Tempestuous and mercurial when she is down, placid and cold when she is on top. As actor, politician and Chief Minister, Jayalalithaa was multi-dimensional in every respect, her mood and mind changing quickly with her station and situation. But one set of attributes remained constant: her single-minded determination to wield power, unyielding in her demands of absolute loyalty from film colleagues, party workers and officials alike.
From the film world, and under her mentor M.G. Ramachandran, she quickly learnt the lessons of feudal loyalty: she unquestioningly trusted those above her in the hierarchy, and irrationally distrusted all below. Although her relationship with MGR had as many downs as there were ups, she owed the start of her political career almost entirely to him. She joined the party in 1982, and began accompanying MGR to public events. In 1983, she was made the AIADMK’s propaganda secretary, and drafted into campaigning for a by-election.
In the public mind, she was MGR’s trusted ally and confidante and no matter what transpired between them, she never did anything to cause other people to doubt her proximity to him. From 1984 to 1989, she was a member of the Rajya Sabha and during this time, she made acquaintance with Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. She made it a point to network with those in power in Delhi, unknown to even MGR.
When he fell ill in 1984, and R.M. Veerappan, who never did like her sudden rise in the party, was in charge of distributing party ticket for the Assembly election at the end of that year, Jayalalithaa was denied a seat and asked to fulfil her role as propaganda secretary — campaign for those selected as candidates.
Jayalalithaa swallowed the insult, but she would neither forgive nor forget. The AIADMK split after MGR’s death in 1987, with Mr. Veerappan projecting Janaki Ramachandran as the leader of his faction, and Ms. Jayalalithaa striking out on her own.
The DMK won the 1989 Assembly election, but Jayalalithaa too won an important battle: her party, with 27 seats, was head and shoulders above the Janaki-Veerappan faction, which won just one seat. When the AIADMK reunited under her leadership, she made Mr. Veerappan the propaganda secretary, only to deny him a seat in the 1991 election. For accepting this humiliation without complaining, he was allowed to contest in the by-election to Kangeyam, a seat Jayalalithaa vacated because she won from Bargur too.
Clearly, Jayalalithaa liked nothing more than her former adversaries begging her for favours. This was one reason why she admitted people she herself expelled earlier into the party again. Subramanian Swamy, her bête noir in 1996, was her closest ally in 1998, plotting with her to bring down the National Democratic Alliance government in 1999.
Similarly, K.P. Sunil, a journalist against whom a privilege motion was moved in the Assembly during her first term in power between 1991 and 1996, was later given a prominent position in Jaya TV.
Hopes and a letdown
Her first stint as CM, which raised great hopes, winning as she did an unprecedented majority, remained the biggest let-down. It was marked by an imperial aloofness, a royalty-like distancing from the people. They were offered a grand spectacle of herself as an inaccessible, but admirable and worship-worthy, icon.
She was caught up in several scandals and, after she lost power in 1996, had to face several corruption cases filed by the DMK government. Jayalalithaa was arrested on December 7, 1996, and she told The Hindu while in prison that she would be just as politically vindictive when (not if) she returned to power. “The wheel will come a full cycle,” she said. She had her opportunity in 2001: DMK president M. Karunanidhi was arrested late in the night of June 29 soon after a case was filed against him.
Jayalalithaa constantly tested the loyalty of even the staunchest of supporters. In 2000, at the end of a series of meetings, she removed the entire second-line leadership of the AIADMK after encouraging lower-level workers to speak out against senior leaders. The purge served more than one purpose: first, she wanted scapegoats for the prevailing impression that she was inaccessible. Party workers were told their letters did not reach her, “intermediaries” prevented access to her, and complaints against senior leaders were not forwarded to her.
Also, she wanted to see how the second rung would react when out of power. When leaders such as Sedapatti Muthiah, a loyalist from the 1980s, left in protest, she told workers they had failed the loyalty test, not knowing she would have rewarded them later. Many of those who passed the test, such as K.A. Sengottaiyan and D. Jayakumar, were rehabilitated.
Her closest friend, V.N. Sasikala herself has been in and out of favour, mostly on account of the activities and dealings of her estranged husband M. Natarajan. In August 1996, Jayalalithaa announced a severing of relations with Sasikala, but this was seen as a political move to shift the blame to her for the unsavoury happenings between 1991 and 1996. In December 2011, when Jayalalithaa again distanced herself from Sasikala and ordered her out of the Poes Garden residence, things got far more serious. Sasikala’s relatives were arrested and cases filed against them. Through all this, she uttered not one word against Jayalalithaa. And sure enough, in March 2012 she was back at Poes Garden.
No one, not party workers, not officials, not her closest friend, was exempt from the requirement of displaying blind loyalty and unquestioning, implicit obedience. Theirs not to make reply, theirs not to reason why, theirs but to just obey. Perhaps, the life of a woman who rose to be a leader in what was still a man’s world, a life mostly lived in a hostile environment, fuelled by fears and insecurity, could not have been any different.