The dramatic life and death of an actor turned politician Jayalalithaa

Bypolls to be conducted in Jayalalithaa's RK Nagar constituency.

Chennai, December 07: Since the demise of MGR, Jayalalithaa has been a perfect example of state funded governance which elevated her to a cult of personality finding only few parallels anywhere in India.

The new of Jayalalithaa Jayaram’s death came as a climax of an extraordinary chapter of Indian politics where she faught with a trecherous world and sexism driven society to establish her leadership.

However, her demise also brings an end to a glorious era of Tamil politics which she firmly ruled for over three decades. And probably her successors are not to the mark to survive her exit.

As a chief minister of the state, she led one of the finest administration despite the populism and caprice that were the signature of her era.

Jayalalithaa had not only just grabbed the ultimate authority of the state but almost pulled the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) members and broad masses that was almost devotional.

Within the party, she was the final voice which mattered ultimately. But as her own stature and clout grew, that of others in the party – not to speak of the party itself as an institution – shrunk in proportion.

This places the party and the Tamil politics under a big dilemma after her death. The succession of O. Panneerselvam is just a political game by AIADMK’s MLAs and Jayalalithaa’s confidante Sasikala Natarajan who don’t want to create an infighting ahead of upcoming elections.

Panneerselvam has done the job before, as Jayalalithaa’s personal nominee. As a Thevar, he has the right caste affiliations too, an issue that has been central to AIADMK’s electoral strategy in recent years.

But as 2021, or possibly 2019 (when the next general election is held) draws closer, it is hard to see the AIADMK cohering as a formidable electoral force under him or Sasikala or any other party leader.

AIADMK supremo was one single point which the power, money and politics revolved in Tamil Nadu. In a twist in tale, their arch-rival Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) leader M Karunanidhi, a nonagenerian is also ailing.

Similar to the Mayawati’s Bahujan Samajwadi Party and Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress, Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK is also a single leader driven party which is structured and organised solely around the charisma of the party supremo.

Hence for these parties, succession poses the greatest crisis for there is neither the convenience of blood nor a political mechanism to choose a successor, and even if there were, there is certainly no leader who can aspire to play the larger-than-life individual role that the electorate has come to expect of the party.

However, Jayalalithaa managed to overcome the same issue when her mentor MGR died in December 1987.

At the time, it was far from certain that the mantle of leadership would be hers. Indeed, the dynastic-patriarchal tradition in Indian politics thrust power into the hands of MGR’s widow, Janaki, if only for 24 days. The party, however, knew its future would be more secure under the charismatic Jayalalithaa and rebelled against its new leader.

President’s rule was imposed and the DMK came to power when elections were held. But as the 1991 elections approached, the Janaki faction of the AIADMK meekly returned to the ‘mother’ party, which won. That year, at the age of 43, Jayalalithaa became chief minister of Tamil Nadu. This is also when she consciously styled herself as ‘amma’, or mother.

Kalyanraman explains the significance: “During a students’ agitation against a hike in the fares of state-owned buses, Jayalalithaa pleaded with students not to disrupt their studies. Barely in her forties, she adopted the role of a mother figure in doing this. Over time, Amma has become a political and marketing brand – a reminder to Tamil Nadu’s poor that ‘The Mother’ is watching.”

From then on, the die was cast and it was clear that the party, despite Jayalalithaa’s own liberal cultural moorings, would go further and further down the autocratic path.

She enjoyed an unchecked authority of the party which proved disastrous for her. Many of the decisions taken during her tenure as chief minister were raised as allegations of corruption which haunted her political career.

Unlike the national parties, which has a different take and attitude towards the crimes in the politics, Tamil Nadu was lot more personal because of their bonding.

The intensive rivalry among Karunanindhi and Jayalalithaa prompted them to file cases on history of their hands on crimes. A docket was prepared that even at the time of her death was the subject of litigation before the Supreme Court.

The rivalry between the two titans of the state would sometimes get expressed in other, more destructive forms. Karunanidhi built a grand edifice on Mount Road in order to shift the cramped state secretariat; when Jayalalithaa returned as chief minister in 2011, she promptly moth-balled the building until a public campaign by The Hindu led her to announce it would be converted into a hospital.

A wonderful public library established by the erstwhile DMK government also came into her cross-hairs before she backed off in the face of public pressure. Garden-variety criticism of the kind opposition parties routinely make would, in Tamil Nadu under Jayalalithaa, routinely be turned into a case of criminal defamation against the leader – and the media that reported the leader’s remarks.

As editor of The Hindu during her third – and least capricious term as CM – I had two criminal defamation cases slapped against me for merely reporting what DMK leaders had said in a press conference.

While the disproportionate assets matter against Jayalalithaa in the Supreme Court will now no doubt be abandoned, those defamation cases will likely linger on even after her death.

If the AIADMK gradually weakens, it is tempting to speculate over what might take its place. The DMK will almost certainly go into the next elections under M.K. Stalin’s leadership and would hope to profit over the long haul from the death of their most formidable political opponent.

But this may also be the moment for the smaller parties – the Pattali Makkal Katchi, the MDMK of Vaiko, the Dalit parties – to try and expand their influence. Vijaykant’s DMDK will also fancy its chances, as will the Congress and BJP, especially the latter.

All told, Tamil Nadu politics which had become rather stagnant of late finally has a chance to turn fluid. And less predictable.

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