She was a rank outsider in Tamil Nadu’s male-dominated politics, a woman dismissed by critics as a mere actress and a Brahmin leader in a state where anti-caste Dravidian ideology held sway. But through her keen political acumen and leadership qualities – dictatorial tendencies to her critics – Jayalalithaa Jayaram transformed herself from a soft-spoken actor to one of India’s most-powerful politicians who was feared and revered in equal measure.
Under India’s governance system, the prime minister and chief ministers are those supposed to be the “first among equals”. “But with her, she was only the first and there were no equals,” says political analyst Ramu Manivannan. This was her style of functioning – whether running the party or government – that won her a loyal following of millions, who were ready to even kill themselves for her wellbeing.
She died on Monday at a Chennai hospital as per local media reports. No other leader in contemporary Tamil Nadu politics combined charisma with benevolence to form a powerful brand that straddled three decades and left a deep imprint on the psyche of the people.
She was a six-time chief minister, a Brahmin leader of a Dravidian party and a no-nonsense administrator. She was also a voracious reader who changed from an often-emotional leader – she famously vowed to never return to the TN assembly unless elected CM after her sari was torn by DMK leaders – to a strong but impassive figure.
But as is the case with most powerful leaders and personality-driven parties, Jayalalithaa allowed herself to be guided by a small coterie, comprising her long-time companion Sasikala and her family, who wielded influence over government machinery.
The 68-year-old was brought into politics in the late 1980s by legendary movie star and then chief minister, MG Ramachandran, better known as MGR, with whom she starred in more than 100 films. Three years after MGR’s death in December 1987, she took over his All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Khazagham (AIADMK) party, galvanising the support of the rural poor to win the 1991 elections.
But over the next two decades, she surpassed her mentor, MGR, in terms of popularity as well as achievements. She successfully built Brand Amma, under the umbrella of which she launched all her outreach welfare programmes for the poor – Amma canteens, Amma pharmacies, Amma drinking water, Amma cement, Amma vegetables, and touched almost every activity of life, further endearing herself to the masses.
The iron hand with which she controlled the party and the government reflected her governance style – strong and dictatorial. But, with no succession plan in place and the absence of a second rung, the ruling AIADMK could be battling for existence in the state it has ruled alternatively with the DMK for almost 50 years.
Allies and adversaries agree on one thing: she was one of the most powerful politicians in the country – one of the few leaders who were not swept away by the ‘Modi wave’ that didn’t get past the Tamil Nadu border. “This lady is better than that (Narendra) Modi,” was how Jayalalithaa made light of the then PM candidate at election rallies, drawing thunderous applause. The AIADMK won 37 of the state’s 39 Lok Sabha seats in 2014.
Her trouble with the courts also dogged her political career with charges in a disproportionate assets case even landing her in jail in 2014. The case dates back to 1996 – when an ostentatious wedding for her foster son and a lavish display of personal wealth proved to her undoing — it evoked revulsion among people and eventually cost her the elections that year.
Jayalalithaa was charged with amassing illegal wealth in 1997, when police seized assets including 28 kg gold, 750 pairs of shoes and more than 10,000 saris in a raid on her home. Prosecutors said her assets, which reportedly included two 1,000-acre estates in the lush tropical state she ran, were vastly disproportionate to her earnings during her first term as chief minister from 1991 to 1996, when she took Re 1 as salary.
Jayalalithaa shared a good rapport with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and used it to the state’s advantage, but when it came to electoral politics, she did not concede even as inch of space to the BJP. Though a chief minister, she was never too far from national politics and had one of the other time partnered the Congress, the BJP and even the Left.
The political strategist in her was at play when the state went to the polls earlier this year. She ensured that the opposition parties fought among themselves and not with her. She kept her job, a feat no other chief minister had achieved in more than 30 years.
She was a self-taught woman and had joined the film industry as a teenager to help her family.As an administrator, she had clarity of thought and action with dazzling communication skills, her peers and subordinates often said. Her strong persona only added to the aura.
She had the ability to understand issues quickly, take a stand and stick to it. She took briefings from the bureaucracy, instructed the bureaucracy and things were done as directed. As the state moved towards industrialisation, her tough approach won her industry support. It was in her first stint as CM in 1991 that Jayalalithaa opened up the state economy, taking advantage of the liberalisation process initiated by then PM PV Naraimsha Rao and his finance minister Manmohan Singh.
Big-ticket foreign direct investments poured into Tamil Nadu, attracting giants such as Ford and Hyundai who turned state capital Chennai into an automobile hub. The industry noted her efforts to improve the power situation, as she withstood pressure from the powerful fishing community to build the Kudankulam nuclear power plant, but not before driving a hard bargain with the Centre to get extra safeguards.
Whether it was Mullaiperiyar dam issue or the Cauvery River water sharing dispute with Karnataka, she doggedly pursued cases. She ensured that the final award of the Cauvery Tribunal was notified in the Gazette. Even on the Sri Lankan or Tamil fishermen, Jayalalithaa took a bold stand, and her letters to prime ministers — both Singh and Modi — were well known.
Her strong administrative skills were demonstrated in Tamil Nadu’s post-Tsunami relief and rehabilitation efforts, during which she posted the best officers on the ground and gave them a free hand.Clear instructions and close monitoring ensured that even foreign dignitaries such as Hillary Clinton appreciated the relief efforts.
But a few years later, when Chennai was inundated by the worst floods in a century, mishandling of relief and poor government response marred her administrative record. It possibly also cost her many seats in the assembly polls that followed. She often didn’t have patience with critics and filed a string of defamation cases against the media and political opponents, earning rebuke from the Supreme Court