India

Jayalalitha: The 'goddess' of Tamil Nadu politics

Jayalalitha Image copyright AFP
Image caption Jayalalitha was one of India's most charismatic and enigmatic personalities

The passing of Jayaram Jayalalitha, one of India's most flamboyant and controversial politicians, leaves a void that will be felt for a long time in both her home state, Tamil Nadu, and in the Indian political scene.

The leader of Tamil Nadu state and former actress who played a powerful goddess on screen was all too human and yet her followers deified her as a divine being.

She inspired a cult following, and adoring followers often called her "Adi parashakti" - which means the ultimate powerful goddess in Tamil.

She was one of India's most charismatic and enigmatic personalities, single-handedly holding her own in the masculine world of Tamil politics and effectively breaking a more than 30-year-old culture of male dominance.

Successful actress

While there have been several female leaders across Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh and India, Jayalalitha came from a different background.

Other female premiers, like Indira Gandhi, Benazir Bhutto, Sheikh Hasina and Sirimavo Bandaranaike, all came from political families.

Jayalalitha, on the other hand, came from a middle-class family, where her mother was a small-time actress.

On various occasions she described herself as a prim, convent-bred girl who had dreamt of a world of academic and legal studies with an interest in English theatre.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Actor and director MG Ramachandran was Jayalalitha's mentor, and inducted her into the movies

She topped her state in her school-leaving exams and was awarded a scholarship to college studies. However, to tide over her family's financial crisis, she began to act instead.

Actor and late Tamil Nadu chief minister MG Ramachandran was Jayalalitha's mentor, and inducted her into the movies.

She acted in more than 140 films from the 1960s. She was a successful actress of her time, paired with the top heroes of all south Indian languages.

Challenging norms

Her ability to speak English, considered a social marker, and ability to sing marked her skills in the movie business.

And, even in her acting career, Jayalalitha was not afraid to challenge established norms.

A common trope in films of the time was that of the "spoilt shrew tamed by the hero". But Jayalalitha soon tired of that stereotype - and eventually started playing independent women who resisted traditional roles for women.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Jayalalitha met Hillary Clinton when the latter visited Tamil Nadu in 2011

Fame and success came at a cost, though - there was intense tabloid interest in her private life, while her heartbreaks were fodder for local Tamil magazines.

She came under similar scrutiny when she became a politician.

After a lull in her career she was inducted into the regional AIADMK party as its propaganda secretary. Her maiden public address in 1982 on the power of women struck a chord with many.

Earning enemies

Jayalalitha's estrangement with her brother and family, and the fact that a companion, the wife of a small time video shop businessman, was arrested for alleged involvement in corruption scandals, added more fodder to the media and rivals hungry for her downfall.

Her loneliness and lack of family were often held up as a personality flaws by her rivals.

Critics also accused her of corruption, suppressing political rivals ruthlessly, and establishing a corrupt inner circle.

The midnight arrest of her political rivals, and her withdrawal of support to the ruling federal BJP government led by Prime Minister Vajpayee in 1999, earned her enemies among political parties across India, including her own party leaders, and the media.

Jayalalitha even earned the nickname "Imelda Marcos of India" thanks to her cult of personality and the excesses she exhibited in her first term of office as chief minister of Tamil Nadu in the 1990s.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Jayalalitha was very popular among women

And eyebrows were raised when she arranged a controversial wedding for her foster son, featuring 10 dining halls and extravagant decorations, in 1995 while she was chief minister. She disowned her foster son a year later.

Her supporters defended her from corruption allegations, saying she was no more corrupt than the male politicians of her time and was only playing a game they were all too familiar with.

Outspoken

While her rivals showcased their party's ideologies and fostered their dynastic brand of politics, Jayalalitha's lone persona as a single woman was held up for ridicule.

Jayalalitha was outspoken, saying she was proud to be a woman, an upper-caste Brahmin and a Hindu - in a state where politicians espoused the rationalistic credo of their parties and decried Brahminism and religion.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Jayalalitha led her party to power in Tamil Nadu in May
Image copyright AFP
Image caption Jayalalitha cultivated a cult of personality

But the last decade of her tenure as chief minister was marked by efforts to reshape her image into that of a benign and benevolent mother figure.

Gone were the personal excesses of silks and diamonds.

They were replaced with a sober dress code: given to belief in astrology too she began to wear dark colours, especially plain green and blue and maroon.

Uncertain future

She successfully built up a near-indelible personality cult through welfare schemes - and the inexpensive food and water products, branded "Amma" after her nickname, mother, that were provided to the poor.

Subsidies made up more than a third of Tamil Nadu's revenue spending, and the policies endeared her to women and children.

Tamil Nadu also became the first state in India to allow government hospitals to perform medical procedures on transgender people to help them fight infections.

Jayaalalitha spent a lot of time in court, facing multiple corruption allegations.

But, following each arrest, she eventually emerged unscathed.

Jayalalitha's passing leaves her party, one of the oldest regional parties in India, in a shambles.

But she will also be remembered as a woman who stood up and created her own narrative - both in the film world, and in politics.

Sudha G Tilak is an independent Delhi-based journalist

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