On December 24, 1987, as the body of AIADMK founder and Chief Minister M.G. Ramachandran lay in state at Rajaji Hall in Chennai, his 38-year-oldprotégé sat nearby. Grim-faced, she remained there for nearly 13 hours. She returned the next day and stayed put for eight hours. For the sea of mourners who turned up to pay homage and the millions watching on Doordarshan, it appeared Jayalalithaa would be his natural successor. But stepping into MGR’s shoes was no cakewalk.
Moments before his final journey began, Jayalalithaa was kicked and pulled down from the gun-carriage carrying his mortal remains by actor Deepan, the son of the younger brother of the leader’s widow Janaki Ramachandran. Humiliated, she left the venue.
MGR, who “dominated” her life after the death of her mother Sandhya, had not named a political heir, partly due to the mistrust that cropped up between them when he was ill. “After his death, I was left to fend for myself. He didn’t smoothen the way for me to become his successor… Though he introduced me in politics, he didn’t make anything easy for me. I had to fight and struggle my way up,” Jayalalithaa would recall in an interview some 11 years later. As Janaki emerged a contender to head the AIADMK, Jayalalithaa put up a courageous fight.
She argued that in a democracy a successor to a political legacy is decided by the people. It was only a matter of time before the people endorsed her, and installed her as the Leader of Opposition in 1989. Two years later, at the age of 43, she became Tamil Nadu’s youngest Chief Minister.
She built the AIADMK into a party with the largest vote base in the State. By late 1990s, she reversed the MGR formula of giving two-third seats in Parliamentary elections to the Congress, and made the AIADMK the senior partner in the alliance. Unlike MGR, who was always in awe of the central government, Jayalalithaa consistently put pressure on P.V. Narasimha Rao and A.B. Vajpayee when they were Prime Ministers.
MGR owed his success to his clean image and appeal in an era when the population was fed on Dravidian cinema and Doordarshan. But Jayalalithaa had to rise, fall and rise again before she could emerge from the shadows of a man she hero-worshipped since childhood but, admittedly, was never in awe of.