckon with the power of symbols. In the next election, following Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, the DMK was routed and Jayalalithaa came to power with a massive mandate, proving she was the face of the AIADMK after MGR. It was her hour of triumph. She felt liberated from fear of the future; of the unknown; of the male world. On the day of her swearing-in, ministers prostrated themselves before Jayalalithaa as if before a deity, initiating the cult of leader worship. She did not try to stop them .To have these men at her feet perhaps gave her a sense of personal triumph.
She was, from then on, deified and venerated. They called her Parvathi, Durga, even The Immaculate Virgin Mary . She allowed it all. When Christians protested, she dismissed it saying it was only the over-enthusiasm of her darling cadres. Their adulation made her believe that she was indeed supreme. It turned her into an autocrat who disliked criticism, dissent and distrusted people around her. She defied the Constitution and anointed herself Chief Minister when she had been debarred from contesting election, arguing that she was the ‘chosen one’ of the people.
She could be an efficient administrator in times of crisis, like handling the LTTE or the sandalwood brigand Veerappan or the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami. She did her homework thoroughly before she met officials. But rival politicians were competitive and she resorted to easy populist methods to win. She indulged the people not with economic reforms, but with freebies and subsidies that have become a part of the state’s ruling culture now. Party men hailed her as a visionary. Visionary, she was, in finding novel strategies to garner votes. Her confidence even made her aspire to the Prime Minister’s post. Like Obama, she had said “Yes, we can!” Her party men believed her. The administration had become increasingly sloppy and there was reportedly rampant corruption at all levels. Yet, she managed to win again. Was it a stroke of luck? Or was she gifted with superhuman intelligence and played her cards right? She was accused of corruption, even convicted in a case and jailed. But at the end, the cases filed against her fell flat. The courts acquitted her, absolving her of all charges. Even in the case of disproportionate assets, for which she was jailed, an appeal against the verdict saw her acquitted by the Karnataka High Court along with her aid Sasikala and others. A case that was filed against that acquittal is pending in the Supreme Court.
She is now far away from it all. She need not worry about the verdict. Her end came while she was in power. Victorious.
That is how she would perhaps have liked to be remembered. As a winner. Always.
Tamil Nadu may never again see such a remarkable woman of courage and intelligence. Nor will it be able to decipher what made her live with such passion.