The Woman, The Mark, The Legacy
And in the end, she couldn’t write a colorful ending to her own story, in her own terms, just how she would have liked.
We were attending a cousin’s wedding in Madurai if I remember correctly and I was 8 years old. The wedding entourage from the bride’s side, including my family, were all put up in a series of tiled roof cottages, not too far off from the Madurai Meenakshi Temple.
The Fifth World Tamil Conference was happening in Madurai. A quick google search tells me that it was between Jan 4 and Jan 10. Our stay in Madurai had to be in that date range, because, more than the huge hoardings bearing the sign “உலகத் தமிழ் மாநாடு” along with the larger than life size images of MG Ramachandran (MGR) the then Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, what I remember distinctly more, was the generous placements of larger than life images of this one popular movie star, who was officially not a politician back then. She was a star, someone who had built a great on-screen chemistry with MGR as a co-star, playing mostly as his love interest, thus earning the goodwill of thousands of fans of MGR, the politician’s, but then, she was not even a registered member of AIADMK. Her role in the conference was that of an entertainer. Jayalaithaa and her troupe performed a stage musical drama called “Mathura Nayaki” on Jan 9.
And I was in awe of the swarms of people stretching kilometers, making a beeline to enter the open air stadium, where the conference was being held and I have strong memories of those tall floodlight arena under the dark sky. Amidst all that, somehow those huge billboards, with her images splashed all over, almost on par with MGR’s images, made a huge impact on me as an eight year old. Because, till then politics in Tamil Nadu to me, meant only MGR and M.K. Karunanidhi.
Dec 24. I was in Nagercoil spending my Christmas break with my cousins when we heard the news. MGR, the man of the poor, the leader of the masses, the single most charismatic leader that Tamil Nadu had ever seen and the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu had died. We had known this day was coming for a long time. Almost for 3 years.
By then, Jayalalithaa had already announced her arrival into politics in style. MGR appointed her as the Propaganda Secretary of AIADMK in 1983 (கொ. ப. செ.), a title not so familiar in the political circles back then. Soon, she contested in a by-election in the Tiruchendur constituency (an hour from Tirunelveli, where I was then) and became a member of the Tamil Nadu legislative assembly. She became a Rajya Sabha member in 1984.
She either must have exhibited an extreme sense of acumen for the world of politics that was there for everyone to notice and MGR was the first one to tap into it or MGR must have really had the vision of making her a successor in line, because he saw the potential of grooming someone like her in the political world. Don’t know which was closer to being true, perhaps both.
Now, let’s take a step back and remember, that the Tamil movie industry was not the friendliest places for a female actor back then, that too for someone like Jayalalithaa, who didn’t have a ‘male’ personal guardian or someone as a pillar of support from her family, as long as she was acting. So, to make a mark as a lead actor, without compromising on your values and to have your personality stand out as a female actor, must have taken some courage on Jayalalithaa’s part. Of course, her fluency in English and fair knowledge of a couple of other languages must have given her an edge to stay clear of the competition, but at the end of the day, it took her strong personality to swim through the male dominated world.
Politics in the 1980s, in the post Annadurai era, when the Dravidian movement was at its peak, was a very interesting place to be in. For the uninitiated, let me say this..Unlike politics in the western hemisphere, politics in India cannot be placed on a linear spectrum ranging from “Liberal” to “Conservative” in traditional Left to Right terms. Not now. And definitely not in the 1980s. And especially, politics in Tamil Nadu, since Indian Independence, has always been very different. So, in that context, Jayalalithaa’s entry into politics was phenomenal. As it should have been. Just because she was a woman.
Call it the innate nature of Tamilians to accept a popular movie star as a capable politician without any questions.
Call it the love and adulation for MGR that the people had which translated into love and adulation for his lady love on screen.
Call it the simple admiration for someone MGR picked as his protege in politics.
Call it whatever you want.
The fact remains that Tamilians had the maturity, knowingly or unknowingly, to break the glass ceiling — just…like…that. And she did it with their help. And how!!
Barring the drama that ensued between Dec 24, 1987 and the time in 1989 when she was elected as the opposition party leader, she had complete control of her party and the party cadres throughout her career till Sep 22, 2016 when she was admitted to the hospital.
The reason why the politician in her shone was because she shaped her career herself after 1989. She was on a mission. She had a target and she worked towards it ruthlessly. Yes, she trampled on many people and sentiments in the process. But that was her. Comparisons ranged from Imelda Marcos (for her obsession with materials and for her authoritarian leadership style) to Margaret Thatcher (for being a strong willed woman like an Iron lady). But the truth is that she was not like any of them. She was one of a kind. She was a charismatic, intelligent and a focused leader with tons of fortitude. Fans and Detractors would agree that the most extraordinary thing about her was that she was a very refined and a sophisticated absolutist who managed to do all that she did in a democracy. As she famously said once, Indian states are nothing but glorified municipalities, she stood up for Tamil Nadu’s state rights at every moment she could. She was one of those few Chief Ministers in the country who stood up to the centre irrespective of the ruling party in the centre.
Unlike the Dravidian politicians of that era and specifically the Dravidian leaders such as EV Ramasamy (Periyar), Annadurai, MGR and Karunanidhi, to name a few, who went onto either become Chief Ministers of the state or ended up having an influential role in the state, Jayalalithaa didn’t have a similar background. She was born in an “upper caste” family and she was brought up in an upper middle class background. She didn’t experience the struggles that the other Dravidian leaders experienced in their early lives and she didn’t even grow up in Tamil Nadu for that matter, where the Dravidian ideologies were flourishing. So, there is a lot that can be pondered about the “Dravidianism” in her.
But she understood the essence of the Dravidian movement — which was to stand up for the poor and the “lower caste” people of the society. Keep fighting for them. Keep fighting for their welfare. If Tamil Nadu’s healthcare is a pride of the state, If Tamil Nadu’s educational record is still considered high when compared to other states in India, if Tamil Nadu is still on top of child immunization rates in the country and if Tamil Nadu still figures in the top 5 states when it comes to social welfare spending percentage (mainly education and healthcare), then you can pretty much attribute it all to the Dravidian parties’ policies, in particular Jayalalithaa’s. Now add to that, the innumerable welfare programs that were introduced for poor and women in particular, including the “Amma Unavagam” (a chain of restaurants run by the government with an aim to serve healthy, clean food for a nominal price for all customers), you know why she was revered the way she was.
To paraphrase something she said in an interview, her life could be divided into three phases. The first phase, influenced and shaped by her mother, the second, influenced and shaped by MGR and the final phase, one that was completely self made. It was during this phase, she, as an active learner and observer, took it upon herself to stand up to her critics quite comfortably, while she methodically executed what she wanted to do quite mercilessly.
Notwithstanding all the corruption charges, the disproportionate assets lawsuites, etc., it is irrefutable that the legacy she has left behind simply through her achievements is huge. A legacy far larger than anything that movie star image which helped her take that first step into politics could have helped her. Step by step, she created a brand new path for herself, which many women can follow now.
Thousands and Millions will ride on her legacy for years to come. I guess very few in politics can stake that claim anywhere in the world.
And for someone like me, who grew up in the shadow of Jayalalithaa’s rise in politics and managed to see her till the end, there is no better way to say what her passing away means to me, than to simply refer to it as a void that will never get filled.