Amidst all the frenetic political deal-making all over of last week, one name kept cropping up again and again — 61-year-old J Jayalalithaa, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam chief and former Tamil Nadu chief minister.
Puratchi thalaivi (revolutionary leader), also called Amma, is back in the national limelight — all the controversies and corruption charges against her forgotten, at least in Tamil Nadu.
Projections are that Jayalalithaa, who is part of the Third Front coalition which has the Left parties, PMK and MDMK, will win a majority of the 40 seats in Tamil Nadu. This will give her a greater say in government formation and even in the choice of new prime minister — something she keeps reiterating in her campaign speeches.
Canny politician that she is and sensing the public mood in the Lankan Tamils issue, Jayalalitha has this time round junked her 17-year opposition to the LTTE. She now supports the creation of a separate ‘Tamil Eelam’ state in Sri Lanka, even sending the Indian army for a ‘Bangladesh-like operation’, if need be! “It (1987 Indo-Sri Lanka Accord) does not make sense in a milieu where the Sri Lankan government does not abide by any democratic principles,” Jaya lalithaa told this HT correspondent a few days ago, responding to Sonia Gandhi’s remark at a rally in Chennai that a political solution had to be within that accord’s framework.
Born in Mysore, Karnataka on February 24, 1948, Jayalalithaa’s father Jayaram died when she was two. Her family relocated to Bangalore and then Chennai, where Jayalalitha was considered a ‘Kannadiga’ until people realised that she came from a Tamil Iyengar Brahmin family from Srirangam.
Her mother, Sandhya, thrust her into films when she 16, after she had cleared her matriculation with flying colours from the Church Park Convent school, Chennai. A voracious reader of English literature, and a Bharatnayam dancer, even M Karunanidhi is known to have praised her artistic abilities.
The director Sreedhar gave Jayalalithaa her first break in Tamil cinema in Vennira Aadai (White Garment)’, but her big break with MGR was Aayirathil Oruvan (One in a Thousand)’ in the mid-1960s, which made the pair one of the most sought after in the Chennai film industry. In her 15-year career in cinema, Jayalalithaa acted in over 130 films including in Kannada, Telugu and an English movie, The Epistle.
She joined the AIADMK in 1982, impressed MGR enough with her organisational and oratorical abilities to be made the party’s propaganda secretary and later Rajya Sabha member in 1984. In Delhi, Jayalalithaa also caught Indira Gandhi’s attention with her maiden Parliament speech.
On December 24, 1987, MGR died and so began Jayalalithaa’s fight to claim her mentor’s political legacy. It was a bitter mess, reaching a nadir on March 25, 1989, when she was assaulted in the Tamil Nadu assembly. That led to the reunification of the AIADMK — the party had split, with one faction headed by MGR’s wife Janaki —under Jayalalithaa. But it was only in June 1991, when she won the assembly elections in Tamil Nadu riding a sympathy wave after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, that Jayalalithaa truly came into her own.
Jayalalithaa’s authoritarian style of functioning set off the ‘politics of vendetta’, with the subsequent DMK regime slapping an incredible 48 criminal cases against her and her erstwhile cabinet colleagues for various corruption charges. When Jayalalithaa came back to power in 2001, she arrested Karunanidhi.
Many in AIADMK would now like to see her as prime minister. But is Jayalalithaa prime ministerial material? “Yes, of course,”says her long-time friend, Cho S. Ramaswamy, editor of the Tamil political weekly, Thuglak. “She has the capacity, the courage to take decisions; she grasps issues quickly and she knows Hindi and English,” avers Cho. “But I don’t think it is going to happen.”
That remains to be seen.