Political leader or semi-deity, corrupt autocrat or social benefactor? Either way, Jayalalithaa’s passing has left a ‘huge void in Indian politics’. John Elliott reports

India lost one of its most controversial and charismatic political leaders with the death last month of Jayalalithaa Jayaram, the 68-year old autocratic Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. A former film star, Amma (mother), as she was widely known, managed to mix a reputation for massive corruption and an intensely reclusive lifestyle beset by illness with efficient administration, widespread and effective welfare schemes, and an erratic but sometimes powerful role in national politics.

When she was briefly jailed for corruption two years ago, several people committed suicide by setting fire to themselves, as they had done in 2001 when she was ejected from office on a supreme court ruling. She calmly announced in 2001 that ‘loyal and loving brothers and sisters’ had become ‘martyrs’ and gave each family a compensation payment of Rs50,000 (then about £750).

‘For more than two decades, Jayalalithaa loomed large on the horizon, in the minds of the public as a benevolent despot, a tough politician, an unforgiving leader, a vengeful opponent and an unfriendly, intolerant, ruthless Chief Minister who dragged journalists and opposition leaders to court on defamation charges,’ said an article in The Times of India headlined ‘Tragic End of a Lonely Empress’, the day after she died.

Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister, flew to Chennai along with many other political leaders for the burial. He said Jayalalithaa’s death left a ‘huge void in Indian politics’. Hundreds of thousands of people, many weeping, thronged through the city to a public hall where Jayalalithaa’s body, draped in the Indian flag, was on a raised platform. Later, they followed a vast procession taking her body in a glass coffin to a beachside burial ground.

A massive police and para-military security exercise managed to keep the crowds mostly calm and peaceful. The worry was that there would be suicides along with general unrest and violence as news of her death spread. That was mostly avoided on the night of December 5 with a carefully planned series of moves involving police and politicians, including other leaders of her All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) political party, that led up to the death announcement shortly before midnight and appointment of her successor.

Many of Jayalaithaa's followers were distraught at her death
Many of Jayalaithaa’s followers were distraught at her death

Jayalalithaa had been on life-support for about 24 hours following a cardiac arrest, having been in hospital in intensive care since September 22 with respiratory and other ailments. These had seemed to be improving after treatment by a stream of doctors from India and the UK, and on November 13, she sent a message from her hospital bed to tens of thousands of followers saying, ‘I have taken rebirth because of your prayers and worship.’

That statement helped to mobilise distraught workers in the AIADMK for imminent local elections. It also added to the god-like aura that surrounded Jayalalithaa, who aroused a level of adulation that is hard to explain, even in Tamil Nadu, where the cult of personality merging films and politics exceeds India’s general love and adulation of icons.

Jayalalithaa came from a more comfortable family background, with higher levels of education, than many regional politicians – doing well at Bishop Cotton Girls’ High School in Bangalore, topping the state exams and winning the best student trophy at Church Park Convent School in Chennai.

SCREEN GODDESS: Jayalalithaa was a hugely popular film star in the 1960s
SCREEN GODDESS: Jayalalithaa was a hugely popular film star in the 1960s

Her ambition was to be a lawyer or academic but, much to the dismay of her Church Park teachers, her actress mother pushed her to enter films, partly to earn money to help provide for the family. After training in western music and Indian classical dance, she became one of the most popular Tamil film stars in the 1960s, famous for her looks and voice.

She developed a close relationship with Marudur Gopalan Ramachandran, known as MGR, a film star and folk hero turned Chief Minister, who became her mentor and promoted her in politics from the early 1980s. She was a Brahmin, India’s highest caste, but her party was founded on anti-caste ideology, which suited the mood in the state.

When MGR died in 1987, there was a tussle between Jayalalithaa and his wife for his political legacy, which Jayalalithaa won, securing the AIADMK’s general secretary post in 1989. She led the party to victory in a state assembly election in 1991, becoming Chief Minister and winning four more elections, the latest being in May this year.

