Jayalalitha – The Iron Woman of Politics

[This was originally published in Bangalore Mirror on 6th Dec, written by AR Venkatachalapathy]

In 1981, a Tamil film titled Aaniver was released. A lowercaste girl from a village clears the UPSC examination and becomes a collector. But her childhood sweetheart and husband is illiterate, creating considerable difficulties as the girl tries to perform her social and official roles. Unable the resolve this tension, in melodramatic fashion, she resigns from the civil services to play a dutiful role as the conventional wife. A nondescript film by any standards, I remember it for a review published in the now-defunct weekly Idhayam Pesigirathu. Feminism was an unknown term in those days, certainly in the Tamil popular media, and it was surprising to see a critique of the heroine’s decision.That the reviewer was a former actress, known for not doing exactly intelligent roles, added to the surprise. The reviewer was Jayalalithaa.

Jayalalithaa’s film career had effectively ended in the mid 1970s. After a series of spectacular hits with MG Ramachandran (MGR) starting from the blockbuster Aayirathil Oruvan in 1965, she had been MGR’s love interest in most of his subsequent films. She had replaced B.Saroja Devi, who had dominated in the preceding decade.It was now her turn to be shown the way out by younger and more voluptuous actresses such as Latha and Radha Saluja. Tamil cinema is unforgiving towards actresses.

Like all spectacular success stories, the antecedents of Jayalalithaa are shrouded, if not in mystery, at least in contradictory details. Jayalalithaa was born in a Mandya Iyengar family in Mysore, in 1948 ­ or according to another version, she hailed from the temple town of Srirangam. Her father, Jayaram, died when she was two and it was left to her mother, Veda to raise her. Following her sister’s foray into film acting her mother too donned the make-up.Shedding her given name (her daughter would name her Poes Garden home as Veda Nilayam), she came to be known as Sandhya. Following Sandhya’s entry into films, the family moved to Chennai, then the capital of the south Indian film industry.Her indifferent run in films notwithstanding, Sandhya sent her daughter to the prestigious Church Park Convent, perhaps in a conscious decision to shield her from the murky world of films.

Though Jayalalithaa only matriculated, her excellent spoken English was a convent legacy. Her sophisticated accent once willy-nilly fooled a prestigious English daily to term her as the most educated of Tamil Nadu’s chief ministers. The convent of the Presentation Sisters, apart from giving her good English, also instilled an anti-Christian sentiment in her. She would enact an anti-conversion bill, warming the hearts of many a Hindu zealot. It would be rescinded only after a resounding washout in the 2004 Parliamentary elections.

Jayalalithaa was taught Bharatanatyam, and her arangettram, the formal debut was presided over by the thespian, Sivaji Ganesan. Evidently Sandhya had plans for her daughter. With her fair skin, charming looks and attractive figure the mother might have fancied that her daughter would succeed where she herself had failed. Jayalalithaa had a lonely childhood with no protective father figure around. The life of a single mother struggling to earn a living as a B-grade actress can well be imagined. The intentions and bearing of the many men swarmed around are not likely to have been honorable. The young girl, not surprisingly, detested the tinsel world and the men who peopled it, a feeling that would be reinforced by her romantic relations in her later life. By all accounts, she did not want to follow in her mother’s footsteps. But as it often happens, the most reluctant are the ones who thrive when thrust unwillingly.

When it became clear that the affluence that she experienced was a façade, Jayalalithaa took the plunge, immediately after matriculating. She was lucky to be spotted by the renowned filmmaker BR Panthulu who cast her in a few minor roles in Kannada films, before casting her opposite MGR in the big budget Rudolpho Valentinotype Aayirathil Oruvan. But her Tamil debut itself was in C.V. Sridhar’s Venninara Adai.(Both films were shot spectacularly in Eastman colour, thus adding to her glamour). Coincidentally, Venninara Adai also saw of debut of Nirmala who would also catch MGR’s eye. MGR patronised Nirmala with small roles in all his films, and two decades later also nominated her to the Legislative Council. When it transpired that Nirmala was an insolvent and the nomination illegal, MGR abolished the council of elders in the bicameral legislature. Jayalalithaa probably drew many such lessons from MGR’s handling of controversies.

