Rise of a star

Print edition : October 17, 2014

Jayalalithaa's political journey started in 1982, when M.G. Ramachandran inducted her into the AIADMK. Photo: Wide Angle Ravishankaran

October 29, 1961: Jayalalithaa (second from left) and her mother, Sandhya (third from left), an actor at Gokhala Hall, in George Town, Chennai, on the occasion of a Bharathanatyam recital that she gave. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

A still from the 1965 "Aayirathil Oruvan", the first film starring Jayalalithaa and MGR.

With MGR's body at Rajaji Hall in Chennai on December 24, 1987. A defining image that virtually propelled her political rise. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Another defining moment as she is pushed down from the gun carriage at the start of the funeral procession,in full public view. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Being sworn in as the Leader of the AIADMK Legislature Party after the 1989 Assembly elections, in which her faction of the party emerged as a formidable presence and she became Leader of the Opposition. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

At a press conference at the party headquarters in Chennai in March 1989, the day after a ruling party MLA misbehaved with her at the Assembly. Two years later, she made good her promise to return to the Assembly as the Chief Minister. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Jaylalithaa and Saslkala. Photo: By Special Arrangement

O. Panneerselvam paying obeisance after being swon in Chief Minister in September 2001. He briefly held the post before she took back the mantle again. Photo: AP

Jayalalithaa has survived many setbacks, and her followers believe that she will overcome this one, too.

PARADOXES in the Dravidian politics of Tamil Nadu are too many, but none is more striking than Jayalalithaa being Chief Minister: a Tamil Brahmin heading a Dravidian party, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), which carries the name of the Periyarist and staunch atheist C.N. Annadurai. Ironically, her main political opponent is the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the very party Annadurai founded. Today, these parties are the major representatives of the Dravidian movement, whose roots lie in the non-Brahmin movement that originated in early 20th century. So complete has been the transformation of this movement in the past century that a major section of the people of Tamil Nadu now revere this 66-year-old actor-turned-politician as their “Amma” (Mother).

Professor V. Arasu, a keen observer of Tamil society and politics, says that it is irrelevant to talk about Dravidian ideology in the contemporary political context. “After Periyar’s death, the base of the Dravidian structure, on which politics in Tamil Nadu has revolved, has been totally eroded. Many political parties carry the tag ‘Dravidian’ for form’s sake. Hence, arguments over whether a Brahmin or even a woman can lead a Dravidian party have become obsolete,” he said.

The movement’s transformation was swift in the post-Independence years. The DMK, which parted ways with Periyar’s Dravidar Kazhagam (DK), gained political power in 1967, and Annadurai became the Chief Minister. The popular actor M.G. Ramachandran (MGR) was the party’s campaign mascot, while his friend, M. Karunanidhi, emerged as one of its leading political faces. The DMK led by Annadurai distanced itself from Periyar’s atheism and over a period of time gave up its demand for a separate Tamil State.

After Annadurai’s death in 1969, Karunanidhi took over the party’s mantle. In 1972, the DMK suffered a vertical split, with MGR, who was the party treasurer then, forming the Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, renamed later as the AIADMK, over differences of opinion with Karunanidhi. The fledgling party captured power by defeating the DMK at the hustings in 1977. MGR became the Chief Minister and remained in power until his death in 1987.

Induction and rise in party

MGR was Jayalalithaa’s mentor and chose to induct her into the party in 1982. The following year, he made her its propaganda secretary, which annoyed many senior party functionaries. In another swift move in 1984, which took everyone by surprise, he got her elected to the Rajya Sabha before flying to the United States for treatment for his kidney ailment. The AIADMK contested the 1984 Assembly elections without MGR in the fray.

Jayalalithaa campaigned for party candidates while Rm. Veerappan, MGR’s close aide, screened video clippings in every village on MGR’s health. The clippings, received from the U.S. hospital where MGR was receiving treatment, were flown in from the U.S. to counter the DMK’s campaign claiming that MGR was not recovering well. MGR eventually returned to take over the reins of the State.

Jayalalithaa was denied permission to meet him at the airport. MGR was disturbed when he was told that she had discussed Tamil Nadu politics with Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. P. Kannan, former Member of Parliament from Salem and staunch Jayalalithaa loyalist, said that a powerful lobby attempted to distance her from MGR and the party. Kannan recalled how he met MGR in the Secretariat and handed over Jayalalithaa’s “endearing” letter to him. “After reading it, he broke down. Madam [Jayalalithaa] met him at the Secretariat and sorted out the differences,” he said.

