If one were to learn about Jayalalithaa Jayaraman based on the paeans sung after her death, one may be misled into believing that she was a mix of Vladimir Lenin, Lee Kuan Yew and Mother Teresa. It’s gross injustice to history when public figures are eulogised in death for the sake of politeness. Making a saint of a popular leader is hypocrisy.
Jayalalithaa was a self-made woman who could have become the Prime Minister of India had she played her cards right and had control of her temper. Her best qualities were her intelligence, her determination to get something done and ability to spot talent and loyalists. But she erred in picking her aide and that tainted her career.
In my opinion, her best quality was her frankness. She may have had thousands of sycophants thronging at her feet but she spoke her mind. However, this quality is a drawback, for politicians. A successful politician is the ultimate hypocrite.
Most successful politicians can easily make a career in theatre but the paradox in Jayalalithaa’s case was that she came into politics only because she had an acting career. Her mercurial temper showed her true feelings but that not only made her cadre and lieutenants quiver but drove away potential allies needed for her to play a national political role.
A very bright student who was forced to go to tinsel town to make a living, Jayalalithaa had to often face dreadful situations in a particularly male chauvinistic profession. By the time she determinedly fought them and made a name for herself, she was lonely in tinsel town.
But Jayalalithaa was a practical person. She could undertake course correction whenever she discovered she was wrong. Her ambition apart, this is what prompted her to rebuild ties with her estranged tinsel town friend, M G Ramachandran, who by now was well ensconced as Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu.
But life was not easy for an attractive woman from celluloid in the creepy world of Dravidian politics. After the DMK dismissed rival AIADMK’s new-found fiery orator as ‘Cuddalore Cabaret’, and her party colleagues wary of her proximity to MGR tried to spread canards about her, it took Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to give her recognition in politics by congratulating her after her maiden speech in the Rajya Sabha.
Wresting MGR’s Legacy
That friendship with the Gandhis continued even though months later Indira was assassinated. When the heirs of MGR, with the backing of the veterans in the party tried to claim his legacy, Jayalalithaa knew it was time to chart her own course. She never had any qualms to publicise her proximity to the dead leader despite being dragged down by his nephew from the gun carriage with MGR’s body. “I wanted to commit sati at Marina Beach,” newspapers reported her as saying then. That should have given AIADMK leaders reasons to cremate MGR and not bury him.
After the AIADMK split, leading to President’s rule and elections, there were four factions in the fray against DMK. Congress backroom operator GK Moopanar thought this was his best chance to ensure return of his party to power and advised Rajiv Gandhi to go it alone. DMK swept the polls, strengthening the national Opposition riding the anti-Bofors wave. However, a finer analysis of the TN polls showed that Jayalalithaa’s faction was the inheritor of MGR’s legacy. It not only secured a good percentage of the votes, but won 16 seats while the rest of the factions were trounced.
After a tumultuous stint in the Opposition, when she was even physically assaulted by DMK MLAs, Jayalalithaa had her revenge when she got Rajiv Gandhi to force Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar to dismiss the DMK Government for allowing the LTTE a free run in Tamil Nadu.
In the aftermath of the Rajiv assassination, AIADMK-Congress alliance swept the 1991 polls but Jayalalithaa never realised what the MGR legacy was. If he was buried, not cremated, even his last will was to show his solidarity with Dalits and poorest sections of Tamil Nadu, that made up more than a third of the electorate, who don’t cremate the dead.
However, Jayalalithaa squandered the goodwill and people’s mandate by turning herself into an eccentric and ostentatious woman who accumulated personal wealth. Her gold, saree and sandals collection was cannon fodder for the Opposition as if accusations of corruption in TANSI land deal and colour TV case were not enough.
Poes Garden became a palace of intrigue and the Opposition questioned the role of Natarajan and his wife Sasikala in her life. But Jayalalithaa turned her back on the public mood and conducted an opulent wedding of her foster son.
When she was voted out, she did not lose heart but quickly plotted to remain politically relevant and formed a multi-party alliance that included BJP. She became the kingmaker when Vajpayee assumed power in 1998 but when NDA found her demands too difficult to meet, she pulled the Union Government down by aligning with the Congress and all other Opposition parties. She expected to become PM and was miffed with Subramanian Swamy and Sonia Gandhi for not making her another Chandra Shekhar. But after facing political irrelevance, she realigned with the Congress to win the 2001 state polls.
Opulence made way for love for the poor. She was willing to change to remain in power but her nastiness saw sudden break in several political alliances. It also saw Congress align with DMK, for the first time since 1971, to return to power in 2004. It saw the AIADMK lose the 2006 state polls despite several pro-poor schemes, because TN was a caste cauldron and alliances mattered. But after her return in 2011, in the aftermath of the 2G scam that destroyed DMK and Congress and their alliance, Jaya was even more sober.
Her rapport with Narendra Modi is said to have flourished after he tipped her off on a vital matter of health concern, courtesy the forensic lab in Ahmedabad. It also saw the Natarajans’ expulsion from Poes Garden though the wife returned soon.
Jayalalithaa was seriously ill for more than a year but there was no media scrutiny despite her holding a constitutional office. Long before her death, the TN government administration had gone on autopilot. She has left no will for her wealth or inheritor for her party. The Natarajans are back to capture the party, even as the BJP manoeuvres to occupy the vacuum. But only a leader who can win the support of TN’s caste rainbow will be able to occupy the space. At the moment, there’s none visible.
(Published on 12nd December 2016, Volume XXVIII, Issue 50)#