Courtesy: By Sudha G Tilak , BBC News, dated December 5, 2015
Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu state J Jayalalitha suffered a heart attack on the night of December 4 and died on December 5 at Chennai’s Apollo Hospital. She was a popular mass leader. The former film star served as Tamil Nadu chief minister four times. She had been receiving treatment for months. Jayalalitha is revered by many but seen by her critics as having created a cult of personality over the years. The passing of Jayaram Jayalalitha, one of India’s most flamboyant and controversial politicians, leaves a void that will be felt for a long time in both her home state, Tamil Nadu, and in the Indian political scene.
The passing of Jayaram Jayalalitha, one of India’s most flamboyant and controversial politicians, leaves a void that will be felt for a long time in both her home state, Tamil Nadu, and in the Indian political scene. The leader of Tamil Nadu state and former actress who played a powerful goddess on screen was all too human and yet her followers deified her as a divine being.She inspired a cult following, and adoring followers often called her “Adi parashakti” – which means the ultimate powerful goddess in Tamil.
She was one of India’s most charismatic and enigmatic personalities, single-handedly holding her own in the masculine world of Tamil politics and effectively breaking a more than 30-year-old culture of male dominance.
The leader of Tamil Nadu state and former actress who played a powerful goddess on screen was all too human and yet her followers deified her as a divine being. She inspired a cult following, and adoring followers often called her “Adi parashakti” – which means the ultimate powerful goddess in Tamil. She was one of India’s most charismatic and enigmatic personalities, single-handedly holding her own in the masculine world of Tamil politics and effectively breaking a more than 30-year-old culture of male dominance.
While there have been several female leaders across Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh and India, Jayalalitha came from a different background. Other female premiers, like Indira Gandhi, Benazir Bhutto, Sheikh Hasina and Sirimavo Bandaranaike, all came from political families. Jayalalitha, on the other hand, came from a middle-class family, where her mother was a small-time actress.
On various occasions she described herself as a prim, convent-bred girl who had dreamt of a world of academic and legal studies with an interest in English theatre. She topped her state in her school-leaving exams and was awarded a scholarship to college studies. However, to tide over her family’s financial crisis, she began to act instead.
Actor and late Tamil Nadu chief minister MG Ramachandran was Jayalalitha’s mentor, and inducted her into the movies. She acted in more than 140 films from the 1960s. She was a successful actress of her time, paired with the top heroes of all south Indian languages.
Her ability to speak English, considered a social marker, and ability to sing marked her skills in the movie business. And, even in her acting career, Jayalalitha was not afraid to challenge established norms. A common trope in films of the time was that of the “spoilt shrew tamed by the hero”. But Jayalalitha soon tired of that stereotype – and eventually started playing independent women who resisted traditional roles for women. Fame and success came at a cost, though – there was intense tabloid interest in her private life, while her heartbreaks were fodder for local Tamil magazines.
She came under similar scrutiny when she became a politician. After a lull in her career she was inducted into the regional AIADMK party as its propaganda secretary. Her maiden public address in 1982 on the power of women struck a chord with many.
Jayalalitha’s estrangement with her brother and family, and the fact that a companion, the wife of a small time video shop businessman, was arrested for alleged involvement in corruption scandals, added more fodder to the media and rivals hungry for her downfall. Her loneliness and lack of family were often held up as a personality flaws by her rivals. Critics also accused her of corruption, suppressing political rivals ruthlessly, and establishing a corrupt inner circle.
The midnight arrest of her political rivals, and her withdrawal of support to the ruling federal BJP government led by Prime Minister Vajpayee in 1999, earned her enemies among political parties across India, including her own party leaders, and the media. Jayalalitha even earned the nickname “Imelda Marcos of India” thanks to her cult of personality and the excesses she exhibited in her first term of office as chief minister of Tamil Nadu in the 1990s. And eyebrows were raised when she arranged a controversial wedding for her foster son, featuring 10 dining halls and extravagant decorations, in 1995 while she was chief minister. She disowned her foster son a year later. Her supporters defended her from corruption allegations, saying she was no more corrupt than the male politicians of her time and was only playing a game they were all too familiar with.
While her rivals showcased their party’s ideologies and fostered their dynastic brand of politics, Jayalalitha’s lone persona as a single woman was held up for ridicule. Jayalalitha was outspoken, saying she was proud to be a woman, an upper-caste Brahmin and a Hindu – in a state where politicians espoused the rationalistic credo of their parties and decried Brahminism and religion. But the last decade of her tenure as chief minister was marked by efforts to reshape her image into that of a benign and benevolent mother figure. Gone were the personal excesses of silks and diamonds. They were replaced with a sober dress code: given to belief in astrology too she began to wear dark colours, especially plain green and blue and maroon.
