Jayalalithaa Jayaram: From reluctant screen star to Indian political powerhouse

Through her four terms as Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayalalithaa became known for her intelligence, her political durability and her alleged corruption. She also nourished a cult of personality that bordered on the absurd.

Jayalalithaa Jayaram died on 05 December 2016 at the age of 68 following a heart attack in Chennai, India.  EPA/JAGADEESH NV
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The demise of Jayalalithaa Jayaram, the 68-year-old chief minister of Tamil Nadu, dropped the final curtain upon the enthralling, intriguing career of one of India’s most charismatic politicians.

Within a political space that was misogynistic and cutthroat, Jayalalithaa negotiated obstacles — her background, caste and gender — to lead her party, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), for nearly three decades.

Through her four terms as chief minister — the last of which began this past May — Jayalalithaa became known for her intelligence, her political durability, her inscrutability, and her alleged corruption.

She also nourished a cult of personality that bordered on the absurd.

Her face was plastered on posters and cut-outs across her state, and her party workers prostrated themselves before her as a matter of routine.

Chennai had been in a state of anxious anticipation ever since Sunday evening, when Apollo Hospital, where Jayalalithaa was receiving treatment since September 22, announced that she had suffered a cardiac arrest.

Until the announcement of her death late on Monday night, Tamil Nadu witnessed many hours of tragic confusion. Rumours swirled that Jayalalithaa may have already died, and that the news was being kept in abeyance while the police prepared to tackle outbreaks of violence from her party’s cadre.

In the evening, after two Tamil television channels announced her death without official confirmation, the flag at the AIADMK headquarters was drawn down to half-mast. The crowds gathered outside the hospital began to surge past the barricades into the hospital.

Hospital authorities, at that point, denied the news of her death, saying that Jayalalithaa was still on life support and being monitored by doctors. The unrest abated, and the AIADMK flag was pulled back to its full height.

C Ponnaiyan, a party official, told the NDTV news channel that any flares of violence would only be because of people’s “attachment and affection” towards Jayalalithaa. “They get emotionally agitated, and…it is difficult to control it with army or police.”

Jitters swept across Chennai on Monday evening, as residents prepared themselves for the worst.

People streamed into grocery stores to stock up on provisions, nervous that riots would force them to stay at home for days. Traffic jammed roads, as offices let employees go home early. Movie theatres cancelled their night shows.

K Ashwin, a Bengaluru-based photographer, was scheduled to take a late train out of Chennai but decided to advance his departure. When he reached the railway station, he said, he founded it packed with people who had had the same idea.

“I got onto a train, somehow, and told the conductor that I didn’t have a ticket,” Mr Ashwin said. “He agreed not to throw me out but charged me a fine of 1,600 rupees,” or nearly three times the ordinary ticket price.

Through the night, as Jayalalithaa’s body was transferred to a public venue, Tamil Nadu remained tense but calm under its blanket of security. Thousands of people began to line up early on Tuesday to file past her bier and pay their respects, in advance of the schedule funeral at 4.30pm.

The new chief minister O Panneerselvam declared three days of holiday through the state and a seven-day mourning period.

Jayalalithaa’s death will leave a vast political vacuum, in Tamil Nadu as well as in the AIADMK. One of two primary parties in the state, the AIADMK had been led, since 1989, by Jayalalithaa.

Originally from a poor family in the neighbouring state of Karnataka, Jayalalithaa grew up in the care of her grandparents. Her father had died when she was two, and her mother was largely absent from her childhood.

As a teenager, Jayalalithaa began to act in films, in order to boost her family’s straitened finances. She made her debut in Tamil cinema in 1965 and achieved swift fame for her beauty and poise. She acted alongside M. G. Ramachandran, a matinee idol known popularly as MGR, in more than two dozen films. When he moved into politics, he nurtured her as his protégé.

“I hate cinema, but my mother forced me into films,” Jayalalithaa told an interviewer in 2009. “I hate politics, but MGR forced me into politics.”

“Many among the cadres openly said: ‘We want a charismatic leader. Jayalalithaa is the only person with charisma,’” the writer Vaasanthi, observed in a biography of the leader.

For decades before Jayalalithaa took over the AIADMK, Tamil Nadu’s politics had been dominated by lower-caste movements rising up against the minority, upper-caste Brahmins. Despite these complex caste dynamics, Jayalalithaa, a Brahmin, won repeated electoral success.

As chief minister, she helped turn Tamil Nadu into a magnet for industry and investment, and she won favour with the state’s poor by inaugurating a string of heavily subsidised services: canteens, pharmacies, bottled water, agricultural seeds, and vegetable shops.

She instituted several schemes for the welfare of women and girls, including, in 2001, the distribution of free bicycles to young girls to enable them to reach their schools. The state’s record of crimes against women is the best in the country.

But Jayalalithaa was also trailed by persistent accusations of corruption. Famously, in a raid conducted on her residence by anti-corruption officials in 1997, they found more than 10,000 sarees and 750 pairs of footwear, as well as numerous expensive watches and sets of gold jewellery. They were all mementoes gifted to her, she insisted.

The trial took years to prosecute, progressing only after it was shifted from Tamil Nadu to Karnataka—neutral ground, where Jayalalithaa wielded less influence.

In September 2014, a lower court found her guilty, sentencing her to four years in prison and levying a billion-rupee fine. Although this

verdict forced Jayalalithaa to relinquish her role as chief minister temporarily, she won an appeal in the Karnataka High Court and returned to power in May 2015.

“To be a woman in politics in Tamil Nadu posed many, many challenges,”

Peer Mohamed, a political analyst in Chennai, said. “But she always managed to come back from adversity. That became her hallmark. She was a fighter.”