She was voted out of office in 1996 amid corruption allegations and criticisms of her outrageously extravagant and cult-like lifestyle – cabinet ministers rolled on temple floors and pulled golden temple chariots to mark her 48th birthday, just before the polls. She was reputed in the 1990s to be collecting Rs10m (then US$300,000) a day in kick-backs.

Jayalalithaa led the AIADMK to victory in a state assembly election in 1991

Corruption cases, based on owning assets disproportionate to her occupation, dogged her ever since those days. They stemmed mainly from extravagant wedding celebrations that she staged for her foster son in 1997, which were reported to have cost over $1m. Later, 400 pairs of diamond-studded gold bangles, 30kg of jewellery and 750 pairs of slippers were found when her home was raided. Jayalalithaa managed to stave off court cases till she was convicted and briefly jailed in 2014. She was acquitted a year later, but the Congress Party lodged an appeal against that acquittal in Karnataka, where the case was heard.

Tamil Nadu’s other main political party, the DMK, has been her main rival and generally alternated with her AIADMK ruling the state. Headed by Muthuvel Karunanidhi, a prominent film script writer who is 91, the DMK’s leaders centre around one dynasty with excessive nepotism and corruption, and links to national as well as local graft cases.

From the mid-1990s, these two unlikely leaders presided over an efficient administration. Tamil Nadu became an ideal location for investment by both Indian and foreign companies, despite demands for money and favours. ‘She is a Chief Minister we can do business with,’ said an American ambassador in the mid-1990s after he had met Jayalalithaa.

A series of ‘Amma’ welfare schemes, including subsidised pharmacies, meals, salt, drinking water and gifts for mothers with babies, along with free laptops at election time, won her popular support.

She was an autocrat, saying in interviews that this was necessary for her to succeed as a woman politician. In later years she rarely met visitors, including her civil servants and fellow politicians, often ruling via messages from an upper floor of her home. She demanded outrageous displays of loyalty, with her senior political colleagues, bureaucrats and police chiefs making obeisance and touching her feet in public.

Jayalalithaa’s successor as Chief Minister is O Panneerselvam, the state finance minister, who stood in for her twice when she was banned from office and jailed, and again when she was in hospital. He acknowledged the limits of his authority when he ran a cabinet meeting with a photograph of Jayalalithaa in front of him.

HOMAGE: Narendra Modi pays tribute to ‘Amma’ as she lies in state
HOMAGE: Narendra Modi pays tribute to ‘Amma’ as she lies in state

Political influence has also been wielded by Sasikala Natarajan, Jayalalithaa’s closest friend since the 1980s – it was the 1997 wedding of Natarajan’s nephew, adopted by Jayalalithaa as a foster son, that led to the corruption cases. Significantly, Natarajan performed the last rites at the burial, a duty usually performed by a man. She was surrounded by her husband and family, who were not favoured by Jayalalithaa, but who have controversially now joined Natarajan publicly in her quest to become Jayalalithaa’s successor as party general secretary. This will test her political strength, because she has had no formal political position, and is also one of the accused in the corruption cases that are now being appealed.

With Jayalalithaa gone and the DMK’s Karunanidhi ailing, Tamil Nadu politics are set for a period of uncertainty and upheaval. The main battle will be between the two regional parties, but Modi will be pushing his Bharatiya Janata Party, maybe in alliance with the AIADMK. Meanwhile, the Gandhi family’s weak Congress Party will need to make more of its links with the Tamil Maanila Congress, which broke away in 1996.

New charismatic politicians will no doubt emerge again, but they are unlikely to combine the positive and negative mix that made Jayalalithaa so irresistible to her followers.

John Elliott, a former Financial Times journalist, has worked in India for over 20 years. He has also written for The Economist, Fortune magazine and the New Statesman. His blog, Riding the Elephant, appears on the websites of Newsweek (US), and Asia Sentinel (Hong Kong). His prize-winning book, IMPLOSION: India’s Tryst with Reality, is published by HarperCollins 360

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