From Idayakkani to Puratchi Thalaivi- The reel to real journey of Selvi. J Jayalalithaa
From 'Idayakkani' (Fruit of the heart) of MGR and Tamil cinema, she went on to become 'Puratchi Thalaivi' (Revolutionary leader) and Amma (mother) of Tamil Nadu. Subservience and sycophancy, read obedience and reverence for her followers, were the hallmarks of her rule.
In post-Indira era, just three women have made a mark in the male-dominated politics in India. There is Mayawati Devi, the Dalit queen in Uttar Pradesh; Mamata Banerjee, the Chief Minister of Bengal hell-bent to wipe out the CPM; and J Jayalalithaa, the Amma of Tamil Nadu.
However, there is a great difference between the first two and Amma. While Mayawati and Mamata are powered by societal forces, Jayalalithaa was a force by herself – much above than caste and class politics. Her followers call her Amma meaning mother and Puratchi Thalaivi meaning revolutionary leader. Her dominance over her party AIADMK exceeded beyond symbolism. She was the party’s sole decision maker and never let any party member become powerful on his/her own.
What she did to Sasikala Natarajan, her companion of over twenty decades, is very well known. Even senior AIADMK political leaders used to physically prostrate before her to show their obedience. Subservience and sycophancy were the hallmarks of her rule.
Tamil Nadu Finance Minister O Panneerselvam, who has been allocated the portfolios of Chief Minister Jayalalithaa after she was hospitalised at Apollo on 22 September, used to chair meetings with the Amma’s photograph on his desk.
But Jayalalithaa’s journey to such political glory was not easily navigated. She was born in Mysore on 24 February, 1948, to a Tamil Iyengar family. Her father Jayaram, a spendthrift, passed away when she was just two years old. Consequently, Jayalalithas and her brother Jayakumar had to shift to Bangalore along with their mother.
Her mother, Vedavathi, started working in Tamil cinema with the screen name of Sandhya. After finishing her matriculation in 1964, she took up films shortly after that. She became a sex symbol and gained popularity as Tamil superstar MG Ramachandran’s, famous as MGR, consort and both of them acted together in 28 films.
Here are some curated photographs from her days in Tamil cinema as an unparalleled beauty:
MGR handpicked her for films when she was just 16 and he was 42 years, and from thereon, he became her mentor for everything.
Till the day of death, MGR did not announce his heir, just as Jayalalithaa has not given her ‘children’ a successor. Thus, the battle to take control of the AIADMK began the day MGR, then Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, died on 24 December, 1987.
The party was split into two factions – one set pledged loyalty to MGR’s legal wife, Janaki and the other to his leading lady in 28 films, Jayalalithaa. While senior leaders like RM Veerappan, who wanted to keep Jayalalithaa out at any cost, batted for Janaki, Jayalalithaa had been hand-picked and groomed by MGR, and initiated into the party in 1982.
Although Janaki Ramachandran formed a government, it lasted for just 22 days. In January 1989, the state went to polls and although the DMK went onto sweep the polls, it settled the succession battle of the AIADMK.
By marking Karunanidhi as her political adversary, Jayalalithaa ended up with 27 seats against Janaki’s 2.
Ten days after the elections, MGR’s wife announced that she had “decided to quit politics and not hinder anyone.” The AIADMK was Jayalalithaa’s to take.
She became the first woman leader of the opposition in the Legislative Assembly of Tamil Nadu. On 25 March, 1989, when she was the Opposition leader and DMK president M Karunanidhi was Chief Minister, something happened at TN legislative assembly that made them arch enemies till death.
She objected to Karunanidhi reading the budget and called him kutravali (criminal). Karunanidhi covered the microphone and abused her. This led to fisticuffs between leaders of both parties and as Jayalalithaa was exiting the Assembly, DMK minister Durai Murugan allegedly rushed towards her and tried to hit her. But in the process, his hand caught hold of her pallu.