In this environment of easy suspicion, another attempt was made to remove her from the party’s primary membership. A resolution to this effect was drafted and was about to be tabled at the party’s general body meeting when MGR, to everyone’s surprise, dropped it at the last minute. She was given the opportunity to address the public meeting held at Royapuram in Chennai after that. This, according to Kannan, sent a message to the party cadre that she was MGR’s political heir.

After MGR’s demise in 1987, the party split, with Jayalalithaa heading one faction and MGR’s widow, Janaki Ramachandran, leading the other with the support of senior leaders such as Rm. Veerappan. Janaki was made Chief Minister on January 7, 1988, with the support of 97 members in a House of 234, after she won the confidence motion in a voting marred by allegations of foul play. The Union government led by Rajiv Gandhi dismissed her government.

The subsequent elections saw Jayalalithaa’s faction winning 27 seats against Janaki’s two. While Janaki lost in Andipatti constituency, Jayalalithaa won from the nearby Bodinaickanur constituency. The split, benefited the DMK, which grabbed power after a gap of more than a decade, only to be dismissed in two years. Jayalalithaa became the first woman to become the Leader of the Opposition in the Tamil Nadu Assembly and took over the reins of the unified AIADMK and restored the “two leaves” symbol, which had been frozen by the Election Commission following the split. The symbol had become synonymous with MGR’s legacy.

Jayalalithaa acted with MGR in 28 films between 1965 and 1972. The first one was Aayirathil Oruvan. For “Ammu”, as MGR called her fondly, success in politics did not come easily. She had to brave many a storm before she emerged as a powerful leader. The towering stature of MGR, both in politics and in cinema, was intimidating. He, too, felt uneasy about her strong, independent character, sharp intellect and shrewdness. Her detractors said she was too emotional and might not be able to stand the rigours of any office of high stature. She proved them wrong and emerged as an undisputed mass leader in a State where politics is predominantly patriarchal. She deftly sidestepped back-room deceits aimed at keeping her out of politics. “After MGR, no one except Jayalalithaa had the capacity to lead the party. I said this openly to MGR,” said Kannan, a two-time MP.

The rise of the DMK, and later the AIADMK, owes a lot to its leaders’ undisputed writing and oratorical skills at a time when the film medium dominated social life in the State. They handled these skills effectively to further their cause. After Annadurai, the prime beneficiaries of this legacy were Karunanidhi, MGR and Jayalalithaa.

Jayalalithaa had the ability to handle crises and turn them to her advantage. A grief-stricken Jayalalithaa standing beside MGR’s body was the defining image in Tamil Nadu politics at one time. Her being pushed out of the gun carriage during MGR’s funeral procession in full public view also earned her enormous popular sympathy.

An incident on March 25, 1989, brought more publicity. Members of the DMK and the opposition clashed inside the Assembly, and when Jayalalithaa was about to leave, a member from the Treasury benches allegedly attempted to manhandle her. In the melee, her saree got torn. She appeared before the media red-faced and with dishevelled hair and dramatically vowed that she would never return to the House “until she becomes Chief Minister”. Two years later, she made good this promise.

She has endured crushing political defeats. The worst blow came in the 1996 elections, amid charges of corruption. Her party won just four Assembly seats, and the AIADMK-Congress alliance was unable to win any of the State’s 39 Lok Sabha seats. Jayalalithaa herself lost in the Bargur Assembly seat. In the 2001 Assembly elections, all her four nominations were rejected, which forced her to confine herself to campaigning. She was elected the party leader and sworn in as the Chief Minister by Governor M. Fatima Beevi, but a Supreme Court ruling disqualified her. After installing O. Panneerselvam as the Chief Minister, she fought the cases and got herself exonerated and became Chief Minister again.

Such setbacks seem to have made her more determined than ever. One could see that she had mellowed and was more mature as a leader who had learnt to take both victory and defeat in her stride. She contested successfully from Bodinaickanur (1989), Bargur and Kangeyam (1991), Andipatti (2002 and 2006) and Srirangam (2011). She was Chief Minister from 1991 to 1996, and then from 2001 to 2006 (barring a brief period, from September 2001 to March 2003, when she had to step down). In 2011, she returned to power with a massive victory.

