"If left to me, I would have chosen neither [films nor politics] as a career..."
This is what Dr. J. Jayalalithaa—with a heavy heart I correct myself, the late Dr. J. Jayalalithaa—said in a television interview in 1999. On her passing yesterday, she was referred to as the "reluctant artiste" and the "reluctant politician". The iconic lady herself has confirmed this in the said interview that she did not have much say, as her career in the films was decided by her mother and her political career was shaped by her mentor, the late Dr. M.G. Ramachandran, former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu.
She was, however, never a reluctant leader. The unbounded sea of humanity that lined up to pay last respects to their beloved Amma and the long list of dignitaries, including the President and Prime Minister, who paid moving homage to the departed Chief Minister bear adequate testimony to the enormous respect Jayalalithaa commanded among supporters and adversaries alike.
Generations to come may not see an undisputed leader, a compassionate human being and a spirited fighter of the stature of Amma.
She lived her life on a battlefield, continuously tormented by her political archrival, but conquered every adversity and won an indelible place in the hearts of millions of people, transcending geographical barriers. She faced cheer and gloom in equal measures but with a great degree of composure and fortitude. In living her life the way she did, she attained the larger than life image she has left behind. Generations to come may not see an undisputed leader, a compassionate human being and a spirited fighter of the stature of Amma. Such of us who had the good fortune to live during her times will draw inspiration from her life.
Like any other personality who has left a mark on history, she did have her own flaws. She was quite temperamental and seemingly impatient many a time. She could be inaccessible when she did not want to meet someone. Her rivals alleged that administrative decisions could not be taken due to her indifference. She was extremely authoritarian. The most vocal criticism was directed towards the sycophancy that her party's legislators and cadre alike displayed and the reasons for this subservience were attributed to her. During her first term in power (1991-1996) there was the rather forgettable display of power and wealth, particularly during the wedding of her adopted son (whom she disowned later). She seemed to have believed that power was a permanent companion only to be rudely reminded in the subsequent assembly elections in 1996 when her party won only 4 out of the 234 seats and she herself suffered defeat from the Bargur constituency.
In an interview some years later, she was candid enough to admit that everyone makes mistakes and that it is important to learn from these mistakes. Amma was a quick learner as her party was voted to power in 2001, 2011 and 2016. She earned the distinction of retaining power for consecutive terms, the only one achieve this feat in Tamil Nadu after her mentor, M.G.R. Over the course of time, as she transformed into a more mature and very revered leader of the masses, the flaws started becoming invisible.
I have heard from senior bureaucrats that she would often ask them questions from reports submitted during a previous review, which would have been months ago!
During her 2011-2016 regime, she endeared herself greatly to the masses, announcing and implementing a slew of populist programmes such as the Amma canteens, gold for the thali (mangalsutra), free goats and financial assistance to meet delivery expenses, to name a few. The Amma canteens came as a godsend to the poor who could not afford expensive restaurant menus. Anyone could have three good meals a day for under ₹20. She returned to power in 2016, all set to continue the existing welfare schemes and to implement more for the benefit of the common citizen.
The late Chief Minister's administrative capability was nothing short of brilliant. The bureaucrats were kept on their toes, as the CM would be far more thorough on the subject than they would be. She would read all files in great detail and used her razor sharp memory to recall salient points while discussing the files with the officer concerned. Decisions were made swiftly and reports on implementation had to be given to her periodically. I have heard from senior bureaucrats who have reported to her that she would often ask them questions from reports submitted during a previous review, which would have been months ago!
Her popularity had soared and she stood like a colossus with none to match her ability and political credibility. She had even outshone her mentor...
It appeared that Tamil Nadu had finally elected a very stable leader who had an excellent vision for the state, which could have been implemented during this second tenure considering the absolute mandate she had from the people. Her popularity had soared and she stood like a colossus with none to match her ability and political credibility. She had even outshone her mentor and had become a cult figure in contemporary times. She had become Amma for millions who worshipped her and drew enormous solace from the mere fact that it was she who was ruling the state. Nothing could go wrong as long as they were under her protection, they believed. Of course, they stand inconsolable and distraught today.
Destiny had other designs. Her illnesses began to catch up with her, making her health very fragile, but not her spirit and determination to serve the people of Tamil Nadu. However, battered by the persistent health issues she drew her last breath on 5 December 2016 after 75 days of struggle. As the Hon'ble President of India put it, "There is one battle that everybody has to lose—with death—and she lost it today.
Amma herself had said in an interview that the life of a leader was that of a loner and she was no different. After an often-tumultuous political career that was studded with unrivalled accomplishments, the reluctant politician has retired forever. There will not be another like her.
I do hope you have found your peace now, Amma. We will continue to love you and adore you.