When J. Jayalalithaa died in the late hours of Monday night, not just a state but an entire nation rose to pay their respects to a woman who chose to push aside the male battalion and to lead fearlessly from the front.
She is the perfect example of how you don't need to have children of your own to be a mother. She grew hugely popular for the "cradle baby" scheme (thottil kuzhandhai) she launched in 1992 that encouraged the adoption of abandoned baby girls, thereby saving innumerable babies across Tamil Nadu from foeticide and infanticide. She may have had an autocratic style of functioning but her touch was like that of a mother, which ultimately led her to reign as Chief Minister in separate stints for almost 15 years.
Jayalalithaa sent out a message that she was there for her people, like a mother is there for her child.
Many women in urban India can relate to the person Jayalalithaa was. A strong, independent woman who stood steadfast for women's rights, in a party that was male-dominant in every respect and had many of its members resistant at the idea of being ruled by a woman. Any woman who struggles to make her voice heard, who bounces back after put-downs whether at work or in a patriarchal family set-up, who wants to walk freely down the road without being harassed, can relate to Amma. We all can all find inspiration in this eloquent woman who hid behind novels in between scenes during her acting career and never bowed down when it came to a fight no matter how hard it was. She projected that she didn't care two hoots about what was thought of her. And even if those fleeting insecure thoughts made their way into her mind, she brushed them off with strength and power, just like one would squash an annoying fly. She was her own inspiration, her own believer and shared that inner strength with her party members and supporters who couldn't but help bow down to her charisma.
She became the poster girl of what women can rightly be in politics—assertive, successful and powerful. To the poor women, she represented hope of all that they could become. Echoing the sentiments of many who looked at her with God-like admiration, 60-year-old Rani, a house help and an AIADMK member, told Your Story in an interview, "I had joined the party when MGR was at the helm, but it was Amma who showed me how far a woman can go if she sets her mind to it." Such is Rani's love for Amma that when she was not sleeping or working, she stationed herself outside Apollo Hospital pretty much every day for the two months that Jayalalithaa had been admitted there, Your Story reported.
One of the first songs she sang for the silver screen was "Amma Endral Anbu"—mother means love—and that's what she stood for to millions...
Jayalalithaa sent out a message that she was there for her people, like a mother is there for her child. She built on the brand "Amma" and launched Amma canteens, Amma salt, Amma pharmacy, Amma cement and Amma drinking water for the welfare of the poor. Days before she fell ill and was admitted to Apollo Hospital in September, she even announced that there would be air-conditioned Amma marriage halls for the benefit of the economically poorer sections.
Her journey from a beautiful actress to a powerful politician may have been marred by controversy, but in death she leaves a nation grieving for all that she did do. And ironically so, one of the first songs the talented Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu had sung for the silver screen was "Amma Endral Anbu", which translates to "mother means love", and that's what she stood for to the millions who pay homage—on the streets, in their homes and in their hearts—to India's iconic leader who truly had the potential to be Prime Minister of the country.