Last year, the MGR-Jayalalithaa starrer Aayirathil Oruvan was screened at the International Indian Film Festival in Goa. G Chockalingam, who distributed the digitally remastered version of the film saw the youngsters in the audience look on in wonder at the persona called Jayalalithaa. “They had grown in the post-MGR era were enraptured by the multi-talented facet of Jayalalithaa on screen. That people from the older generation enjoyed the re-released version wasn’t surprising. But even youngsters connected to it. They were seeing a person whom they had hitherto seen only as a politician,” he says.
It’s been two years since the former chief minister of Tamil Nadu J Jayalalithaa passed away and still she remains an enigma of Tamil Nadu politics. Having joined the ADMK in June 1982, she was elevated to the position of the propaganda secretary of the party. Very soon, people started seeing her as the one chosen by MGR himself, though he never made a formal declaration about it. Many wondered if she could step into the shoes of a man who was a demi-god in Tamil Nadu.
Vaasanthi, who wrote a biography of Jayalalithaa attributes her success to her intelligence and charisma.
“When she became the propaganda secretary pf the party, she got in touch with the cadre and the workers directly. She was extremely charismatic and they had already loved her as actress. They believed she was the chosen one by MGR, a man whom they all loved, though he did not choose any heir. Wherever she went, the crowds came to see her,” she says.
From being called Chintanai Selvi and Puratchi Selvi, she soon became Puratchi Thalaivi, the revolutionary leader, donning the mantle of her predecessor and mentor MGR. R Kannan, the biographer of MGR, points out the fact that MGR’s legacy was that of a welfare state. “He believed in an efficient administration, upgradation of educational and medical sectors, a solid vote bank and good relations with the centre. Jayalalithaa initially stood on his shoulders but she came into her own after 1991 and devised her own welfare schemes. She grew stronger than MGR and became pharaoh like and she depended mostly on the civil service. She was confrontationist and a maximalist when it came to securing things for herself. But her gamble paid off and in the last elections she had the guts to stand alone in all constituencies – a tall act.”
In fact, very early in her political career, she was to be associated with a welfare scheme, when MGR made her a member of the advisory committee to oversee the noon meal scheme. “The noon meal scheme was propagated by MGR. It was first started by Kamarajar and taken to another level by MGR. That helped a lot. But when Jayalalithaa came to power, she widened the scope of all welfare schemes. With schemes like offering 20kg rice to over 1.83 crore family-card holders, goats and cows for people to gain a sustained income, separate enclosures at bus stations for lactating women and bicycles to girl students, she was able to become a mother figure to the masses. As a woman she was able to think of the need to reduce the household chores of women by distributing mixers and grinders. Perhaps only a woman could have thought along these lines,” says Vaasanthi.
There are many reasons she could take over the mantle of MGR, which was by no means an easy act. As Kannan puts it, Jayalalithaa was a quick learner.
“She was charismatic and the womenfolk loved her. She soon learnt to connect with the masses. The anti-DMK crowd saw her as the person who could carry MGR’s legacy. And she did. She went to extremes to display her DMK hate. Her leadership skills, her charisma and her hold on the cadres and a reasonably tight administration that she ran soon catapulted into her mentor’s shoes and status – demi god.”
But MGR was more than an actor. “He was first and foremost a party worker and all his fan clubs were members of the DMK. That is why he derived such strength and the vote bank became very strong. That wasn’t the case for the other stars who have come later,” says Vaasanthi.
She was also able to look at the national picture, thanks to her education and her political career. “She was convent educated and a very intelligent woman. She was conversant in English and Hindi. For the north Indian media, she was a darling. Once she became powerful in Tamil Nadu and decimated the DMK, her main rival, she started spreading her wings and had national aspirations. She started speaking about national issues,” says Vaasanthi.
According to Kannan, Jayalalithaa’s biggest achievement politically was to keep the DMK at bay except once. She created a record by winning 37 of the 39 seats. But long before any of this was possible, she had several odds stacked against her. As Vaasanthi puts it, “It was a wonder that she became a powerful leader despite being a woman, an actor and a brahmin. All these three were hurdles for her. She came over all these just by her intelligence and charisma. Winning over the people was her biggest asset and the masses did not consider her gender or caste. She was seen as a benevolent queen or a mother giving all the welfare schemes.”
Even corruption charges against her did not stick on for long, despite a court ruling. “People even today think she was not guilty and she was innocent and falsely charged,” says Vaasanthi. And she did not forgive or forget, as women were expected to do traditionally. “She never forgave her opponents. She wasn’t a forgiving woman even within her party. From childhood, it was a characteristic and she had strong likes and dislikes. She was a very lonely woman. She alienated herself from everyone and her well-wishers. A group of people took advantage and she fell victim.”
Larger than life figures are perhaps a matter of past. But one cannot say. Many people are laying stakes to be the future of the state.
“History changes fast. Tamil Nadu politics and modern society is ever changing. Jayalalitha beat the odds overriding all expectations. So you can never say if there will be another leader of such proportions or not,” says Vaasanthi,
“As of now it is difficult to think that we could have a Kamaraj, Anna, Kalaignar, MGR or Jayalalithaa. Those days are perhaps over. Stalin has the potential to rise above the fray and become acceptable beyond his party. But time will show. There is some element of traction for Dinakaran among those who watch him and listen to him – he is able to rally crowds and whether one likes it or not he is able to connect to a section of the people. These parliamentary polls and the next years will be telling. EPS on the other hand has proven to be a very shrewd political operator and has consolidated his hold over the ruling AIADMK. The way he is stitching alliances is also astute. We need to watch these three.”
A shorter version of this story was published in The Times of India on February 24, 2019 on Jayalalithaa’s 71st birthday