Through intrigue and secrecy

In sharp contrast to her enviable success as an actor and a political leader, her personal life is one of poignant loneliness. The death of her mother, also an actor, left her a vulnerable youngster in the tinsel world, known for its vicious machinations. In the complex political world of intrigue and secrecy, given the patriarchal nature of Dravidian politics, she needed to be always on her guard. The challenges have steeled her determination.

Her party colleagues, be they MLAs, Ministers or MPs, many of them much older, have fallen at her feet to seek her blessings. Even a former Central Minister of the Congress, which was in an alliance with the AIADMK then, prostrated himself before her at an election rally. It was never clear whether she enjoyed such servility or could see through it. She did not, however, display the same nonchalance over dissent and intrigue. That explains her strained relationship with a section of the media, which she held in contempt, and the string of defamation cases that she filed. But the media were not always hostile. They recorded her quiet composure when she was arrested in December 1996 on charges of corruption and had to spend a few weeks in prison. “It is political vendetta. Jayalalithaa will bounce back,” she declared then, and the media reported it prominently.

After she became Chief Minister, she seemed to consciously give herself an image makeover as a mass leader. Images of her mentor were permitted to be displayed only in the far corners of cut-outs and posters, an unavoidable gesture towards MGR loyalists who form a permanent vote base of the party. As she grew in years and stature, the transformation to “Amma” was but a logical step.

She has been studiously distancing herself from her past as a movie star and has been nurturing a mature image. Life-sized cut-outs depicting her as the goddess Durga and Mother Mary showed that her supporters were her devout followers. She has never hesitated to foster Tamil nationalism for her own political advantage. Her stand on the issues of the Cauvery waters (over which she sat in fast in 1992), Sri Lankan Tamils, and Tamils fishing close to Sri Lankan waters, all emotive issues in the State, have endeared her to the masses.

“The word Amma not only touches an emotional chord but also commands respect. She is the ‘Thamizh Thai’ [Tamil mother] today, burying effectively her image on the silver screen,” says Prof. Arasu, adding that the mistakes that Karunanidhi made have sustained her politically. “That she has no family behind her, unlike the DMK patriarch, is her clear advantage,” he says. “Her bold actions stopped the vulgar displays of the DMK’s family rule of corruption. She has thus dismantled the very power structure of the DMK.”

Her friend, Sasikala Natarajan, a former video-shop owner, had her complete trust. Most others were always kept at an arm’s length. “This could be the reason why she effects frequent changes in her Cabinet and among party functionaries even at the grass roots,” claims the DMK leader Selventhiran of Cumbum, a former AIADMK MP and propaganda secretary. He says that those who stood beside her after the demise of MGR are not with her today.

The fatal flaw

Sasikala’s presence in her Poes Garden residence, however, invited scorn from many. Kannan, who was dismissed from the party by MGR in 1986 for forming Jaya mandrams (fan clubs), blamed Sasikala and her relatives for keeping him away from Jayalalithaa. “Many of madam’s loyalists are not allowed to meet her,” he said. Sasikala was turned out from Jayalalithaa’s residence in 1996 and again in 2011, only to be welcomed back.

Jayalalithaa’s critics claimed that it was her closeness with Sasikala that blemished her political career, especially during her first tenure as Chief Minister (1991-96). The period witnessed many depressing incidents, such as the extravagant display at her former foster son V.N. Sudhakaran’s wedding, the “mother of all marriages” ( Frontline, October 6, 1995).

The same period also saw Sasikala’s alleged interference in the administration and in party affairs. Along with Jayalalithaa, she and her family members were named in a dozen scam cases, including the present disproportionate assets case. The midnight arrest of Karunanidhi in 2001 also drew much criticism (Frontline, July 20, 2001).

Has she ever thought of retiring from politics? Rumours did make the rounds in the past that she wanted to quit politics out of sheer frustration after the Assembly elections in 1989. A letter of resignation allegedly signed by her was sent to the then Speaker, M. Tamilkudimagan. But party cadre and leaders dissuaded her. Today, her writ runs in the party, and none in the party is complaining about it.

“Amma is the party and we are her family. She takes care of us,” says a staunch loyalist in Madurai. “But one thing about her is that she is not a schemer. She is a straightforward woman who believes in what she thinks is right,” says Selventhiran. Kannan did not hesitate to endorse this: “She is intelligent and definitely of CM material, but…”

Jayalalithaa is readying to wage yet another battle. The court verdict against her may have far-reaching legal and constitutional implications, but her diehard followers say that she, like the proverbial phoenix, will rise from the ashes.

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