The lasting image of J Jayalalithaa is of a woman who fought against great odds and established herself as a big, mass leader in Tamil Nadu.
Great odds because she did not belong to any political family or dynasty. In that sense, she was an outsider who had to fight for her political position both during MGR’s lifetime—even when MGR was her mentor—and afterwards.
I came to know her when I was the general secretary of CPI(M) between 2008-2014. That was the period when our party had an understanding with the AIADMK for assembly and Lok Sabha polls. She used to always say, “I am the general secretary of an ‘All India’ party. Therefore, I will only talk to my counterpart in other parties.”
We would sit together and reach at a broad understanding and then the state level leaders from both sides would sit and finalise the seat-sharing arrangement. I met her not only for polls but to also exchange views and invite her for joining programmes.
She was a highly intelligent politician. In the same time very strong-willed. For us, it had its positive and the negative. She had clear views and would stick to them. This made it very easy to talk to her. We knew what she stands for and what she will not do. Unlike the run-of-the-mill politicians, she was never hesitant to speak her mind even if it was an unpopular stand to take.
She also had a sense of humour and passed comments about other political leaders.
We are of the same age. She and I passed out of school in the same year. After that, I knew her as a filmstar. We have seen how she evolved as an unquestioned mass leader.
In her term as a CM between 2011 to 2016 she brought in a lot of social welfare measures. She was very proud of her amma canteens and once gave me a long lecture on how it works and how many cities or towns serve healthy food to urban poor.
People will also remember her for giving 20 kg rice which she called as the “priceless rice”. Priceless, because it was free. It was no gimmick.
I met her the first time at a house. But when she was in power, I generally met her at the Secretariat.
I met her last in 2014. The message came from her asking me to come at a certain time. She postponed it by half an hour but we met. At the end of our talks, she said, “I was unwell and thought of cancelling our meetings. But then I thought you will be annoyed. I came here just for you. But now, after I talked to you, I feel better.”
(as told to Saubhadra Chatterji)