She was called Puratchi Thalaivi, or revolutionary leader, in Tamil, but by the time the end came, she was Amma, mother. Jayalalithaa’s desire to be a revolutionary leader saw her often defeated at the hustings, but in the eyes of the people of Tamil Nadu she was the universal mother -- Amma.
Jayalalithaa as Puratchi Thalaivi was attempting to grow out of the shadows of her mentor and founder of the AIADMK, MG Ramachandran (MGR). The men in her life had been the source of her travails: Her father died too early and not before emptying the family coffers, and she was forced into an acting career, reluctantly, despite her inclination to study.
Her acting career and her relationship with MGR is a saga of success though tumultuous, a fight even for the legitimacy of being the heir to MGR’s legacy. MGR never officially anointed her his successor. The uncertainty was the reason for her unceremoniously being ejected from his hearse, and then later the battle with his wife, which resulted in the party splitting. Her stoic battle eventually resulted in her faction emerging victorious and the two factions merging.
Her political naivete was often made obvious by her flip-flops, the most dramatic of them being her decision to withdraw support to the Vajpayee government in 1998 at the national level. But at the state level too, even as late as her 2011 stint, her alliance with the DMDK with Vijayakanth and then the falling out, was typical of her political impetuosity.
But the tragic physical assault on her in the Tamil Nadu Assembly in 1989 not just made her a bitter woman but also shaped the political culture of the State. The bitterness between the two primary Dravidian parties never ended, despite some feeble attempts towards the end. The hope is that O Paneerselvam will be able to reach across the political divide to elevate the political culture of the southern State.
During this period, she was often criticised for encouraging a culture of sycophancy in the party, with party cadre and supporters in general often genuflecting in front of her. A common site in Chennai was the huge hoardings lining the route from the Secretariat to her residence and she was known to keep an iron control over her administration.
She had a penchant for the ostentatious that landed her in a host of legal cases and the wedding of her foster son V N Sudhakaran acquired national notoriety for its ostentation. The disproportionate assets case remained a thorn in her political career even to the very end.
Jayalalithaa emerged in 2011 as the chief minister, more as Amma than as Puratchi Thalaivi. Amma canteens, Amma Water or Amma Pharmacy have been talked about to emphasize the personality cult she encouraged, but there are other welfare measures that have made the lives of girls, widows and workers hovering around the poverty line significantly better. These schemes also built Jayalalithaa a strong political base beyond caste or regional equations and the loyal base that MGR had built through his network of fan clubs that formed the backbone of the AIADMK.
She headed a 13-party alliance in the 2011 Assembly to resurrect from near political oblivion to a position where she went it alone in the last elections. She said, of what now looks like a pyhric victory, “Even when 10 parties allied themselves against me, I did not have a coalition and I placed my faith in God and built an alliance with the people. It is clear that the people have faith in me and I have total faith in the people.”
Jayalalithaa had finally come into her own. She had emerged from the travails of the patriarchal machinations that bound her life, she was firmly establishing her political legacy and she was emerging as a political leader of her own standing. Life willed otherwise.