She was an incredible woman. Person. Totally, defying description, out of the box. No template can ever capture her, nor adequate words describe the range of her extraordinary personality.
Cliches never applied to her in life, nor will they thereafter. She towered over the landscape of Tamil Nadu’s passionate political scene, from 1982, soon after her mentor MGR introduced her to the AIADMK, and stepped out of his shadow, to serve as chief minister of this important, highly politicised and polarised state.
Just like Indira Gandhi, whom she admired, she was -- in my view disparagingly -- known as “the only man in her cabinet”. By any standards, such a statement is grossly unfair, to women in general and J Jayalalithaa in particular. She did not have to be a man to be strong, and she proved the contrary. While she rose to power, and during the course of her career, she fiercely fought these very stereotypes and annihilated them with courage and contempt. And in power, she rose way above mere gender stereotypes to be a leader who was loved and respected and implicitly obeyed.
She was, without doubt, imperious. Soon after her first election as chief minister, I was chatting with her at a dinner in Chennai, both of us holding plates of food. Nobody else ventured near, to join our conversation. However, a large number of her party leaders began to prostrate themselves on the floor, and while one after the other continued to do this, she barely spared them a glance, simply continued to talk to me.
I must confess to a moment of satisfaction that so many men in our still male chauvinistic society were genuflecting to this strong woman. This last term, however, I believe, she gave instructions, that her party colleagues should avoid genuflection.
Her legacy is inevitably of a mass charismatic leader, who kept the AIADMK together after the death of MGR. I do not believe any other leader could have managed this.
Some may call her welfare schemes populist and election-oriented but without going into the economics of it, there can be little doubt that her Amma canteens, Amma pharmacies, and other important schemes have earned her an iconic and beloved status in the hearts of Tamilians.
She genuinely believed in the rights of women, and wanted to empower them. Tamil Nadu has the largest number of women police stations for any state in the country, and these police stations actually work.
The election promise she fulfilled of giving every girl student who passed Class 10 a bicycle, in my view, is one of the most important, praiseworthy, woman empowering initiatives any chief minister has implemented in independent India. The mobility, the sense of freedom, the sense of purpose, the feeling of having a control over their own lives this bicycle gave the young girls in our villages, is something that should go down in our country’s history in letters of gold.
It seems like such a simple promise, but I witnessed first hand the empowerment it provided to thousands of young girls. For me, this alone, is achievement enough.
She brought industry to the state, particularly in the auto sector, and was quick to fight, loud and hard, for the rights of Tamil Nadu. The state has lost a vociferous, fearless champion.
It was a delight to watch her in the legislature, armed to perfection with facts, figures and details and a formidable opponent in a debate -- when debates happened.
She spoke and wrote at least five languages with great fluency and as a child, I remember stepping into her library at her home and being awe struck. She loved books and reading. When she attended my wedding in 1974, she gave me books as a present because she knew I loved reading too. However, all the time, she was at my reception nobody looked at the bride or groom, only at her! Such was her charisma , even then.
Politically, we were often in opposite camps, and she was unrelenting in her displeasure. In fact, she was unrelenting even as an ally. I remember, one time when my then party, the TMC, was in alliance with her and seat-sharing talks had run into rough weather. While all of us from TMC were at a public meeting commemorating our foundation day, news channels were broadcasting the AIADMK candidates and their seats. We had to take it or leave, the paltry number she had left for us. There were many red faces on the podium that evening.
Perhaps, that is the essence of Jayalalithaa. She was a fighter. A brave, gutsy, feisty daring fighter. And she gave nor expected any quarter. Her path was never easy, and her tribulations formidable, but she fought her way through politics and life with grim tenacity and a vastly superior intelligence.
She took risks that no politician would normally take -- she spurned, rejected, sometimes scorned allies, and always wanted to fight electoral battles on her own terms. But, these gambles brought her rich dividends and earned her the respect of not just party colleagues but of the entire political class.
Tamil Nadu after her is a conundrum. The vacuum is immense. The opposition DMK is strong and organised but the AIADMK will have a very difficult time in finding someone who can even remotely fill the space she has left behind. If the AIADMK remains united, and strong, it can carry forward the legacy of MGR and Jayalalithaa, and continue to be a driving force in Tamil Nadu politics but time alone can tell if their efforts will meet with success.
(The writer is a three-time Rajya Sabha MP from Tamil Nadu)