Chennai: She was a shy girl when she first stepped into the movie world. Decades later, by when she was one of the most popular actors in Tamil, Jayalalithaa became a colossus in Tamil Nadu’s politics, one who dreamt of playing a larger national role too.
Jayalalithaa, who died on Monday (Dec 5) night after a 74-day battle for life, was a politician par excellence, a Brahmin woman who reached the pinnacle in a state where anti-Brahminism is very strong and led her AIADMK party to four victories in assembly elections – the last two in succession.
Affectionately called “Amma” by fans and party activists, Jayalalithaa wielded power with an iron hand, many men in the party falling at her feet at public events. But she enjoyed genuine popularity, particularly among the economically weaker sections who regarded her as a virtual goddess.
Jayalalithaa certainly knew what it takes to negotiate the roller-coaster ride of power.
Born in Karnataka on February 2, 1948 into an Iyengar family and named Komavalli, Jayalalithaa moved to Chennai in the 1950s to live with her mother who worked as a stage and Tamil film actress.
A bright student, Jayalalithaa studied at the Bishop Cotton Girl’s High School in Bengaluru and the Church Park Presentation Convent in Chennai after her relocation.
At 16, she acted in a Kannada movie which turned out to be a blockbuster. She also acted on stage for years even as she continued to study.
Although she wanted to pursue higher studies, Jayalalithaa gradually veered towards acting. Her first Tamil movie was “Vennira Aadai” (1965). Over the decades, she acted in 140 films in Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and even one in Hindi “Izzat” opposite Dharmendra.
Her acting career peaked after she was paired with the legendary M.G. Ramachandran or MGR. The success of their film “Aayirathil Oruvan” (1965) turned Jayalalithaa into a leading heroine in Tamil movies. The two were an instant hit on the silver screen and they were said to be friends too in real life.
It is widely believed that it was MGR who prompted Jayalalithaa to join politics. But in reality, she made her own choice.
MGR appointed her the AIADMK’s Propaganda Secretary in 1984. But it was her grit and tenacity that helped Jayalalithaa, a Brahmin in the Dravidian movement, to move her way up.
When MGR fell ill and was under medical treatment in the US, Jayalalithaa led the AIADMK’s alliance with the Congress in the 1984 general and assembly elections.
Life became choppy after MGR died in December 1987, leaving Jayalalithaa to battle it out with his wife Janaki for the leadership of the AIADMK. The party split into two factions.
In 1989, the two factions reunited under Jayalalithaa’s leadership and she was elected its General Secretary.
In the same year, she was elected to the Tamil Nadu assembly for the first time. She became the first woman opposition leader in the state.
There was vitriolic opposition to Jayalalithaa’s ascendancy in Tamil politics, especially from the DMK. But she countered all that.
In 1991, she became the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu in elections held after former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination at an election rally near Chennai.
Losing in 1996, Jalayalithaa returned to power in 2001 but had to step down after her name figured in a court case. After being cleared, she took over again in 2002 and ruled till 2006.
She wrested the state from the DMK in 2011, but had to step down in September 2014 after being convicted in a corruption case by a Bengaluru court.
Acquitted, she took back the reins in May 2015 and led her party back to power in 2016, when she became the first in three decades to win an assembly poll in the state for a successive term.
Jayalalithaa was considered mercurial. She withdrew her support to the BJP government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee after giving the government several sleepless nights in 1999.
She also had a love-hate relationship with the Congress. At the same time, she was not at home with the national opposition which preferred the DMK over the AIADMK.
S. Thirunavukarasar, President of the Congress in Tamil Nadu and an old timer in the AIADMK, explained why Jayalalithaa succeeded the way she did.
“She was very bold, intelligent and shrewd, three important qualities for a politician,” Thirunavukarasar said. “She was charismatic and could attract and convince people. She was also an able administrator.”
Jayalalithaa implemented a water scheme to quench the thirst of Chennai and made rain water harvesting mandatory.
She also brought in women’s police in the state and the “Cradle Baby” scheme.
Though the DMK started the freebie culture with its colour television offer as an election promise, it was Jayalalithaa who took it to a different level offering laptops, mixers, grinders and more.
The names of most newly-launched welfare schemes started with “Amma”. It reinforced her brand equity.
The way she managed relief work after the 2004 tsunami drew praise from then US Senator Hillary Clinton. But her government’s response to the 2015 Chennai floods cost her some seats in the city in 2016.
Jayalalithaa had been in and out of power several times, battling incumbency and corruption charges. But she never gave up.
A charismatic leader who was at home in Tamil, English and Hindi, a rare quality in Tamil Nadu politics, Jayalalithaa has also recorded many songs and written several stories.
