Jayalalithaa is dead. Long live Amma. From a damsel in distress to the dominant deity of Tamil politics, Jayaram Jayalalithaa’s life was a tale of both victory and heartbreak. She won a few battles but lost even fewer. The ninth, yet youngest-ever Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, Jaya’s life teemed with challenges and chicanery. The resident of a political palace, she was the worst victim and the best beneficiary of palace intrigues. She was born in a Brahmin family. Yet she became the unchallenged leader of a Dravidian party, which was born out of anti-Brahminism. Once she was a glamorous highly paid film star.
But she mesmerised Tamil voters as Amma by showering largesse on the poor. In death she became taller than in life. From her Poes Garden home, jail and finally to her resting place by the eternal Bay of Bengal, she affected everyone and everything she touched. Perhaps Jaya was the only elected leader whose photograph was carried by ministerial and party colleagues in their pockets. While other CMs visited Delhi to sing paeans of praise to prime ministers, prime ministers sought Jayalalithaa’s indulgence. She rarely spoke to the media, choosing to convey her public messages through frequent written statements.
Her steely exterior concealed an insecure and suspicious person who didn’t trust her own shadow. She always kept a tape recorder nearby while speaking to journalists or visitors from the corporate world. Yet she remained confident of her style and substance. During the past 30 years, I met her on a dozen occasions and interviewed her four times. I even met her briefly a few months before her death. She declined to speak on record but during my brief interaction, she was brimming with confidence, perhaps looking for an opportunity to intervene in national affairs. She didn’t appear perfectly fit to fight; yet she was definitely looking forward to a big development push to Tamil Nadu’s economy governance and her expanded political role. Excerpts from interviews:
So you are convinced you are on the comeback trail.
I don’t think I ever went away. I have been very much here and the people of Tamil Nadu realise that the state can progress only if I’m there.
You mean there is no alternative.
There is no alternative.
No alternative to Jayalalithaa?
That is precisely what I mean.
Do you have any political ambitions left?
I never dreamt that one day, I would become CM of Tamil Nadu but it happened. Similarly if a bigger responsibility is offered to me, I will not shirk my duty.
—India Today, Nov 28, 2005, a few months before TN Assembly polls
But that moment never came. Jayalalithaa was skeptical about the survival of women in Indian politics. When the PV Narasimha Rao government decided to downgrade her security in 1992, she became paranoid. During a 80-minute interview, she bemoaned the “battering that I am receiving from the press and the Opposition, no decent woman wants to come to politics today. I am being portrayed as some kind of a medieval monster… a megalomaniac”.
Would you say being a woman administrator is a liability?
Being a woman itself is a liability. There was once a time when many women from decent families wanted to come into politics. But seeing the kind of battering I have received, they are all put off. If this trend continues unchecked, in the end we will only be left with goons and criminals and blackmailers and forgers.
—The Indian Express, Dec 2, 1992
In 1988, the AIADMK split. Jayalalithaa led her own section in the Assembly polls. The mettle of a true political leader is proved under fire. Post attacks from rivals, her escapist attitude evaporated in the face of hostility from her avowed adversary M Karunanidhi. Jaya was a rare contradiction—a reluctant politician who enjoyed the taste of battle.
Does it mean that you are unable to cope with the political pressures and want to escape them?
The life of any political leader is full of tensions, especially when it involves high-level power politics. But I’ve never felt there is a situation, which I can’t handle. There is a difference between one’s ability to handle a situation and the desire to handle it. For example, I never wanted to enter films but was forced to by my mother. And I made a success of it. Similarly, I was reluctant to enter politics but MGR forced me to, and now I am in the thick of it. I have no options. But I don’t enjoy politics.
But vacillations on your part give the impression that you are trying to run away from your responsibilities.
My life has always been full of ups and downs. That doesn’t mean I am running away. For example, the moon disappears for a short while doesn’t mean that it has gone away forever. The moon is a constant factor—it just keeps waxing and waning. It is due to personal compulsions that I have been viewed as being in and out of politics. But I was never really out of it. Now Karunanidhi has solved this dilemma of mine by his vindictive and petty actions. Even though I wanted to keep out of politics, Karunanidhi has given me the resolve to continue.
—India Today, April 30, 1989
Jayalalithaa learnt her first lesson in dirty power politics when she was ejected from the funeral procession of mentor MG Ramachandran on December 25, 1987. Politics hath no fury like woman wounded. A fast learner, she became Tamil Nadu’s first female Leader of the Opposition in April and its youngest CM, two years later.
Wasn’t that physically exhausting?
There was no physical strain. I suppose it was my will power. But there was mental and physical torture. Seven or eight ladies, I wouldn’t name them, landed up on the morning of the second day, stood by me, and started stamping on my feet, driving their nails into my skin, pinching me, and so on. Except for my face which was spared because it was visible, they attacked me everywhere else. Then, when the body was taken inside Rajaji Hall for the performance of the last rites by the family, I wasn’t allowed there.
It appears there is a group within your party that wants to sideline you. How will you deal with them?
I will carry the message of Anna and MGR to the people. When Anna died, MGR was only the treasurer of the DMK number four in the party. Now without MGR, as party propaganda secretary, I am number five.
—India Today, Jan 15, 1988
When Jayalalithaa finally departed the stage on December 5, 2016, she had moved up from No. 5 in 1988 to Numero Uno status as India’s most enigmatic woman CM.
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