She successfully built up a near-indelible personality cult through welfare schemes – and the inexpensive food and water products, branded “Amma” after her nickname, mother, that were provided to the poor. Subsidies made up more than a third of Tamil Nadu’s revenue spending, and the policies endeared her to women and children. Tamil Nadu also became the first state in India to allow government hospitals to perform medical procedures on transgender people to help them fight infections. Jayaalalitha spent a lot of time in court, facing multiple corruption allegations. But, following each arrest, she eventually emerged unscathed. Jayalalitha’s passing leaves her party, one of the oldest regional parties in India, in a shambles. But she will also be remembered as a woman who stood up and created her own narrative – both in the film world, and in politics.
Obituary: Jayaram Jayalalitha
Jayaram Jayalalitha was one of India’s most colourful and controversial politicians, adored by some and condemned by others.
Her admirers say she played a key role in the economic development of the southern state of Tamil Nadu – but critics say she encouraged a personality cult and fostered corruption in the state.
One of India’s most successful actresses, her political career was marked by allegations of self-enrichment to fund an extravagant lifestyle.
As head of the AIADMK party, she was elected as chief minister of Tamil Nadu on four occasions, overcoming convictions and jail terms to return to office.
Jayalalitha was born on 24 February 1948 in what was then the Mysore State. Her father was a lawyer who squandered most of the family fortune and who died when she was only two years old.
She excelled at school and, after studying music and dance, began training as an actress. Over the ensuing three decades she became one of India’s most popular, and high-profile artists, appearing in more than 140 films.
Naturally charismatic, she was introduced to politics by the actor-turned chief minister, MG Ramachandran, with whom she starred in many of her films.
Elected to the Tamil Nadu Assembly in 1989 she took over the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Khazagham (AIADMK) party becoming the first ever woman opposition leader. A year later she became chief minister for the first time.
She championed the cause of the rural and urban poor by introducing subsidised food canteens, providing free laptops to thousands of school pupils and students and launching other populist schemes like giving away food mixers and grinders to families.
Many publicly funded projects in Tamil Nadu were named after her, including a subsidy scheme, under which canteens served food at low prices.
They were dubbed Amma Canteens – Amma in Tamil is Mother, an honorific euphemism by which Jayalalitha was often addressed by her followers in the state.
These were followed by Amma Bottled Water, Amma Salt, Amma Pharmacies and subsidised Amma Cement.
She attracted a level of support that verged on the bizarre.
Some followers were known to profess their loyalty through acts such as walking on hot coals or drawing her portrait with their blood and her officials were reported to prostrate themselves at her feet.
Incidents of her loyalists setting fire to themselves whenever she faced political setbacks were not unknown.
She did much to encourage this cult of personality and huge cut outs of Jayalalitha dominated the Tamil Nadu skyline.
Her first term in office came to an abrupt end in 1996 when her party won only four seats in the Legislative Assembly and she lost her own Bargur constituency.
The new ruling party wasted little time in investigating allegations of corruption amongst growing concerns about her extravagant lifestyle.
During one raid on her premises following a corruption allegation in 1996, police said they had found large quantities of diamond-studded gold jewellery, more than 10,000 saris and 750 pairs of shoes.
She was eventually charged with receiving financial incentives in a scheme to buy more than 40,000 colour televisions for local villages and served 30 days in jail.
She was barred from standing in the 2001 elections because she had been sentenced to five years imprisonment following allegations she had illegally obtained state-owned property
However, her party swept back into power and she was reappointed chief minister despite not having been elected to the state assembly.
Although her tenure was swiftly ended, her successor was effectively under her control and in 2003, when her conviction was overturned, she successfully contested a vacant assembly seat and was once more chief minister of Tamil Nadu.
But controversy continued to dog her. There were allegations that she used the Tamil Nadu Marketing Corporation (Tasmac) – which had a monopoly on the sale of alcohol in the state – to pay for many of her pet projects.
The continuing allegations seemed to do little to dim her charisma or lower her popularity. Following the elections in April 2011, she was sworn in as chief minister for a third term.
She was said to nurse ambitions of a greater role in national politics. In the run-up to the 2014 Indian parliamentary elections many of her followers suggested she aspired to become India’s prime minister, although she did not confirm this.
In 2014 she was sentenced to four years in jail after being convicted of using her position to amass a huge property portfolio as well as a collection of expensive jewellery and luxury cars. It saw her become the first Indian chief minister ever to be removed from office.
However, eight months later, in May 2015, the conviction was overturned and within days she was reinstated as chief minister of Tamil Nadu.
In the following year’s elections she swept back into power, winning her own seat by a handsome margin and retaining the post of chief minister.
“Even when 10 parties allied themselves against me, I did not have a coalition and I placed my faith in God and built an alliance with the people.” she said. “It is clear that the people have faith in me and I have total faith in the people.”
Jayalalitha’s supporters say she was instrumental in making Tamil Nadu one of India’s most economically influential states. But her critics painted her as a deeply corrupt figure who manipulated the system and saw herself as above the law.