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With Incredible Grit And Charisma, Jayalalithaa Stormed Male Bastions To Become Amma To The Tamil People

A remarkable life.

06/12/2016 12:45 AM IST | Updated 06/12/2016 3:23 PM IST
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Jayalalithaa Jayaram.

Jayalalithaa Jayaram (1948-2016) will be remembered as perhaps the most colourful and determined woman politician in our country, elected four times with a massive mandate, to become the chief minister of Tamil Nadu. She will also be remembered as an unforgiving leader, a vengeful opponent and an intolerant, ruthless chief minister who dragged journalists and opposition party leaders to court on defamation charges. This aspect of her personality tended to cloud the undoubtedly good administrative measures she took during her tenures as chief minister.

Imperious and inaccessible, she was revered and deified by her party men and women as a veritable goddess in human form. It was an incredible metamorphosis: from Tamil cinema's most glamorous heroine of the early 1970s, to the tough political leader in a male-dominated arena that she later became.

Imperious and inaccessible, she was revered and deified by her party men and women as a veritable goddess in human form.

As a journalist, I found it endlessly fascinating to observe this metamorphosis. I could not help deeply admiring the way in which she achieved this, with grit and determination. Her transformation was all the more astounding, considering the fact that she, born a Brahmin in Karnataka who spoke Kannada with greater ease than Tamil, became the unquestioned leader of a Dravidian party in Tamil Nadu, that had its roots in a movement that denounced Brahmins.

To her admirers and party men and women, and to poorer people in Tamil Nadu, she was Amma, the benevolent benefactor: the universal mother who showered her grace on them in the form of freebies. Everything they own is stamped with Amma's smiling face, like a favourite household deity: cycles, fans, mixies, bags of rice and so much else. They do not think those gifts were just her clever strategy to win them over and thereby create a solid vote bank. Let the skeptics, journalists and her opponents analyse and criticise her. To them, she was the bestower of bounty, the infallible leader.

Danish Siddiqui / Reuters
Well wishers of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa Jayaraman hold her portrait as they pray at a temple in Mumbai, India, December 5, 2016. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

Their hearts are filled with immense grief and a deep sense of loss, now that she is gone. It is as though the ground under their feet has given way and they have fallen into an abyss that is dark and scary. Who is there now to protect them? She was their saviour; their redeemer. The incarnation of Shakti.

Strangely, it is the men in the party, her ministers, who 'discovered' this aspect of 'divinity' in her and began falling at her feet. When someone asked her about their bizarre behaviour, Amma calmly replied, "It is the culture of Tamil Nadu to pay respect to elders thus." But the ministers went a step further. When she was up in the sky in her helicopter, they fell on the ground and prostrated, just as they would in her presence. When her convoy sped past carrying her to her office or to the legislative assembly, the roads wore a festive look as if in celebration when a deity's chariot came in a procession on the streets. Party men stood in a line with folded hands, hoping her eyes would catch sight of them.

But the ministers went a step further. When she was up in the sky in her helicopter, they fell on the ground and prostrated, just as they would in her presence.

They lay prostrate on the roadside, not minding their starched sparkling white dhotis getting soiled, among them were even those who had been in the opposite camp before she came to power and had abused her in no uncertain terms. But once it became clear that that it was she who was the face of the party, those same men did a volte face. Every time the AIADMK party won the election, everyone knew it was because of her. They knew they were ciphers without her grace. They needed to be in her good books to get a ticket to stand in the election. That was alone sufficient for them to win-–in her name.

For the AIADMK to stay as a cohesive party, Jayalalithaa had to be projected as the indisputable leader. And considering the gossip-mongering media and male chauvinist society, they could not praise her, a former film star in in the normal way. She had to be extolled, exalted, as a super human being, a goddess, someone infallible and unchallenged. She had that persona, fair and good-looking, the former star who had choreographed her own image makeover, de-glamourising herself deliberately to give an image of a benevolent, respectable matriarch who was capable of ruling with an iron hand.

Anindito Mukherjee / Reuters
A couple sits along a flooded roadside under a picture of Jayalalithaa Jayaram, chief minister of Tamil Nadu, in Chennai, India, December 6, 2015. REUTERS/Anindito Mukherjee TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

Jayalalithaa knew her strength and she also knew her vulnerability. A convent educated and by nature a no-nonsense woman, she must have been amused when men fell at her feet even on the very day she took oath of office in the name of god in 1991, when she was just in her mid-40s. But she did not stop them. To have those males at her feet perhaps gave her a sense of personal triumph and gratification. Hadn't she suffered and been humiliated time and again by the male-dominated sexist political world? It also helped her keep a distance from the party men, keeping them at a distance while they placed her on a pedestal.

Some posters depicted her as Durga, Meenakshi and various female Hindu goddesses. She was even depicted as the Immaculate Virgin Mary. When there was a protest from the shocked Christian community, she said it was the over enthusiasm of her 'kazhagak kanmanigal'--darling cadres.

A convent educated and by nature a no-nonsense woman, she must have been amused when men fell at her feet

During her reigns, this last was the fourth one, there was fear in the corridors of power, the ministers and high officials remained close-mouthed, afraid to utter a word without her consent; party men and women, young and old, wept and circumambulated the shrines and observed penance when she fell ill or was jailed; some immolated themselves when the court indicted her. Her charisma and indispensability to the party created an emotional bond that is difficult for the outsider to understand.

She was, however an ordinary woman, whose life turned extraordinary because she decided to fight every obstacle, every hurdle that blocked her way. She had all the disadvantages that could prevent her from reaching the heights she managed to reach. She moved on with daring and determination to step into the shoes of her mentor M.G.Ramachandran, popularly known as MGR, who was looked upon as demigod when he was alive. She fought single-handedly throughout her life, overcoming every hurdle that stood in her way. She won even the several court cases foisted against her by her opponents and rival party the DMK, accusing her of corruption, though the last one has gone for an appeal to the apex court against her acquittal in the disproportionate assets case.

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Supporters of J Jayalalithaa. (Photo by Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

Even her detractors, however, agree that she was the most charismatic leader that Tamil Nadu has ever seen. Her administrative achievements like the one soon after she came to power--severely dealing with the LTTE insurgency and being instrumental in bringing a ban on the party; in her second term, giving full freedom to the police to capture the sandalwood brigand Veerappan; monitoring the district collectors in the efficient crisis management after the tsunami; fighting for the rights of Tamil Nadu regarding the Cauvery water; the thorough homework she did before meeting officials; the grasp she had over problems facing the state-–were achievements that unfortunately rarely got mentioned. She deserves full credit and praise for these.

She may have become larger than life for her party, but her name will be enshrined in the chronicles of Tamil Nadu: never was born a woman as courageous as J. Jayalalithaa.

Vaasanthi is the author of Amma: Jayalalithaa's Journey from Movie Star to Political Queen, published by Juggernaut.

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