Chief Minister Jayalalithaa:
An influential figure in post-Congress India, she was mercurial on Sri Lanka


by Rajan Philips

Chief Minister Jayalalithaa who passed away last week was a much maligned figure throughout her political life, but she evoked as much love and adoration among her followers as she provoked ridicule and hate among her detractors. Her political epitaph could well be that she was a very influential Tamil Nadu Chief Minister in post-Congress India. Jayalalithaa wielded remarkable influence for nearly thirty yearswhile the Indian Union and its constituent Stateskept jostling towards a new equilibriumeven as the once dominant Congress Party kept losing power at the centre and in state after state. That she did not always use this influence quite properly and productively would be a reasonable qualifier to her epitaph. In fact, her biggest political achievements were in climbing back to political power and reckoning, time after time, after suffering electoral defeats and political irrelevance through her own follies and the traps set by her adversaries.

Death bridges divisions in political life, perhaps more than it does in personal lives. So it did in Tamil Nadu, as tributes flowed in from across the political divides, with her relentless adversary and the grand old patriarch of Dravidian politics, 92 year old M. Karunanidhi, lamenting her death at so young an age (she was 68, which is 38 as 70 is the new 40) and reiterating the Tamil adage that her fame will far outlive her death. Tributes across India, the condolence sessions at the two houses of parliament in Delhi, and Prime Minister Modi flying to Chennai for the funeral were indicative of the political respect that Jayalalithaa had earned at the national level. And thousands thronged the funeral procession from the historic Rajaji Hall to Chennai’s long Marina beech.

The inconsistency and opportunism that she was often criticised for were seen in full measure in the positions she took on the Tamil question in Sri Lanka. After becoming the chief denouncer of the LTTE after it assassinated Rajiv Gandhi in 1988, she swung through 180 degrees to become the chief advocate for Tamil Eelam after the LTTE was decimated in 2009. On both occasions, her primary motive was to gain electoral advantage by discrediting her political opponent and DMK leader M. Karunanidhi, who too flip-flopped on the Sri Lankan question for electoral advantage. That said and with the benefit of hindsight, I would suggest in this obituary that of the three Tamil Nadu Chief Ministers (Karunanidhi, MG Ramachandran and Jayalalithaa) after 1977, Jayalalithaa was the one person who could have played an intermediary role in developing a consensus between the Sri Lankan government, Tamil political organizations and New Delhi. This suggestion is based entirely on my reading of the background and attributes that Jayalalithaa brought to her politics. Seen that way, it was a missed opportunity for Sri Lanka even though it was not anyone’s fault that it turned out to be so.

Political obituaries are invariably balanced articulations of the personal attributes of political leaders, their style of leadership, the sociopolitical forces they mirrored and mobilized, and the consequences they generated. In this brief obituary, I am inclined to focus on the dialectic between Jayalalithaa’s background and attributes, on the one hand, and the sociopolitical forces in Tamil Nadu that she mobilized to engineer electoral success in the State and exercise influence in Delhi, on the other. It is not my purpose to offer judgement on her achievements or her failures, but to reflect onwhat it was for India and Tamil during Jayalalithaa’s time in politics and what was missed in regard to Sri Lanka.

The parpaththi who led an

anti-Brahmin movement

"Nan oruParpaththi (I am a Brahmin woman)", Jayalalithaa would declare without hesitation early on in her political career to deny her detractors in the Dravidian movement the caste cudgel that they would have gladly used to put her on the defensive. Instead, she went on the offensive in a deeply religious, caste ridden and tradition laden society and won its acceptance as a political leader despite her being a convent-educated, never married and single Brahmin woman, and taking over the leadership of an organization that at its core stood for rationalism, atheism and ending Brahmin domination in Tamil Nadu. That she was a popular film star and was inducted into politics by her film-world and life partner-mentor, MG Ramachandran (MGR) after he became Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, certainly gave her a strong beginning. But everything after the induction was her earning, and she owed nothing to anybody for all her political achievements just as she alone was responsible for all her political failures.

I am inclined to emphasize the gender aspect of Jayalalithaa’s politics in light of America’s inability to elect its first female president in the November presidential election. Even without the patriarchy of traditional societies, the immigrant American society put on anappallingdisplay of male vulgarity and chauvinism to attack and discredit Hillary Clinton. The emergence of women leaders in South Asiansocieties has been attributed to the practice of residual inheritance – where women become ‘residual heirs’ of family property in the absence of male heirs. From Sirimavo Bandaranaike to Sonia Gandhi, widows, daughters and daughters- -in-law became political successors in South Asian countries, although in the case of Sonia Gandhi the succession was vicarious and indirect. But residual inheritance could only be one explanation, for in every South Asian country where women became political successors there were other country-specific reasons that enabled their succession as well as their downfalls.