The Nirmala affair gives us a window into how MGR’s mind worked. Stories abound about how he took control over not only the professional but also the personal lives of his heroines. Apparently, he was obsessed with Jayalalithaa.And she in her turn developed a strong bonding with a man old enough to be her father.On screen the duo was a spectacular success, delivering hit after hit. MGR’s screen presence and Jayalalithaa’s overt sexuality proved to be an unbeatable. Off screen, however, it was a roller coaster ride. MGR was a married man, with many interests and a busy film and political career. Jayalalithaa must have felt the emotional stress acutely.

By the standards of the Tamil film world Jayalalithaa had a long career. As MGR chose younger actresses, Jayalalithaa acted opposite other actors much to MGR’s great resentment. It was at this time, she developed a close bonding with Shobhan Babu.The Telugu actor was a married man and the relationship was bound to fail. A strong personality such as Jayalalithaa could hardly be content with playing second fiddle. These relationships evidently left her deeply scarred, reinforcing her dis trust of men. To add to this injury, political opponents ­ men with suspect morality, would not hesitate to slander her all through her all through her life.Perhaps this at the root of her desire to see men fall at her feet publicly in abject surrender. The souring of the relationship with Shobhan Babu, and the drying up of film opportunities should have ended her public life. But it was not to be. Jayalalithaa was still young and ambitious. It was at this time that she projected her image as a thinking woman, and drew the attention of one of the factions surrounding MGR. The review mentioned at the beginning of this essay dates from this period.

The Political Roller coaster Jayalalithaa’s political ride contra her film career would be even more dramatic ­ she scaled phenomenal heights and plumbed great depths. In less than a decade she was be elected chief minister, a Brahmin leader in India’s most successful non-Brahmin movement, with an unprecedented majority. The beginning was made in the coastal town of Cuddalore in a party conference. MGR would anoint her in a newly created post, the Propaganda Secretary ­ what ideology MGR’s All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) possessed being a moot question.

A few years later, in a public function, suffused with symbolism, Jayalalithaa handed over a six-foot ornamented sceptre to MGR ­ an image she would use to claim her mentor’s mantle as she first charted her political career. Her anointment was noted with alarm on both sides ­ within the party, the faction led by RM Veerappan, MGR’s most successful film producer and party organizer on the one hand, and M. Karunanidhi, the opposition leader, and president of the rival Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK). Even as party rivals feared her meteoric rise, MGR nominated her to the Rajya Sabha.Unlike his rival Karunanidhi who was a votary of state autonomy, and had rubbed the Congress on the wrong side and suffered during the Emergency, MGR was more pragmatic. Chastened by his unceremonious dismissal in 1980 following a defeat in the parliamentary elections, he now wanted to forge an amicable relationship with the Congress in the centre. Shortly after her nomination to the house of elders, Indira Gandhi was assassinated and the Congress came under a new generation of leaders under Rajiv Gandhi. Jayalalithaa charmed leaders of various political parties with her suave manners and fine communication skills. The networks established during this time helped her to command Tamil Nadu’s polity in the following decades.

As it often happened in her career, right when the going was good, she suffered a setback. MGR fell gravely ill in October 1984, and was flown to New York for treatment and returned only many months later. In the intervening period he had swept the polls while still lying in bed in Brooklyn hospital. For the next nearly two years MGR was barely in control of affairs, political or personal, as his wife VN Janaki came to the forefront with RM Veerappan firmly in control from behind. Matters reached a head when MGR died on Christmas Eve, 1987. Jayalalithaa was not permitted to see his body in his Ramavaram home and she had to rush to Rajaji Hall where he lay in state. Once again, in a symbolic move, she stood at his head ­ in Tamil culture, a wife’s rightful place ­ for over a day until she was abused and pushed down violently from the military hearse.