Jayalalithaa used this incident to compare herself to the mythological Draupadi. With her narrative, people’s perception about her changed from being MGR’s mistress to woman wronged.
To gain acceptance in Tamil politics, which is extremely sexist, she shed her glamorous image and started dressing soberly. However, her love of an extravagant life remained, as was evident from the recovery of 28-kg jewellery, 91 wrist watches, 10,500 silk sarees and 750 pairs of footwear during an Income Tax raid. It seems while she could not wear these in public and was trapped in the image she and the AIADMK propaganda machine created about her, the love for these expensive goods remained unchanged and she was 'just a woman' who had a penchant for everything rich and beautiful.
When Rajiv Gandhi was killed on 21 May, 1991, Jayalalithaa formed an alliance with the Congress and came to power.
She was re-elected to the Legislative Assembly and became the first elected woman chief minister of Tamil Nadu, serving the full term (24 June 1991 – 12 May 1996).
1996 saw her losing power due to corruption charges and her party won just four of the 234 seats.
The electoral politics of Tamil Nadu has been a case of competitive corruption. That has proved to be Jayalalithaa’s Achilles heel too.
Jayalalithaa was arrested in December 1996 and spent close to a month in prison after Janata Party leader Dr Subramanian Swamy filed a private complaint in a court accusing her of amassing a staggering amount of disproportionate assets (amounting to Rs. 66.65 crore) during her term as CM.
She found herself embroiled in the case for 18 long years, till the Karnataka High Court finally acquitted her on 11 May, 2015. A trial court had convicted and sentenced her to four years of jail as well as a fine of Rs. 100 crore on 27 September, 2014.
She became Chief Minister again three times – from 14 May –21 September, 2001; 2 March, 2002- 12 May, 2006; 2011 onwards.
In 2011 May Assembly elections, the AIADMK got absolute majority and Jayalalithaa became the Chief Minister again. But, her appointment was challenged due to her conviction in October 2000, in the TANSI (Tamil Nadu Small Industries Corporation) case. The Supreme Court nullified her appointment. O Paneerselvam was then appointed CM.
The year of 2003 saw her return after the Madras High Court cleared her on some counts and allowed her to contest elections. She won the mid-term poll from the Andipatti constituency.
In 2014, she was forced to step down after a Special Court in Karnataka convicted her in the disproportionate assets case and sentenced her to four years in prison with a fine of Rs 100 crore. Paneerselvam once again took charge as CM, as Jayalalithaa spent a month in jail before getting bail. The imprisonment led to unrest in Tamil Nadu, with supporters vandalising public property and her supporters attempting self-immolation.
A year later, the Karnataka High Court absolved Jayalalithaa in the case, which led to her return as CM once again, after cruising to victory in the by-election.
In her first stint as the chief minister, she became akka (elder sister) and in the second regime amma (mother). However, she was projected as someone more than a benevolent mother. She was an amma who while being benevolent for her children, knew her shakti, was an authoritarian and could get aggressive and take kali's form if an ill-fortune falls on them.
There was cold animality to her sense of power. She understood power, especially the politics of threat and violence. Her arrest of Karunanidhi at dawn of 30 June, 2001, was a classic example.
Despite numerous controversies surrounding her political career, Jayalalithaa has long enjoyed a cult-like following in the state, largely due to her populist and pro-poor schemes.
In a way, Jayalalithaa and her mentor MGR’s final moments seem to have several parallels and coincidences. He passed away in December 1984 due to cardiac asthma at Apollo hospital. 32 years later, Jayalalithaa, too, passed away in the same month due to cardiac arrest at Apollo hospital.
While MGR did not announce his political successor till his last breath, Jayalalithaa, too, did not give her followers a leader. While MGR’s death eventually led to President's Rule in the state, it remains to be seen whether Amma’s heart-broken children will be consoled or things will be thrown into disarray in the state, forcing the Centre to step in.