Cover Story/ Jayalalithaa : Adieu toAmma
The iron lady, warrior queen Jayalalithaa faced so many adversities in her personal and political life, but she has overcome all challenges and carved a niche in politics by conquering hearts of millions of common people
TS Venkatesan in Chennai
Last time around this time, the opening of sluice gates of Chembarambakkam Lake flooded the city following heavy rains. This time their beloved leader’s demise led people to flood Chennai to have a last glimpse of their leader and to pay their respect who implemented many welfare schemes for them. It was a sea of humanity and literally lakhs and lakhs of the cadres came far and wide shed tears for their beloved leader fondly called Amma (mother).
On December 4 evening onwards pall of gloom descended on the entire state. Rumours of about health conditions flew thick like a wildfire. Governor had to cut short his programme to reach Chennai to visit Apollo Hospital where Jayalalithaa was admitted. All police personnel were asked to report duty immediately. MLAs were asked to attend the CLP meeting. This all led to a speculation that something had happened to her.
She was taken to Apollo Hospital on September 22 after she collapsed of respiratory distress at her Poes Garden residence late that evening. Initial reports from the Hospital said she was brought in with fever and dehydration, and doctors soon diagnosed sepsis, a life-threatening infection that spread in the blood, as the underlying reason. Intensive treatment provided by a team of experts succeeded in reviving her to an extent. Just when it appeared that she had overcome the worst, she suffered a cardiac arrest around 4 pm on December 4.
Green all the Way
Green was Jayalalithaa’s favourite and lucky colour. She was buried with full state honours next to her mentor, former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister and Kollywood legend MG Ramachandran, at the MGR Memorial in Chennai. Her last rites were performed by her close friend Sasikala Natarajan and Jayalalithaa’s brother’s son Deepak. In death too, Jayalalithaa was in her favourite green colour saree. When her body was taken from Poes Garden residence on Tuesday morning to Rajaji Hall, it was draped in her trademark green saree, with a red border. When she was sworn in as chief minister for the sixth time after emerging triumphant in the May 16 assembly polls, she was wearing a green saree. When she took oath as chief minister for the fifth time on May 23 last year after being acquitted in the disproportionate assets case by the Karnataka High Court, she wore a saree of the same colour. It was green all the way.
After a tense final 24 hours, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa, Amma to millions of Tamils and godmother to legions of AIADMK cadres, died at 11.30 pm at Apollo Hospitals on December 5 night. She was 68 years old. “It is with indescribable grief we announce the sad demise of our esteemed honourable Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu Puratchi Thalavi Amma at 11.30 pm today,”
a midnight statement from the Hospital said.
During 74 days after her hospitalisation, thousands of people used to gather in front of the hospital to know about her health. Cadres have been praying hard since September 22. Their prayers outside the hospital, in temples, churches and mosques reached a feverish pitch on December 4 evening after the CM suffered a cardiac arrest. AIADMK ministers, MLAs and cadres were directed to pray at various big temples across the state. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who enjoyed a good personal equations with her, expressed deep sadness over her demise and said it has left “a huge void in Indian politics”. Hailing the AIADMK supremo who passed away at a Chennai hospital tonight, Modi said her connect with citizens, concern for welfare of the poor, the women and marginalised will always be a source of inspiration.
From President of India to PM Modi, Union Ministers, Governors of States, Chief Ministers, political leaders, celluloid personalities and people from every walk of life came in large attendance to pay their respect to the iron lady with whom they had met, spoken, seen in close quarters. “She was learned, compassionate, (and a) godmother for her people,” Jammu & Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti said.
As per her last wishes, her mortal remains in a sandalwood casket were laid to rest next to her mentor MGR’s memorial in Marina. Over two tonne of flowers from several destinations were used by about 40 workers who worked for 10 hours to prepare the Army truck and gun carriage for the final journey of Jayalalithaa.
No Untoward Incident
Normally in Tamil Nadu political leader’s death, party cadres would indulge in violence and vandalism or opt for extreme ways like self-immolation. But this time, there were no such incidents. For this, the major credit should be given to people especially cadres of the AIADMK, who have proved that they could deal with grief with dignity and restraint if needed. The role played by State administration and timely assistance given by the Centre also proved to be useful.
Exactly 29 years ago, when she got onto the carriage for the final procession of MGR, she was visibly pushed off it in front of all television cameras. This effrontery was what would help her survive all those years of politics that would follow. “Now the same carriage carried her. She was given full State honour. Who’s who dignitaries came to pay respect,” beamed an AIADMK MLA.