During these difficult times, Jayalalithaa found solace in a friendship with Sasikala, the wife of a public relations officer in the government ­ a political appointment ­ who ran a video shop in the Poes Garden neighborhood. It was a relationship that would last till the end, but not without its ups and downs. Speculation has been rife about the nature of their relationship. Jayalalithaa herself described once her as `a not blood sister’. But the real answer came perhaps when they appeared together with garlands on her sixtieth birthday at the Thirukadaiyur temple. Once expects Sasikala, and her extended family ­ referred to popularly as the Mannarkudi mafia ­ to wield considerable power, if not actually take-over the party, in a post-Jayalalithaa’s scenario.

In a smart move that eventually backfired, RM Veerappan got Janaki elected as the chief minister. The assembly session following it, in January 1988, witnessed chaotic scenes as MLAs backing Jayalalithaa were outnumbered and manhandled. Fishing in troubled waters, the Congress, out of power in Tamil Nadu for two decades, dissolved the assembly. The year leading up to the next elections decided who would inherit MGR’s legendary vote bank. The two factions ­ Janaki group with a pair of doves as its election symbol, and the Jayalalithaa, appropriately it was said, with a fighter cock symbol, contested the elections in January 1989. The DMK romped home, and Karunanidhi became chief minister after thirteen long years in the wilderness. But the biggest takeaway was the rout of the rival faction ­ Janaki herself was defeated and lost her deposit in MGR’s pocket borough of Andipatti. Though Jayalaithaa won only 27 seats (she became the official leader of the opposition), there was little doubt who was MGR’s political heir. The two rivals for MGR’s affections came to a pragmatic understanding, considering his will about the inheritance of his property in the case of a dispute. Janaki gave up the party and the invaluable asset of the twin leaves election symbol for an undisputed share of more material assets.

Jayalalithaa had worsted one rival. But managing the rival DMK and its leader Karunanidhi was no easy task. It is a see-saw battle that continues even as she battles for her life in Apollo and he is hospitalized in another facility a few kilometres away. The bitterness between the two is visceral, defies rational explanation. Matters came to a head within weeks of DMK’s return to power. The budget session ended in utter pandemonium ­ the decorum of the house would be a regular casualty in the following decades. The elements of what transpired at that time are clear ­ Jayalalalithaa was taunted with offensive words, the budget papers were pulled out of the chief minister’s hands, a honorable member of the house tugged at the sari of the opposition leader ­ but not the sequence. The video footage of the events has never seen the light of day. But not pictures of a Jayalalithaa with disheveled hair and torn sari. Her words that she would step into the legislature again only as chief minister would ring like Draupadi’s vow. The vow came to fruition barely two years later. Karunanidhi’s strategic mistakes would be capped by the tragic assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. The DMK was routed with only Karunanithi winning his seat by a wafer-thin margin of a thousand votes. Dressed in a trademark green cape, said to conceal a bulletproof vest, Jayalalithaa headed the popular ministry. The LTTE threat would be translated into Z+ security cover. With it her isolation from the people was ensured.

In less than a year the process of squandering popular goodwill began its inexorable roll. At the once-in-twelve-year Mahamakam festival Jayalalilathaa’s ritual dip ended in the death of forty eight pilgrims in a stampede. All dissent was curbed. The chief election commissioner’s hotel was attacked. Political opponents were humiliated by obscenely gesturing AIADMK women cadre. Corruption took the form of pillage. And the media was hounded. The apogee was reached when the mother of all weddings, the wedding of her foster son, was celebrated at an estimated cost of a hundred crore rupees. The last straw came when the Congress was arm twisted into forging an alliance. Even the supine Congress cadre could take it no more, resulting in a split under the leadership of GK Moopanar. Within five weeks of the formation of Tamil Manila Congress, the party in alliance with DMK routed the AIADMK with Jayalalithaa herself losing her Bargur seat.

