The Secret Life and Death of Jayalalithaa


The Secret Life and Death of Jayalalithaa

Illustration: Akshita Monga/ Arré

There is a moment in Jayalalithaa’s early film career that provides an insight into the kind of political leader she would go on to become. It was 1973, when intra-state tensions between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka could rival the recent flare-ups over the Cauvery water dispute in intensity. As a young actor born to Tamil Brahmin parents in Mysore, Jayalalithaa asserted in an interview with Vikatan magazine that even though she was born in the state, she was still a Tamilian.

This left several people and political groups unhappy, who felt she ought to have stuck to her Kannada origins. Later, an angry mob from the Kannada Chalavali Vatal Paksha party, a pro-Kannada outfit, barged past guards at a Mysore studio where Jayalalithaa was shooting, screaming, “Where is the bitch?” The mob was demanding an apology from her. Jayalalithaa unperturbed and unafraid, stood her ground and addressed the crowd defiantly in eloquent Tamil, “I have done nothing wrong. Why should I apologise? I am a Tamilian and not a Kannadiga!”

Jayalalithaa was going to need that fire and constancy of purpose to power through south India’s two power centres – the film industry and the political arena. These are also two of the most misogynistic spaces in Tamil Nadu, populated by legions of moustachioed, oily men projecting a distinctly Indian toxic masculinity. These are protected places, where women are meant to obey and dance to the tunes set by the menfolk; they are not supposed to call the shots.

To be able to call the shots, to overcome the inherent hostility of Indian public life, to get to a position where you are answerable to no man, demands a ruthless unbecoming of women. It requires a cold rooting out of any opposition, both within and outside your political party, until your coterie is whittled down to a few trusted aides. Your private life, up for minute scrutiny, must be conducted with utmost secrecy.

These are not the standards we measure our male politicians by. Men who aggressively pursue power are leaders with 56-inch chests. Women who chase the same ambitions are almost monstrous: remote, isolated, cold, and uncaring.

The stellar rise of Jayalalithaa was emblematic of the few other women politicians in public office. The climb to the top for women bears the same imprint – of unmercifully weeding out opposition, being closed and insular, functioning like autocrats – and it contrasts that of male politicians. You find its resonance in the rise of Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal, with Sonia Gandhi in New Delhi, and Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh. Their immense power softened and made palatable with unthreatening monikers like Amma, Didi, Behen, and Madam.

Mayawati, the Bahujan Samaj Party’s current leader was personally chosen by Kanshi Ram as his successor in 2001. But this seemingly orderly transition belies the dual struggle she fought: As a Dalit reaching for power in a caste-riven state, and as a woman in a patriarchal arena. Mamata Banerjee, who founded the Trinamool National Congress and is believed to function like an autocrat, suffered grievous physical attacks from CPI(M)-affiliated goondas. And Jayalalithaa too, whose mentor MGR died in 1987 leaving a bitter fight for succession, had to wrest power from the hands of scheming party members who were not willing to yield an inch. Jayalalithaa was famously pushed out of the hearse that was to carry his body to the funeral site on Marina Beach.

The bizarre displays of loyalty, the rioting upon Amma’s arrest, the suicides and rampages then only served to strengthen the legend and build a brand of a leader who loomed larger than her party.

This strain of violence and humiliation has always marked female politicians. In 1989, two years into her struggle to establish herself as the first female leader of the opposition, she was attacked by then chief minister Karunanidhi and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam members in the assembly. Pictures of her leaving the assembly with a torn saree caused a public outcry. The former actress even compared it to Draupadi’s disrobing in the Mahabharata.

This attack went to the heart of the acrimonious struggle between the two Dravidian parties and their leaders. The 93-year-old Karunanidhi’s political ambitions had largely been thwarted by Amma, who made history by being elected chief minister twice in a row – in the 2016 Assembly Elections with an overwhelming majority.

Once she came into power, Amma held on to it tightly by building around her a small, tight cordon of confidantes and by encouraging a slavish obedience and sycophancy in her party and public. Streets glowed with life-size posters of her, cinema screens danced with clips of her tireless efforts during intervals, and freebie Amma schemes abounded galore. The bizarre displays of loyalty, the rioting upon her arrest, the suicides and rampages that followed then only served to strengthen the legend and build a brand of a leader who loomed larger than her party. The AIADMK served as an extension of her will, much like the TMC is for Banerjee, or the Congress was for Indira.

Last year as we parsed reports of her death, the tight-lipped secrecy that she instituted in the party continued to be followed by AIADMK members. Information was controlled with a Stalinesque iron fist. O Panneerselvam, who was picked as her successor, remained silent, even as political journalists spent a significant portion of their day outside Chennai’s Apollo Hospital, waiting for any scraps of information on the 68-year-old. But the secrets endured.

There is much to despise in the supremo-style functioning of Jayalalithaa like that of India’s other women leaders. But in their ascent to the top, there is much to admire. In their dogged fearlessness, their incredible intelligence, and their unwillingness to bend to the capriciousness of the men around them. And therein lay Amma’s secret.

This is an updated version of a previously published piece.