Jaya inherited MGR’s legacy... She could have gone far with a legacy like that.
J. Jayalalithaa, who died in Chennai late on Monday night after a prolonged battle, aged 68, retained her never-die-spirit intact till cardiac arrest cut short a turbulent career which saw many ups and downs. While in her earlier years in politics, specially after MGR’s passing, she did shy away from defeat and had to be coaxed back to Chennai from her Hyderabad retreat by Rajiv Gandhi, Chandra Shekhar and her best friend and critic Cho of Thuglak. After she came to power in 1991, she learnt to take the rough with the smooth and soldier on past defeats in the polls.
Her signal contribution to MGR’s legacy was that she captained the party which emerged as an alternative to M. Karunanidhi’s DMK in the highly personality-oriented politics of Tamil Nadu. It was that which made her relevant for many years until the close. She marched ahead of her arch-rival and bête noire and scored two consecutive terms. Ironically, she died in her hour of glory, her party back in power defying the five-year alternative vote of the deeply imbedded Dravidian politics of the state.
Her foray into national politics was far from successful and her attempt to project herself as a prime ministerial candidate against Narendra Modi in the last Lok Sabha election was a failure. The ambitions of many in floating a third political front never came to fruition and she might have understood that lesson somewhat late. Her sweep in the state showed that though she was the unquestioned monarch of Tamil Nadu, she did not have a true national appeal. As one who has followed her career as a filmstar from her debut in Vennira Aadai to her early 1980s plunge into the rough and tumble of politics, I always felt she did not give of her best either as an actor or as a political leader, given her immense talent. Her intelligence was capable of making her a far greater person in both fields. It is a wonder then that her charisma built up so much that she became “Amma” of the masses. Curiously, she could be aloof from the masses, as she was in the era of video presence in her 2011 term, and yet be their darling in every sense.
Family circumstances forced her into the cinema world, something she loathed. It was later MGR’s dependence on her during his initial years as chief minister, when he was unused to ways of governance, which fuelled her political ambition. In other words, she was a reluctant entrant into both the worlds of cinema and politics. As a result, she remained an indifferent actor whose heart was not in it and a politician who had only lofty contempt for her second-rung leaders who she knew were out to exploit her mass following to feather their own nest. It was from this contempt that the cult of sycophancy grew and she may have encouraged it because she simply enjoyed the spectacle of men prostrating before a woman.
It was true that it was MGR who saved her when she attempted to commit suicide after her mother Sandhya’s death. He also set right her fortunes. On the flip side, he never allowed her to have a personal life of her own, having been possessive in the extreme. When MGR died, her instinctive reaction was “a great weight off my shoulders”, although she did wage a great battle to gain his political legacy.
Naturally, she saw all men as exploiters. When MGR inveigled Sasikala into her household to keep an eye on her, she turned to her for emotional support. The various corruption cases which erupted during her first term as chief minister from 1991 to 1996 arose because it was alleged that Sasikala may have wanted to get rich quick. In fact, Jayalalithaa herself had admitted this when she banished Sasikala and family after the 1996 poll rout. Even during her days as a filmstar, Jayalalithaa never flaunted her wealth. Contrast this with the impression that Sasikala, bejewelled from head to toe, gave as she celebrated the mega-wedding of her nephew, which proved to be Jaya’s political undoing. Remember her swearing off jewels after her 1996 rout, a promise she kept till the very end, going to her grave in her favourite green sari, colours having been a symbol of her belief in the mystical.
The disproportionate assets case was a legacy of that era which ruined her health finally. Her conviction by a special court in Bengaluru in 2015 leading to her instant disqualification as chief minister was a blow from which she never fully recovered. True, the high court acquitted her. It was news that the two-judge Supreme Court bench was expected to give its verdict on the appeal any time which may have added to her tension, leading to her hospitalisation.
She inherited MGR’s legacy. The MGR fans accepted her as his heir. She could have gone far with a legacy like that. But then, it was her inborn feeling of insecurity which made her dependent on money power as clout, instead of her own mass appeal, which snowballed into such a phenomenon in the state of Tamil Nadu that she could have ruled on had she lived.
While MGR lives on in memory because he was loved by the masses. Jaya was to a certain extent feared, even by adherents. In a roller-coaster of a political life lived under intense scrutiny, she may have ended up with as many detractors as admirers despite her four terms as chief minister of Tamil Nadu. The womenfolk, steeped in poverty, among the grieving masses were her true admirers to the very end. Their tears were symbolic of the connect she had with the masses, irrespective of her reluctance to don any of the roles that landed on her.