RIP AMMA: J. Jayalalitha (1948-2016)

Published: December 6, 2016 - 20:49 Updated: August 8, 2017 - 15:44

Perhaps the biggest legacy of Jayalalitha would be that she stridently fought female infanticide and foeticide in Tamil Nadu


Perhaps there was no more striking paradox in Tamil Nadu politics than the fact that Jayalalitha, a Tamil Brahman, was leading a Dravidian party. It must be remembered that the Dravidian movement eschewed the hegemony of Brahmins in political discourse for the longest time. Jayalalitha’s ascension then had little to do with her caste but more to do with her prospicient association with the brightest star in the firmament of Dravidian politics: MG Ramachandran or as he was fondly referred to MGR. Unlike Hindi cinema where actors are not expected to play characters with a definite moral compass, Tamil cinema expected its superstars to regulate society’s morals and ethics. Having played the role of the underdog who fights for the downtrodden throughout his career, MGR was adored by the masses. Some of that stardust rubbed off on Jayalalitha too. Starting with Aayirathil Oruvan they acted together in 28 films between 1965 and 1972. Most of them were blockbusters. Jayalalitha was appointed as the AIADMK propaganda secretary at a time when MGR’s writ ran large. When MGR passed away in 1988 a civil war erupted in the party over anointing the heir to MGR. During the funeral procession Jayalalitha was attacked with safety pins by Janaki Ramachandran’s nephew Deepan. She nevertheless followed the carriage which held her mentor’s body doggedly until his body was laid to rest. Once the ceremonial rites were over the niceties were dispensed with entirely. The party was divided with some leaders behind Janaki Ramchandran and the others backing Jayalalitha.  Two weeks after her husband’s death, Janaki was sworn in as Tamil Nadu’s first woman Chief Minister, with her faction producing 97 MLAs out of AIADMK’s 132 before the Governor. By 1991 Janaki Ramachandran had quit politics and the AIADMK was Jayalalitha’s to take over.


Jayalalitha’s political career was marked by a distinct tilt towards populism, even if said populism was not financially viable. Take the Amma canteens which she inaugurated in 2013 to widespread applause in urban pockets. Here meals were distributed for as less as Rs 3. The move cost the state exchequer a neat Rs 200 crore. The imprudence of such largesse pales in comparison to the amount spent on other government subsidies during her reign. Close to Rs 4,331 crore were spent on distributing free laptops across the state, while a mammoth Rs 7,775 crore were spent on distributing induction stoves, juicer and grinders to the masses. Such blatant welfarism is what perhaps helped the AIADMK ride back to power this year and become the first ever party to beat the anti-incumbency wave.

Throughout her political career, Jayalalitha’s closest confidante was Sasikala Natarajan. It was her association with Sasikala which also led to her temporary but steep political downfall. Jayalalitha, who had adopted Sasikala's nephew Sudhakaran, announced his wedding (September 1995) to Sathyalakshmi, the granddaughter of actor Sivaji Ganesan. Dressed like twins Jayalalitha and Sasikala posed for a photo sheathed in obnoxious amounts of gold. The image and the news about the ostentatious wedding spread like wildfire. A year later AIADMK suffered one of its biggest electoral routs. To add insult to injury in 1996, Jayalalitha was imprisoned for twenty-eight days following the Madras High Court’s rejection of her anticipatory bail application in the case known as the “colour television scam.” Now as ‘Amma’ is being laid to rest it is Sasikala who has spent her life riding on the coattails to power that holds the key to the AIADMK and the Tamil Nadu administration.

Perhaps the biggest legacy of Jayalalitha would be that she stridently fought female infanticide and foeticide in Tamil Nadu. An entire generation of women who would have been killed otherwise lived long and prospered because of her government’s intervention. She will be the torch-bearer of female politicians who shattered the political glass ceiling and held their own in a male-dominated political world. For her followers, though she will always be Amma, the mother who is above reproach.