The defining moment of Jayaram Jayalalithaa, the 19th Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, was when supporters and members lay prostrate in public when she won a landslide victory in the 1991 elections. This is the Puratchi Thalaivi (revolutionary leader) who dominated Tamil Nadu and India’s politics since 1991, the first time Amma became chief minister of the state.
Born on February 24 1948, into a family that served Maharaja Jayachamarajendra Wodeyar of Mysore, Jayalalithaa forayed into politics though the film industry. Her acting career began after she caught the attention of Sivaji Ganesan, at her arangetram (first public performance) in 1960 when she was just a young girl. That set the stage for her acting career, but things really fell into place for her after she met actor, politician and future Chief Minister MG Ramachandran, better known as MGR. Though she had a turbulent relationship with him, she had often confessed that he had been her political mentor. When MGR died in 1987, Jayalalithaa’s career transformed and she entered the political spotlight, but this was not without its challenges and obstructions.
In 1982, when she became a member of All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), she delivered her first public speech in Cuddalore, which was called Pennin Perumai (greatness of a woman). After becoming the party’s propaganda secretary in 1983, she was nominated to the Rajya Sabha in 1984. That same year, her relationship with MGR was at its most troubled. She consolidated her power around this period, steering the party to a majority victory in the Lok Sabha when MGR was recuperating from a stroke in America. Towards the end of the year, MGR returned, but she was not allowed to meet him – an indication of how strained their relationship had become. Jayalalithaa did manage to repair it to some extent, and in 1985 she was reinstated as the propaganda secretary, but wasn’t allowed to campaign. When MGR died in 1987, there were concerted efforts to sideline Jayalalithaa, but she pushed her way into the forefront – somewhat literally – and the disrespect that MGR’s family showed her only helped her popularity with the AIADMK cadre.
Newslaundry’s Editor-in-chief Madhu Trehan interviewed Jayalalithaa in 1989, when “Amma” was first elected as the leader of the Opposition. Trehan remembers Jayalalithaa’s manner was “most personal and unguarded”. “She said that MGR had told her before he died that she should be Chief Minister after him. Apparently, he had told no one else. Jayalalitha fought to take control but Janaki’s supporters had their way and Janaki became Chief Minister.”
After MGR’s demise, when the party split into two infighting factions, MGR’s wife Janaki became the Chief Minister. Within 21 days, President’s rule was imposed and Jayalalithaa established her political credentials once again. Since then, Jayalalitha has been a towering figure in Tamil Nadu.
But who would have guessed a woman with no political lineage would become the monolith of the AIADMK? Despite sharing a very close relationship with Amma, the likes of Sasikala and O Panneerselvam (OPS) abstained from contesting against the Puratchi Thalaivi. She was the numero uno and the empress of the party that aimed at gaining mass appeal through populist and pro-poor schemes. From Amma canteen to Amma park, Amma gymnasium, Amma mineral water, Amma cement and even Amma salt, it has always seen her popularity grown among the people.
After she first became the Chief Minister in 1991, a number of cases were filed against her for corruption and owning disproportionate assets. She had to give up office twice, in 2001 and 2014. That is when O Panneerselvam emerged as her possible successor on more than one occasion.
A little more than a year after Jayalalithaa took oath as Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu for the fifth time, on September 22, she was rushed to Apollo Hospital. Many camped outside the hospital, waiting to hear about her condition, and as it became clearer that Amma was not going to come out of this alive, the numbers outside swelled to thousands. She died on December 5, at 11.30pm, and Apollo Hospital announced it half an hour later.
Although in her last few years, Jayalalithaa declined to be interviewed or hold press conferences, she did use the press extensively during her initial days in the party. She embraced the media when the rift between her and MGR widened. After that, she’d have a hot-and-cold relationship with journalists, charming some and alienating others.