When she was admitted to Apollo Hospitals on September 22, no one believed she would come out of it in a coffin. She was hyperactive in May, winning the election. She was dead in December.
By Venkatachari Jagannathan
India mourned the death of J. Jayalalithaa, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Pranab Mukherjee joining hundreds of thousands to pay their last respects to the iconic leader.
Jayalalithaa was laid to rest at the Marina Beach here on the evening of Dec 6. As the sun began to set, Jayalalithaa’s confidante Sasikala performed the final rituals overseen by a Brahmin priest before her tricolour-draped body in a sandalwood casket was lowered into a grave near the MGR memorial.
As an era ended in this south Indian state of Tamil Nadu, Jayalalithaa’s last journey started from Rajaji Hall, where lakhs thronged for a final look at their iconic leader, and slowly moved towards the Marina Beach flooded with mourners.
The three-kilometre procession through Chennai streets, packed on both sides by men and women, many weeping, consumed more than an hour.
The AIADMK chief was laid to rest with full state honours next to her mentor and party founder M.G. Ramachandran or MGR, who brought the young Jayalalithaa from filmdom into the male-dominated Dravidian politics.
Her successor Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam and Sasikala, dressed in black, were seated on the military truck that towed the glass casket-laden carriage with Jayalalithaa’s body.
Her admirers and fans, young and old, showered petals at the hearse. Many refused to accept that Jayalalithaa had passed away, leaving the AIADMK orphaned.
As the funeral procession reached its destination, sobs filled the air. Many were in tears.
There were dramatic displays of emotion, with people wailing inconsolably and beating their chests and heads. There were loud cries of “Amma, Amma”.
The otherwise throbbing Chennai shut down on Tuesday (Dec 6). So did much of Tamil Nadu, a state where Jayalalithaa — Amma to her followers — was revered by millions.
Across the country, political stalwarts noted how the AIADMK chief had unleashed numerous pro-poor schemes as Chief Minister that earned her fame not only in the state but across the country.
Tamil Nadu has declared a week-long mourning, during which schools and colleges will be shut for three days. The central government too announced a day of mourning.
Last rites as per Dravidian culture
The burial of Jayalalithaa’s body instead of cremating it as per rituals of the Iyengar community she belonged to, had raised questions but experts say it is an “integral part of Dravidian culture”.
And there are precedents in the case of leading Dravidian leaders, including those of her own AIADMK.
“Burial is an integral part of Dravidian culture,” Ramu Manivannan, professor of political science at the University of Madras, said.
Further bodies of leaders like DMK founder and Chief Minister C.N.Annadurai and AIADMK founder M.G. Ramachandran (MGR) – the political mentor of Jayalalithaa – were buried at the Marina Beach and memorials for them have come up there.
AIADMK members, who are not atheists but believers, do not see Jayalalithaa as an Iyengar but their ‘Amma’ (mother) and beyond any caste or religion.
Incidentally Jayalalithaa’s relatives did not raise any objection to the burial as along with Sasikala – a once close confidante, her nephew Deepak Jayakumar performed the last rituals.
Furthermore, though the traditional practice in Hinduism is to cremate the body of a dead person, but burial is used for holy men, saints and children below the age of three. In many Hindu communities, the body of a holy person is buried in the ‘Padmasana’ (Lotus Position).
Condolences pour in
Australian High Commissioner to India Harinder Sidhu tweeted: “A sad day. Deepest condolences to the people of Tamil Nadu and to the family of CM Jayalalithaa.”
“The government of Tamil Nadu has declared a seven-day period of mourning. The Australian Consulate General will remain closed until further notice,” said its official website.
US Ambassador Richard Verma said: “On behalf of the US, I extend my deepest condolences to the family of Jayalalithaa and the people of Tamil Nadu.”
Canada’s High Commissioner to India Nadir Patel said: “On behalf of the High Commission of Canada, I am deeply saddened by Chief Minister Jayalalithaa’s passing. I extend my sincere condolences to her family, and to the people of Tamil Nadu. Chief Minister Jayalalithaa and her valuable contributions to the people, development and progress of Tamil Nadu will not be forgotten.”
French Ambassador Alexandre Ziegler said, “Chief Minister Jayalalithaa was a prominent leader who was loved and admired by millions. My thoughts and sympathy go out to her near and dear ones and the grief-stricken people of Tamil Nadu and India.”
Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena said he was saddened by her death and noted that she had a “towering presence in Indian politics”. Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu are separated by a strip of sea.
The American Tamil Sangam (ATS) and the US Friends of AIADMK (USFAIADMK) said: “Struggle was her middle name and victory was her last name. Her path was strewn with thorns and rocks but she overcame all with her unmatched grit and determination.” (TIW & Agencies)