On Monday night, Jayalalithaa, Chief Minister of Tamil du and one of the most powerful and enigmatic political leaders of India passed away at the age of 68. Her death came 24 hours after she had suffered a cardiac arrest on Sunday evening. Jayalalithaa had been admitted to the Apollo Hospital on September 22 with fever and dehydration, but had soon developed septicaemia that affected her lungs and heart.
Jayalalithaa who was a big me in the Tamil film world during the 1960s and 1970s, had starred in 28 films opposite MG Ramachandran or MGR, who later became Chief Minister of Tamil du. By the time Jayalalithaa retired from films in 1977, she had acted in 140 movies. She remained MGR’s first choice as heroine and also performed memorable roles opposite the other movie hero of those times, mely Sivaji Ganesan. MGR who had left acting in favour of politics, pulled Jayalalithaa out of retirement in 1982 and got her into politics. It did not take Jayalalithaa very long to rise in the AIADMK hierarchy, first as a member of a high-level government committee and later as a Rajya Sabha MP and the propaganda secretary of the AIADMK. It did not matter that MGR never declared Jayalalithaa as his political heir, but his actions ensured that she was recognised as such by the party cadres. When MGR died in 1987, Jayalalithaa was just an MP and held no party post. Even so, the district functiories gradually moved towards her taking their cue from the pointers left by MGR. If Jayalalitha inherited the AIADMK, she also inherited MGR’s rivalry with Karunidhi. But the fact that MGR had also left her a large anti-Karundhi vote-bank was a kind of advantage that she was able to use to the hilt. This vote-bank she was able to expand with consummate skill through her own charisma and by the generous use of free gifts to the electorate. When Jayalalithaa became Chief Minister of Tamil du in 1991, the AIADMK swept to power with a huge majority. Karunidhi was the lone DMK member in the Assembly. He resigned his seat as he was unwilling to enter a House packed with AIADMK members. However Tamil du politics has seen both the DMK and the AIADMK coming to power at different times. In 1996, Karunidhi as Chief Minister had Jayalalitha arrested in a corruption case. In 2001, she repaid the compliment by having him arrested from his home at midnight. The disproportiote wealth case for which Jayalalithaa went to jail in 2014 was vigorously pursued by the DMK after she tried to dilute the trial in 2001. As such, in 2014 Jayalalithaa’s became the only chief minister of a State to be unseated by law for possession of disproportiote assets, and thrown into jail. However, she installed an obsequious loyalist by the me of O. Panneerselvam the retain her seat, fought her way in court, and returned to power. Meanwhile, she had earned the ignominy of being the only serving chief minister to have been convicted in a corruption case and of having to spend 20 days in a Bangalore jail before receiving bail and eventually being acquitted by the high court.
A leader like Jayalalithaa could not have taken very long to realize that the only way she could continue to be in power (despite her conviction in corruption cases) was by being ruthless and generous at the same time. “It is difficult for a woman to be in politics in India. Often the abuses get too persol, and you are expected to prove you are better than your male counterpart,” she is known to have said. Jayalalithaa’s six stints or 30 years in power have been marked by autocracy, secrecy, corruption and nepotism along with the kind of sycophancy that is seldom seen in any other Indian State. Jayalalithaa is known for her repression of the media, her defamation cases against critics, tussles with the Centre and long-drawn battles with neighbouring States over water sharing. She has actively encouraged the kind of sycophancy that prompts her male subordites to fall at her feet in obeisance.
One talks about Jayalalithaa being an enigmatic leader for the simple reason that people find it rather difficult to understand why the electorate should return someone like her to power despite her records of lawbreaking and convictions. The enigma stems from the fact that one would normally expect the electorate to avoid such candidates like the plague. But this has not happened in her case or in the case of Laloo Prasad Yadav or in the case of Tarapada Das, a former chairman of the Assam Public Service Commission, who got elected to the Assam Legislative Assembly after he had been removed from his post on charges of corruption. What inferences does one make about the mind-set and attitude of the Indian voter who is only too keen to carp and cavil at corrupt practices but fails to do his bit in keeping out candidates with established records of corrupt practices or with persol assets far in excess of their known sources of income. The enigma is thus linked more to a grossly permissive electorate rather than to the leader seeking to be elected.
In the passing away of Jayalalithaa, Tamil du may have lost an able administrator or a true protector of Tamil rights. But one has every reason to believe that her successor O. Panneerselvam will prove to be an equally capable chief minister even though he may lack the charisma that had made Jayalalithaa such a popular leader.