In 1991, J Jayalalithaa had already proven her legitimacy within her party and was vying for her entry into Fort St George as the chief minister of the state. “Look upon me as a candidate for each of the 234 seats,” she told the voters then. She redeemed herself with the results and as a leading national daily magazine put it, emerged as the undisputed empress of Tamil Nadu.
In 1991, her critics attributed the success to the sympathy wave after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi but those who followed her journey and Tamil Nadu politics knew better. “She would have won even without the tragedy. The assault on her in the assembly in 1989 won her the sympathy of the masses. Like MGR, after assuming office, she made remarkable decisions in the government,” says senior journalist S Ramesh.
She had the affection of the people in general and women in particular. “When she began her career, she had to fight opposition within the ADMK. It was tough despite MGR’s patronage. A section of the party tried to finish her career off but failed. After the 1989 debacle of Janaki, she was accepted as the heir of MGR,” Ramesh points out.
The 2011 census showed that urban Tamil Nadu grew faster than the rural population. Affordable food for this section of urban migrants was an issue, and her canteen scheme was an instant hit. “I told her Amma Unavagam would become a milestone in her career and she would be remembered for it,” he says.
But the story of her chequered political journey began much before 1991, at the ADMK conference in Cuddalore in June 1982. Jayalalithaa, at the threshold of politics, sent the tapes of the meeting to her friend, noted writer Sivasankari for feedback. “I had known her since she was nine and I, 13. We were both learning Bharatanatyam from K J Sarasa. She considered me like an elder sister and for me, she was Ammu. After 1984, she was nominated to the Rajya Sabha and I got busy with my personal life and we lost touch,” says Sivasankari, who points out the fact that Jayalalitha, like the former prime minister Indira Gandhi, broke the glass ceiling for women in politics.
“Four decades back, there were jobs that were perceived as men’s jobs and it was a man’s world. She was able to go past those limitations. Knowing her capabilities and intelligence, I knew she had it in her to even be the prime minister. When she had to hold a discussion or decide something, she would read up on the topic. She was a woman of extraordinary intelligence,” she recalls.
Even as the leader of a regional party, Jayalalitha understood the pulse of national politics. But her ambitions in Delhi were clipped at various points. “I think northern politics is different. Moopanar also got an opportunity but was not successful. She was aware of developments not just nationally but also internationally and during her press conferences, would nudge people to ask questions about happenings in the country and the world at large,” says Ramesh.
It is a known fact that Jayalalithaa was a voracious reader and her library in Veda Nilayam reflected her erudition.
“I would talk to her about Harold Robbins but she was not very fond of popular novels and would talk mostly about the classics. When you have the intelligence and make an effort to pursue something with it, you can achieve a lot of things. That was the same with her. She could sing well with practice and she danced well. She also had the potential to become an excellent writer, though her career as a writer lasted only for two or three years,” says Sivasankari.
In the early 1980s, Jayalalithaa took to writing for Tamil periodicals. When she began penning her life story in Kumudam, a few people raised objections when the magazine advertised the column over the radio. She even began writing fiction. “Writing was an outlet when she was away from cinema and by herself. She began writing serialised novels. I feel she could have become a top writer,” she says.
Sivasankari feels that she does not have to revisit the spots where they spent time together to remember her friend Ammu. “When I see a good book, I remember her. Back then, Silver Sands was a popular resort on the ECR. Occasionally, I would take a break from my home in Villupuram and she from her acting schedule and we would book a cottage and stay there. We would go on morning walks and talk endlessly about dance, music and books. I used to tell her that she was brilliant enough to be in Indian Foreign Service. She would laugh and push the thought aside. The thing is, in the film industry, she did not meet many people with similar wavelength to have intelligent discussions and would often sit alone and read between shots,” says Sivasankari, going back in time. “The later day Jayalalitha was a stranger to me. But her intelligence and capacity survived. That person was Jayalalithaa, not the Ammu, I knew.”