Jayalalithaa remained an enigma till the very end.
Sworn in the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu for a record six times, she has been the undisputed leader of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, founded by her political mentor M.G. Ramachandran, from the time she wrested control of the party in 1990 and rode to power in 1991. It was an innings that lasted more than a quarter century.
Gradually, she acquired a larger-than-life persona with party cadre worshipping her as Amma (Mother). That she commanded the loyalty and respect of party functionaries was there for all to see. The entire Cabinet would line up and bow before the helicopter in which she flew. Party members at all levels never hesitated to prostrate before her in public displays of devotion. She had no rivals in the party, and was hailed as the “permanent general secretary” of the AIADMK. While the rival DMK under its current leadership perpetuated dynastic politics, the AIADMK supremo chose no successor. She banked only on her friend and confidante Sasikala, despite adverse public opinion. Jayalalithaa remained the party’s tallest leader, trying to emulate the party founder MGR.
She was elected to power alternately since 1991. It was during her third term — between 2011 and 2016 — that she sought to adopt a “welfare state” model for Tamil Nadu, focussing on the poor and the downtrodden. She then returned to power for a consecutive term in 2016. In the period since 1984, when MGR was elected to power for a third consecutive term, this was a first.
There were two incidents in particular that hurt her image in the public mind. One was the Kumbakonam Mahamaham festival in early 1992, which she attended with Sasikala. Crowd control went haywire during the VIP visit, and over 50 persons died in a stampede. The second was the lavishly conducted wedding of foster son V.N. Sudhagaran in Chennai in September 1995. As actor Rajinikanth made angry, public outbursts against her government and DMK chief M. Karunanidhi smartly roped in G.K. Moopanar’s new party, the Tamil Maanila Congress, in the 1996 Assembly elections, Jayalalithaa met with a humiliating defeat.
While many wrote her off politically as she fought a series of corruption cases filed against her during the DMK rule, she smartly teamed up with Moopanar in 2001 to come back to power though she was convicted by a special court in what was called the Tansi case. She had to step down on September 21, 2001, on the directions of the Supreme Court, which held that a convicted person cannot hold the post of Chief Minister.
When she was acquitted the next year and returned as Chief Minister, she was ruthless — as government servants who went on a strike found out. Midnight arrests were common as she ruled with an iron hand. The result: the AIADMK did not win a single seat in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections. Learning her lessons, she reversed most of her decisions.
She knew how to come up with winning strategies even when everyone ruled her out. In a coup of sorts in the run-up to the 2006 Assembly elections Jayalalithaa got by her side MDMK general secretary Vaiko, whom she had imprisoned for 19 months under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. The best she could manage was to deny the DMK a majority in the House. And along with her party leaders, she took pleasure in calling it a “minority DMK government”. On one occasion, she bravely went to the Assembly when all her party MLAs were evicted and suspended and spoke for nearly two hours as the Leader of the Opposition. That was an astonishing feat.
In another shrewd political move, Jayalalithaa roped in the fledgling Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam, led by actor-turned-politician Vijayakant, in the 2011 Assembly elections, at the height of an anti-incumbency wave against the incumbent DMK regime and emerged victorious. The DMK was humiliated: it could not even become the main opposition party.
Again, she had to step down in September 2014 after being convicted by a special court in Bengaluru in a case relating to disproportionate assets; she was acquitted by the Karnataka High Court subsequently. It was around this point that her failing health started showing as she remained indoors at her Poes Garden residence in Chennai, without making any public appearance for days.
During her third term, she systematically cultivated rural voters by enlarging the welfare basket to cover at least one family member in every household. The ‘Amma’ brand was built up assiduously.
Regaining her health and the CM’s post, Jayalalithaa did what was unthinkable until then in Tamil Nadu politics. The AIADMK contested all 234 Assembly seats on its own — on the Two Leaves symbol — banking on her own achievements and targeting the votes of women and the rural masses. She had done it in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Though she failed in the two previous Lok Sabha elections and had no role at the Centre during the UPA-I and UPA-II regimes, she knew there was a Modi wave afoot. But she did not align with him. Instead, she took the BJP head-on with the statement: “[The] Lady is better than Modi.” Her party won 37 seats in Tamil Nadu, losing just two.
The latest round of Assembly elections was different. It was a calculated risk but she was supremely confident and created history after three decades by winning a second consecutive term. And she was crowned CM for the fourth time. Only her bête noir Karunanidhi, in a public life spanning seven decades, had sat on that chair for five terms, of which two were cut short by President’s Rule.
With the passing away of Jayalalithaa, the undisputed leader of the single largest party in Tamil Nadu, another era in Dravidian politics has come to an end. And the AIADMK is at a crossroads. It may have to reinvent itself even to survive.
While MGR was the most charismatic one, Jayalalithaa will be remembered for her indomitable spirit.