Amma: The Story Of Jayalalithaa

Jayalalithaa was a fair-skinned Brahmin in a party that thrived on Dravidian anti-class rhetoric; a glamorous actor who wasn’t taken seriously; above all, she was an unmarried, childless woman trying to ascend to power in 1980s Tamil Nadu. And she won against all odds.

Chief Minister Jayalalithaa
Chief Minister Jayalalithaa. | Photo Credit: Shaju John

Seventy-four days after being admitted to Apollo Hospital, the general secretary of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam passed away at 11.30 p.m. on Monday. She did not respond to emergency life support treatment administered after she suffered a cardiac arrest a day earlier. She was 68.

Late in the night, her body was taken to ‘Veda Nilayam’, her residence in Poes Garden in the heart of Chennai. Officials said her mortal remains would be kept in state at the historic Rajaji Hall on Tuesday to enable the public to pay homage.

An hour before the announcement about her death was made, the police strength outside the Apollo Hospitals was increased and the route from the hospital to her residence was cleared for traffic. Security personnel took position outside in good measure.

Around midnight, Sasikala Natarajan, her trusted aide of over 30 years, who was by her side since the time Jayalalithaa was admitted on September 22, left the Apollo Hospitals for Poes Garden.

Jayalalithaa was one of the country’s most articulate and determined political personalities and a top film actress of the 1960s and 1970s. She showed enormous resolve in fighting one obstacle after another since the time she stepped into the world of politics in June 1982, under the mentorship of Chief Minister M.G. Ramachandran (MGR), the founder of the AIADMK and her lead co-star in 28 Tamil films.

She was 16 years old when she starred opposite MGR in Ayirathil Oruvan.

The entire cast and crew would stand up every time the veteran actor walked in, but the Church Park-educated, English-speaking Jayalalithaa sat there with her legs crossed, reading her book.

It was this audacity that went on to define the rest of her political career.

Obviously, she was a charming, multi-faceted actor who was trained in various dance forms. But not so obviously, she was well-read and witty, she was intelligent and she knew it.

It was not merely her affair with MGR that drew her to politics, but her prolific ability to speak in English and Hindi, with an intellect that could match an economist’s.

When MGR died, she sat conspicuously at his head for an entire two days, relegating his wife Janaki to a sidelined spot. Janaki’s aides tried to push her away, in fact pinched her, and stepped on her feet. But she refused to budge.

When she got on to the carriage for the final procession, she was visibly pushed off it in front of all television cameras.

This effrontery would help her survive all those years of politics that would follow.

The entire party split into two after MGR’s death, but four years later united under her leadership to form one formidable opposition.

She won against all odds.

She was a white-skinned Brahmin in a party that thrived due to its Dravidian anti-class rhetoric.

She was a glamorous actor who could not, by definition, be taken seriously.

Above all, she was a woman trying to ascend to power in 1980s Tamil Nadu. An unmarried, childless woman. She won against all odds.

To put it in context, she was not only walking a path of thorns, she did it in an oxygen-less chamber while her arms and legs were tied. It’s a feat that she survived at all, not to mention that she actually thrived.

In 1989, when she opposed Karunanidhi’s presentation of the budget, she was almost disrobed in the assembly. This was in addition to being the recipient of lewd comments and hair pulling.

This is probably the highest documented insult that a woman has ever faced in a state Assembly.  It’s a feat that she survived at all, not to mention that she actually thrived.

Yet she persisted.

She came out of that incident more guarded than ever before. She wrapped herself in layers of clothing and stopped wearing any jewellery at all.

She succeeded at de-sexualizing herself and branded herself as “amma”, mother – the only known way to gain respect in that testosterone-filled environment.

Everyone knows her as the person who silenced opposition and who created sycophants who fell at her feet and worshipped her. This was the only possible way she could command, consolidate and hold on to the otherwise elusive power.

If she was any more cordial than this, she might have as well been an air hostess.

She played popular politics. When the DMK promised laptops, she provided table fans, mixers and grinders instead, all branded with her cherubic photograph.  There is no single leader that can fill her void.

She accumulated disproportionate assets in 1996, and faced her share of atonement.

However, no one else, not even men, could have been a formidable opposition to the DMK that has systematised corruption and nepotism in ways that she couldn’t.

Forget her followers who baselessly immolate themselves or cut off their fingers in a spree of blind devotion towards her. I have spoken to several civil servants of the state who claim they function with lesser interference under her leadership than under the other party.

And with four and a half years of her term left, there is no single leader that can fill her void.  Now her statues will come up all over the state, and for once I’m glad.

It will be several years, even decades, before another woman can even remotely achieve what she did in a state like Tamil Nadu. Now her statues will come up all over the state, and for once I’m glad.

In a few generations, all that will matter is that there is a woman’s statue as well, and that statue is not a mere kannagi who was venerated because she was a perfect wife, but of a woman who was a true and powerful leader of her own merit and her own making.

Source: Charanya Kannan

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