Jayalalithaa, 1948-2016

December 07, 2016 12:01 am | Updated December 04, 2021 10:50 pm IST

Adversity brought out the best in Jayalalithaa . As a Chief Minister fighting for the rights of her State , as a politician trying to spring back from electoral defeats, as a woman standing up to sexist taunts in what is still very much a man’s world, she was courageous to the point of being adventurist. In her passing, India has lost a leader who played a vital role in the shaping of Tamil Nadu during a crucial phase of the country’s economic development and social progress. It may be true that Jayalalithaa owed her success in politics in no small measure to her film-world association with M.G. Ramachandran , the founder of the AIADMK. Soon after she joined the party, her mentor, in 1983, made her its propaganda secretary. But all that MGR did was to set her on a political career. He did not anoint her his successor, and after his death Jayalalithaa needed to win the battle for his political legacy. This she did by reuniting the two factions of the party, retrieving its election symbol, reviving the alliance with the Congress and, finally, becoming Chief Minister in 1991. She continued with MGR’s policies, targeting the weaker sections, the rural peasants and the unorganised workers through food subsidies and social welfare schemes, expanding the AIADMK’s reach. Unlike MGR, who lived under the constant shadow of the Centre’s power to dismiss a State government under Article 356, she had the luxury of doing business with a Congress government at the Centre led by P.V. Narasimha Rao, one dependent on outside support from her party for survival. This allowed her to take a strong stand on issues such as Cauvery, forcing the Centre to toe her line, or at least heed her views. However, towards the end of her first term as Chief Minister, her government became enmeshed in a series of corruption scandals. Her association with V.N. Sasikala, who was perceived by some as functioning as an extra-constitutional authority, alienated sections of her support base. Also, she drove away allies she had struggled to win back following MGR’s passing.


Written off after receiving a drubbing in the 1996 Assembly election, losing even her own seat, no one had forecast Jayalalithaa would reinvent her political career so swiftly and effectively. The DMK government, which slapped a slew of corruption cases against her, had possibly thought it was writing her political epitaph, but Jayalalithaa turned the tables by struggling to survive and remain relevant. The haughty aloofness of the years in power was replaced by a refreshingly accommodative nature, enabling her to stitch together a brand new alliance with smaller parties such as the Pattali Makkal Katchi, the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the Bharatiya Janata Party for the 1998 Lok Sabha election. The sheer arithmetic of the alliance gave it a majority of the seats, pitchforking Jayalalithaa back into a game that she seemed well out of. At the Central level, her comeback bore a resemblance to the Narasimha Rao years: this time it was the BJP-led government that was wholly dependent on her support for survival. However, Jayalalithaa squandered this opportunity by insisting that the Centre dismiss the DMK government in the State. Evidently, she had not factored in the Bommai judgment of the Supreme Court that had made arbitrary use of Article 356 almost impossible. The end result was the premature dissolution of the Lok Sabha in 1999, and the formation of an unlikely alliance between her arch-rival, the DMK, and her closest ideological ally, the BJP, which eventually defeated the AIADMK-led alliance. Once again, the hard-fought gains of the years in the opposition were frittered away. Without power in either New Delhi or Chennai, Jayalalithaa went back to the old familiar way of building a new alliance in 2001 . The Congress and its breakaway group, the Tamil Maanila Congress, which owed its nascence to opposition within the Congress to an alliance with the AIADMK, were now roped in, along with the Left parties, which were fighting the Congress in Kerala. Although the DMK did not suffer majorly from any anti-incumbency sentiment, the AIADMK-led alliance won on the strength of electoral arithmetic. Jayalalithaa’s propensity to drive away friends was more than matched by her ability to bring together foes.

Her political successes were challenged by legal setbacks. Jayalalithaa was unseated twice: in 2001 the Supreme Court ruled she could not continue as Chief Minister when she stood disqualified from contesting in an election. But she got her conviction overturned and returned as Chief Minister after winning a by-election. In 2014 she was convicted by a trial court in the disproportionate assets case . But she was back as Chief Minister after winning an appeal in the Karnataka High Court. The case is now awaiting a judgment in the Supreme Court following an appeal. Jayalalithaa took ill after one of her most remarkable wins in the 2016 Assembly election, following up on her 2014 Lok Sabha win, both achieved without the benefit of allies, thanks to a divided opposition.

Like MGR before her, Jayalalithaa commanded the unflinching loyalty, even adulation, of her party supporters. From the time she was admitted in hospital, tens of thousands had gathered outside praying for her. The AIADMK enjoys a comfortable majority in the House, and the transition to a government headed by the new leader has been smooth. But Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam now has the unenviable task of holding the party together. Without the political acumen and personal charisma of Jayalalithaa, this will be a tough task.

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