She was only 16-year old when she starred opposite MGR in Ayirathil Oruvan. The entire cast and crew would stand up every time MGR walked in, but the Church Park educated, English speaking Jayalalitha 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, multifaceted 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, it was her prolific ability to speak English and Hindi with an intellect.
Tragedies and setbacks were never a stranger to Jayalalithaa. She lost her father early and her mother just when she was stepping into adulthood. Jayalalithaa, one-time propaganda secretary of the party and a former Rajya Sabha Member, she steered the AIADMK since 1989 when the party, which had split into two after the demise of MGR in December 1987, reunited under her stewardship. In the last six years, the political fortunes of the AIADMK soared to a new high, with Jayalalithaa leading it to back-to-back victories in the 2011 Assembly elections, local body polls, the 2014 Parliamentary polls and the last Assembly elections in May 2016.
Tamil writer Vaasanthi in her book about Jayalalithaa said, “During her reign, there was fear in the corridors of power-ministers and officials remained taciturn, afraid to utter a word without her consent; party men, young and old, fell at her feet. She had a magical spell on the people”.
The iron lady, warrior queen faced so many adversities in her personal and political life. More than 45 cases were foisted on her by her beta noire DMK patriarch Karunanidhi’s government. The indefatigable Jayalalithaa, after coming to power, did not try to withdraw and instead wanted to face them courageously. In most of the cases she acquitted including the assets case in which the Supreme Court has reserved its orders.
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. Yet she persisted. She came out of that incident more guarded than ever before. She started wearing a cape to wrap herself in layers of clothing. She succeeded at ‘desexualising’ herself and branded herself as ‘Amma’, the only known way to gain respect in that highly testosterone filled environment.
She played popular politics. When the DMK promised laptops, she provided table fans, mixers and grinders instead all branded with her cherubic stickers on it. She accumulated disproportionate assets in 1996, and has 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. Jayalalithaa inherited MGR's AIADMK, whose rank and file comprised the lowest rungs of Tamil society, and presided over it as its unquestioned leader. Under her, novices who demonstrated their loyalty found themselves catapulted into the big league; they also faced the axe when they crossed the line. They queued up to fall at her feet, irrespective of age, and she seemed to tower over them.
“She was an iron lady with a difference. She had a heart for poor and downtrodden, destitutes, and women in particular, old aged people. Her subsidised canteen was a big hit among poor and even other states wanted to implement it for their people,” said a journalist.
Out of the eight elections she contested, she had won seven. Makkalal Naan, Makkalukkuga Naan (I am by the people, I am for the people), that was how she would end her public speeches always. She would usually ask, Will do it for me? Will you? (A rhyming words in Tamil). It is her stubborn quality that won her laurels in her political and swam against male-dominated political world. This quality might have won her many enemies initially and ultimately they fall in line with her due to their need and for their survival.
An AIADMK cadre lamented that she had crores of followers, vast wealth at her feet. But when she lay unconscious in hospital for more than two months, Jayalalithaa seemed like an orphan with no one next to her to call her own. Her kins (brother Jayakumar’s son, daughter) were not allowed to meet her. Even after hospitalisation and demise, they stopped seeing her by Sasikala and Company”. This perhaps tells the story of tragedy in Amma’s life.
She had filed more than 150 defamation cases against media houses during her political career. She had very few interactions with media. During her rule, many industries were set up. FDI came in crores. Due to the congenial industrial atmosphere, concessions attracted investors to choose their destination. Jayalalithaa set up the first women police and exclusive all women police states. Ryots hailed Jayalalithaa for her relentless legal battle to secure legal rights for the state on the Cauvery issue Federation of Cauvery Delta Farmers Association general secretary Arupathy P Kalyanam said Jayalalithaa had worked sincerely to recover Tamil Nadu’s legal rights in the issue. In Mullaperiyar Dam issue also she fought the case in SC and won. She promised to retrieve Katchatheevu, donated to Sri Lanka which is still pending in Supreme Court.
Jayalalithaa was committed to the development of Tamil Nadu, and had prepared a Vision Document 2023. In five stints as Chief Minister, she was always adamant that the State should receive its fair share of Cauvery waters from the upper riparian State of Karnataka, and addressed her last letter to Prime Minister Modi on this subject. However, she helped the NDA government by staging a walkout rather than voting against the GST Bill; its fate, however, still hangs in the balance.
On various national issues, her stands were always very unambiguous. In 2012, Jayalalithaa's urged the Prime Minister to declare Rama Sethu a national monument. On Shri Ram Janmabhoomi issue, she openly declared, “If we cannot build a temple in India for Lord Rama, then where else can we build it?” She also came out in support of enacting a Uniform Civil Code. This is the real legacy of Amma, which Tamil Nadu needs to cherish.