Winning on the promise to bring the corrupt to book, Karunanidhi launched a series of legal moves to punish her. Jayalalithaa went to prison briefly, but soon gathered the best legal minds to defeat the Indian legal system. She succeeded in dragging the disproportionate assets case for eighteen years, and when it suited her, managed to get her appeal heard in three months. As the legal process began the political tide began to turn. Caught on the wrong foot in the Jain Commission’s findings pointing to DMK’s complicity in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination, the Congress withdrew support to the United Front government. To add to DMK’s misery, serial blasts rocked Coimbatore just ahead of LK Advani’s election campaign, in February 1998, in alliance with AIADMK. Not surprisingly, the DMK came a cropper. But BJP’s happiness was short-lived. Dependant on a whimsical Jayalalithaa for support, the A.B. Vajpayee government bent and crawled but fell short of dismissing the DMK government. Jayalalithaa’s bluff was called when Vajpayee decided he could take no more. In an unexpected moved, the DMK, allied with BJP and joined the NDA government in 1999. A checkmated Jayalalithaa bounced back by winning the 2001 state elections capitalizing on bickering within the DMK and the sibling rivalry between Karunanidhi’s sons, Stalin and Azhagiri. Within weeks of her victory, Karunanidhi was arrested at midnight. But it was botched arrest ­ the dramatic images of a septuagenarian leader roughed up by policemen foiled whatever designs Jayalalithaa might have had. Her ire now turned to other targets. More than two hundred thousand striking government employees were sacked overnight. A controversial anti-conversion bill was passed. The age-old of practice of slaughtering goats and fowl in popular shrines were banned. This was halted only when she lost all 39 seats in the 2004 parliamentary elections, leading to the DMK grabbing plum posts in the UPA 1 government. Paradoxically, this also proved to be the DMK’s undoing. Cabinet positions in the central government are often cash cows, and various members of Karunanidhi’s family vied for it. This scuffle for the fishes and loaves of office accelerated in the UPA-2 government. The family rivalry was expanded with the addition of Karunanidhi’s grandnephews, Kalanidhi and Dayanithi Maran and daughter, Kanimozhi.

In short, the 2006-2011 DMK minority-government brought back memories of Jayalalithaa’s first ministry of 1991-1996. In a two horse race, the Tamil people had to perforce look to the other force. And to Jayalalithaa’s credit she single-handedly led the charge. In a brave move, she launched campaigns in Madurai, considered to be Azhagiri’s impregnable fort, and other cities. In the 2011 election campaign, she could easily connect with the electorate. DMK ate humble pie. Jayalalithaa, despite rumours of ill-health, was cruising along. And then came two setbacks. Despite winning 37 of the 39 parliamentary seats on her own, Jayalalithaa’s plans for a larger role ­ not excepting the role of even the prime minister ­ were dashed as the BJP under Narendra Modi won an absolute majority. Then came the legal setback. In September 2014 Justice da Cunha found her guilty in the disproportionate assets case ­ the last of the many cases filed in 1996, and considered to be an open and shut case. While an academic reading suggested that justice had prevailed, it had an unintended popular response.

Over the years inflation, and competitive corruption, had made the figures paltry and Jayalalithaa became even more popular. But twenty eight days in the Parapana Agrahara jail evidently broke her health and her spirits. The acquittal by the Karnataka High Court in May 2015 did little to uplift her. If anything, the governance of the state went down in a tailspin and it was capped by the criminal failure of mishandling the Chennai floods some months later. But ironically, the AIADMK still won ­ or rather, the DMK ­ lost the 2016 elections. Jayalalithaa ran a lackluster campaign. She sported a jaded look ­ heavy makeup concealing her sickly demeanor ­ and her campaign speeches lacked vigor. But there was little doubt that she had made history by coming back to power.

Jayalalithaa’s health has been shrouded in mystery. For years rumors have been doing the rounds.Paradoxically, the cryptic statements from Apollo Hospitals over the last two months constitute the most details.