She was a glam doll actress; a Brahmin heading a party formed by spewing anti Brahmin rhetoric; a woman politician in patriarchal conservative Tamil Nadu. Three strikes that should have left her in the lurch. Yet Jayaram Jayalalitha, the Puratchi Thalaivi Amma, landed squarely in Fort St George as the youngest and first woman Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. This feisty leader has her sights set in distant Delhi. Will her express gather enough steam to railroad all the way to Red Fort?
Komalavalli wanted to become a lawyer. She was convent educated, strongly opinionated and a stunner. Tamil cinema was lounging around with traditional arm candies and was quite unprepared for this dazzling diva. Yet when MGR saw the rushes of her first Tamil film VenniraAdai(Widow’s dress), he was entranced. He signed the 14 year old teen for Aayirathil Oruvan(One in a thousand) and they scorched the screens together in 28 films. Despite their inter-generational age difference (31 years), MGR and JJ was the touted pair but with the urging of political stalwarts like Annadurai they romanced other stars. With lynchpins and lackeys working tirelessly to keep the couple apart, MGR and Jayalalitha spent a decade in severance. MGR became Chief Minister and when the time came, he boomeranged and chose her as his political lieutenant.
Although Jayalalitha discredits MGR for entry into politics, he made her passage precipitous. After MGR became Chief Minister, Karunanidhi was a bitter loser and his oratorical skills deftly played on the people’s ears. MGR needed a charming crowd puller. He turned to his former ally and Jayalalitha addressed the thronging crowd in Cuddalore in 1982 on the greatness of women (Pennin Perumai). If MGR was the star, Jayalalitha enhanced his sheen and together they were magical. She became the propagandasecretary in 1983 and was a roaring success. MGR also appointed her as the RajyaSabha representative (1984-1989) for her fluency in English. When MGR passed away in 1987, Janaki would assume power for an intermittent period. It was immaterial to the people that Janaki was MGR’s wedded wife, for them, Jayalalitha was his true political heir.
Holding the reins of the AIADMK after MGR’s demise was an uphill climb for Jayalalitha. But she was rapacious in bringing the party under her absolute control and became the first woman Leader of the Opposition in 1989. In the succeeding budget session (one of the ugliest in TN history) arguments sprung out and violence erupted. Jayalalitha witnessed the obscene face of politics when several DMK party men allegedly manhandled her. As a disheveled and distraught woman, she swore to enter the house again only when she would be treated with absolute respect. When Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated, her alliance with the Congress rode a wave of sympathy in addition to her call as the wronged woman and the people gave her a thumping victory. She occupied the chair of the Honorable Chief Minister in 1991.
Jayalalitha has various municipal schemes to her credit – from the Cradle baby scheme (1992) to Amma Canteens but the one that remains glaring is her record (in the Guinness Records) for hosting the most pompous wedding banquet for her foster son. Although Jayalalitha thrived in the shadows of MGR, her landslide victory in 1991 was testament to the charisma and power she wielded with the people single handedly. In her first term, she decided to flaunt this authority – From senior senile men prostrating shamelessly on her feet, to the larger than life cut outs that enveloped the state, to the grandiose wedding she wanted everybody to partake in the celebration. But the curtains closed prematurely.
In 1996,AIADMK lost to DMK and Jayalalitha herself was defeated in her home constituency Bargur. When MGR died, his body was paraded for public sentiment to appease. Jayalalitha, his arm candy and political companion was shoved away from the cortege unceremoniously. She was the other woman and was left to languish in solitude. This isolation and vulnerability which sparked her political ambitions was later capitalized by the Mannargudi Mafia (a moniker famously associated with Sashikala and Natrajan.
Natrajan was the PRO of an IAS officer, Chandralekha (groomed by MGR) and Sashikala was interested in filming the lady leader Jayalalitha.) A friendship that started out of forlornness would result in Sashikala wielding her influence from administrative to domestic matters. Jayalalitha has been victimized by several men in her life – her father, MGR, her one time live in friend Shoban Babubut the lone woman in her life would eventually bring her greatest downfall. Sashikala has succeeded in keeping several of Jayalalitha’s confidants at arm’s length – ChoRamaswamy, a man of keen political acumen and an ally was banished, Salem Kannan who helped her find footing in the AIADMK was ostracized, former MP’s and Amma loyalists Thirunavukarasu and John are persona non grata. Sashikala alone was her eyes and ears through which her political ploys played out – Jayalalitha attended a tea party hosted by Sonia and dumped the Vajpayee government, was indicted in the TANSI land grab case and served as a non-elected Chief Minister in 2001 all under the Mafia’s alleged stratagem.
The house of cards that Sashikala erected so painstakingly would come crumbling down after the 2011 elections which brought the AIADMK to the forefront. Although the elections were won due to the anti-incumbency sentiment towards the DMK, Jayalalitha was shrewd to assimilate her power. She expelled Sashikala, Natrajan and their cohorts from the party, floated a thirdfront with Mamta Banerjee (who openly favors Amma) and has Modi in tenterhooks.
While Tamil Nadu goes to polls in the coming days, Amma’s stroke of hand will be her ultimate crowning glory to a career that has been a bed of thorns. Will she nurse that post poll alliance with BJP or seize the top spot herself? With nothing to lose, Jayalalitha knows better than to head a turbulent alliance in the center when she has the cushions of the Chief Minister comforting her. But by winning a majority in Tamil Nadu and collaborating with the winner, Jayaram Jayalalitha would finally preside over the right side of life and politics.