By Vijay Darda | 07-12-2016
Legend has it that Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa was referred to as “Ammu” by her mother Sandhya and her mentor and former Tamil Nadu chief minister M G Ramachandran. But by the time the 68-year-old breathed her last, she had become “Amma” to millions of her followers across the state. Her adult life interspersed by two careers – one in films and the other in politics – is a unique saga of her rise, fall and rise.
She had acted as a child artiste in Kannada films, but her mother pushed her into mainstream cinema and her first venture was a lead role in a Tamil film was in ‘Vennira Aadai’, directed by C.V. Sridhar. But it was with director B.R. Panthulu’s Aaayirathil Oruvan, in which she was cast opposite the matinee idol MGR (who was more than 35 years her senior) that both her political and filmy career took off.
Personalities like Jayalalithaa are quite rare. She was an Iyengar Brahmin who dominated a state that is run on Dravidian politics. There could hardly have been a bigger contradiction. But she pulled it off deftly and with aplomb. Then she was a woman in an era dominated by men. Then she also upturned the way Tamil Nadu would look at the Central government. In fact, she went a step ahead of her mentor MGR in this respect. The AIADMK founder kept the Congress in good humour and have it two thirds of the parliamentary seats, but she did flinch from taking on the governments of prime ministers P V Narasimha Rao and Atal Behari Vajpayee. She was equally aggressive in fighting for the rights of Tamil Nadu in water disputes at the Supreme Court.
During the 90s, in the aftermath of the episode in which former chief minister K Karunanidhi was dragged out of his home, I had the occasion to have a personal meeting with her as part of a parliamentary committee. I found her to be a pleasant, articulate person who stuck to her viewpoint without being abrasive. Now this did not fall within the purview of the agenda of the parliamentary committee but during the course of conversation, I enquired from her about her massive cuts-outs in display all over Chennai, and the open act of her followers prostrating themselves at her feet in public. She was quite at ease with the question and replied in a matter of fact way, that though she personally does not approve of such show of sycophancy, this is quite the political culture of the state. Through her public persona, she appeared as quite a distant and aloof person. But in conversations with interviewers, she was quite candid. For instance, she told the actor Simi Garewal in an interview that MGR was everything to her – friend, philosopher, guide and mentor.
In the same conversation, she said that he wanted to marry her, but then the opportunity did not arise. However, she had no regrets after seeing the fate of many marriages.As an administrator, she had developed the image of a no-nonsense go-getter. Her grasp of the welfare nature of the state that resulted in various populist schemes named after her, brought her to power once again and was responsible for the Amma image. The fact that corruption charges, and even stints in jail did not diminish her charismatic appeal for her millions of followers is in line with the phenomena that we witness with other leaders like Mayawati and Lalu Prasad Yadav whose control over their vote banks is undiluted by the corruption charges against them.
Now that she is no more, it would be for her followers to maintain her legacy. The absence of a clear number two could be a handicap, but then it is possible to sustain a large loyal constituency with good governance and adherence to Amma’s policies of welfare politics. But the same goodwill can be easily squandered through personal ambition and petty politics. Leaders like her have ups and downs, and she weathered these storms with equanimity always bouncing back and outsmarting her more foxy rival like M Karunanidhi. In fact, her success in politics has to be judged against the quality of her rivals and their capacity to damage her. There was a stage when she felt disgusted with this politics and wanted to call it quits. But once she got over that low and recovered from the fall, then it was a case of rise and rise.