Former journalist-turned-lawyer Sanjay Pinto who was with NDTV 24×7 for 15 years, and covered Jayalalithaa during that time, remembers Amma as a leader who was fair and just. “I have covered her for close to two decades and she was extremely gracious,” Pinto told Newslaundry. “The media hasn’t been entirely fair to her. When she first assumed office, she won a landslide victory, I remember her saying that she wanted the media to be the opposition.”
However, that was never came to pass. Her ambivalent relationship with the Indian media is evident from this article published in The Week earlier this year, which said that AIADMK had filed 213 defamation cases (till August) against politicians and journalists over the last five years. In the same month, the Supreme Court came down heavily on AIADMK government for its intolerance. “Anyone calling a government corrupt or unfit cannot be slapped with a defamation case. There has to be tolerance to criticism. Defamation cases cannot be used as a political counter weapon. Cases for criticising the government or bureaucrats create a chilling effect” observed the apex court.
Tamil weekly Ananda Vikatan and bi-weekly Nakheeran have mostly been at the receiving end of defamation suits. In her book about Jayalalitha called Amma: Jayalalitha’s Journey From a Movie Star to a Political Queen, journalist and biographer Vaasanthi discusses Amma’s estranged relationship with the press. She mentions how Amma slapped defamation cases against the press while her followers vandalised various media offices during her term between 2001 and 2006. Even as the ministers of the party were instructed not to talk to journalists, she tried to get the Tamil Nadu Assembly to pass a resolution sentencing five senior editors of The Hindu and the editor of the DMK newspaper Murasoli to 15 days in jail. This was allegedly over an editorial titled “Rising Intolerance”, which had attacked her authoritarian rule.
Perhaps Jayalalithaa’s most famous and controversial interview was with Karan Thapar in 2004 on HARDtalk India for BBC. Over the 23-minute interview, Thapar and Amma battled it out and the interview showed a very different aspect of the leader. He asked her why her party members prostrated in public before her. She said, “It is an Indian tradition to seek blessings from elders”. “In this fashion?” Thapar asked incredulously. Jayalalithaa replied, “I think you are an Indian and you know enough about Indian culture and tradition”. The interview shows an aspect of Jayalalithaa that has been discussed but rarely written about: how difficult she could be if she didn’t take a shine to the interviewer. Even as Thapar persisted with what Jayalalithaa described as “unpleasant questions”, at the end of the interview, Amma told Thapar it was not a pleasure meeting him and refused to shake hands with him, choosing instead to clasp her hands together for a namaste.
Compare this to her interview with Simi Garewal in 2012, where Jayalalithaa was far more forthcoming. She spoke about her childhood, her journey as a politician and how difficult it was for her to establish herself as a successor to MGR. She also complained that “when it comes to a politician or a political leader, the questions are so downright, demeaning, insulting and humiliating”.
Instead of relying on the media, Jayalalithaa developed her own political campaigns by distributing gifts like mixer grinders and fans for instance. During the 2015 floods, the Amma brand of relief food supply was immensely popular. Pinto recalls reporting during the 2005 floods, Amma was proactively engaging with victims. “I saw her making visits to the affected areas and engaging with people there,” he said.
Even the corruption charges against her and the subsequent jail term never deterred her supporters from voting for her. In 2015, Amma emerged victorious in the RK Nagar bypoll after she was acquitted from the disproportionate assets case. The only time her popularity dipped was when she attended the wedding of her adopted son Sudhakaran in a gold saree and decked in diamonds. The extravagance raised many questions as did her decision to effectively shut down Chennai for the wedding.
For Trehan, Jayalalithaa’s popularity is a staunch reply to those who humiliated and manhandled in the 1989 legislative assembly. “They underestimated her tenacity and her capacity for revenge,” Trehan said. “As creepy as her demand for every person meeting her to prostrate in front to her, there has to be the understanding that this was a woman who had been manhandled in the assembly, humiliated by epithets that threw mud on her relationship with MGR and she was ensuring that no one ever had the audacity to disrespect her ever again”.