Jayalalithaa, on the other hand, broke convention in that she was not the traditional successor to MGR. Socially, it could be argued, that it was not unconventional for men of power and wealth in Tamil Nadu to possess two houses, if not more, the big house and the small house. After MGR’s death in 1987, there was a tussle between MGR’s wife, Janaki Ramachandran, and Jayalalithaa and their followers over political succession, and Jayalalithaa prevailed. It was even reported that Jayalalithaa apparently considered sati (widow immolation) at MGR’s funeral. Mercifully, she did not carry out that dreadful and dead tradition. More to the point, Jayalalithaa brought to her politics attributes that resonated well but differentially with different sections of the people of Tamil Nadu.

South Indian Tamil society is not a monolithic entity, but a society of nearly 80 million people who are vibrantly divided by region, religion caste and class, and who have learnt to co-exist administratively and economically while differing politically and socially in a modern state since it was first established by the British in 1653 as the then Madras Presidency. The Tamilian bourgeoisie is pan-Indian and multi-lingual, and Chennai one of India’s three major port cities, has always been a cosmopolitanand multi-lingual city, not so much in terms of westernization but in being the settled home to merchants, professionals, academics and artists from practically every state in India.

It would seem that Jayalalithaa was able to relate to this Tamilian diversity as well as, if not better than, any of her male political contenders. On the one hand, the ‘haughty aloofness’ that she became noted for during her first term (1991-1996) as Chief Minister, could be attributed to her Tamil Brahmin family roots. Her maternal grandfather was the principal surgeon in the princely state of Mysore (now Karnataka) and her paternal father was aeronautical engineer who moved from Tamil Nadu to Mysore.On the other hand, like MGR, she used the medium of her film popularity to empathize with the marginalized sections of the Tamil society – the poor, the rural peasants, unorganized workers and urban underclasses.

Jayalalithaa was multilingual, with fluency in Tamil, Kannada, Telugu, Hindi and English, and acted not only in hundreds of Tamil films but also quite a few Telugu and Kannada films. She was born in Mysore, had her early education in Bangalore’s Bishop Cotton Girl’s School. She later studied in Tamil Nadu, becoming first in the state in the Grade 10 examination, before joining Stella Maris (university college) run by Catholic nuns in Chennai. She lost her father when she was two years old and it was their family circumstances that moved first her mother and then, on mother’s insistence, Jayalalithaa into dancing and acting giving up her studies. Perhaps in her own mind, surveying the field of her Dravidian political contenders, she would have felt an edge of superiority over every one of them. And they did make her pay a hefty price for it.

Given her multi-lingual fluency, MGR made her the Party’s ‘propaganda secretary’ and in 1983 got her elected to theRajya Sabha in Delhi, the upper house in India’s parliament. That was the beginning of Jayalalithaa’s Delhi and Rajya Sabha connections that would serve her well throughout her political life. Since 2014, she has been providing the Modi government its lifeline in the Rajya Sabha where the BJP lacks a majority, and the support will certainly continue under the new Chief Minister Panneerselvam. On her route to becoming Chief Minister in 1991, she became the first female Leader of the Opposition in the Tamil Nadu State Assembly in 1989. It was then the DMK government with more than a nod from Chief Minister Karunanidhi physically attacked Jayalalithaa in the assembly, tearing up her saree and forcing her to leave the legislature shaken but defiant. She theatrically, although not unjustifiably, compared her humiliation to the humiliation of Draupathi in the Mahabarataepic, and vowed political retribution.

And retribution did come to the DMK with a vengeance when Jayalalithaa led an AIADMK alliance to victory and her first term as Chief Minister in 1991. From becoming Tamil Nadu’s youngest ever Chief Minister until her death, she became the state’s alternating contender with her rival Karunanidhi. But she did better than her much older rival, winning a greater number of state and national elections and holding office for longer periods than Karunanidhi. Her terms were often marred by real and alleged corruption. She found herself on the wrong side of the law, not without trumped up charges, and disqualified from office on more than one occasion. But every time she was reinstated after winning her appeals. And she came back to haunt her opponents.

Jayalalithaa leaves behind a mixed record as Chief Minister, but what is remarkable are some of her initiatives for women in Tamil society. In 1992, she started the "Cradle Baby Scheme" to support abandoned female babies in a country that places a premium on male newborns and has even bent medical ethics to abort female fetuses. She gender-transformed the state’s police force, introducing a 30% quota for women in the state overall while starting up women-only police stations to cater to women’s needs and concerns. She established the first women police commando force in India, including all the aggressive training that male commandos go through. Gender segregation has been a curious feature in Indian buses to minimize the harassment of women. Jayalalithaa took a different turn and established libraries, banks and co-operative outlets of women, for women and by women.


(To be continued: Jayalalithaa’s Opportunism in Delhi and Missed Opportunity for Sri Lanka)

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