Jayalalitha: A leader, an Image

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Puratchi Thalaivi, or revolutionary leader, or more closely- Amma (mother), as she was popularly called by her party cadres and followers, Jayalalitha was a reluctant entrant into both cinema and politics. While, Vennira Aadai (1965) marked her entry into Tamil Cinema, her association with M.G. Ramachandran (popularly known as MGR) and her appointment as propaganda secretary of AIADMK marked her entry into Tamil politics. With her demise on December 5th, 2016, she became third Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu to die while being in the office. Besides serving as the Chief Minister of the State, she was also AIADMK’s General Secretary. To the position which she rose to and the prominent figure she was, all of it was phenomenal. The Dravidian parties in Tamil Nadu largely emerged as a response to the otherwise dominant upper-castes while establishing themselves as the representative of the Dravidian race in the core of Tamil Nadu, after which it has remained unperturbed to an extent from the national electoral trend. In such scenario, Jayalalitha, who hailed from an upper-caste Brahmin family, the feat she had achieved and the towering figure which she had become was remarkable. Her close association with MGR through her days in the film industry brought her to the fore of the Tamil Nadu’s political landscape. Her association with MGR was quite evident from the fact that she was continuously besides MGR’s mortal remains after his demise in 1987 and was asked to go away by the family members of MGR, which she took as an obvious humiliation to herself. Soon after MGR’s demise, AIADMK was divided into two factions, viz., the one led by Jayalalitha, and the other led by Janaki (MGR’s third wife). Jayalalitha was able to garner the popular support of the party cadres and soon emerged as the heavier of the two factions created after MGR’s death. During her career, she had had five terms as the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, with her first stint beginning in 1991. During these tenures, twice she had to step down owing to various factors, but the same could never budge her from the political scene, even when she was imprisoned for a while. Every time she made a comeback, she seemed more determined and resonant.

One of the prominent features of the Dravidian politics, AIADMK in particular has been that the party revolves around its leader, be it MGR or Jayalalitha. Adding to this, the clearly articulated personality of hers which she had put forth before the masses and was quickly bought, she emerged as the sole decision-maker of the party, to whom no one dared to question, but toe to her line. At times she would test the loyalty of even the closest of her aides, and would reward them if they passed that particular test. Every single party member paid obeisance to Amma and questioning any of her decisions was simply not an option available on the table. Unconditional support was what she expected from her party cadres. As a leading daily of the country describes her, tempestuous and mercurial when she is down, placid and cold when she is on the top, she had many dimensions to herself. Yet, despite all of it, she was largely enigmatic. Her image as Amma was indeed resounding and no doubt her initiatives in the State such as that of Amma Unavagam (canteens providing food to the poor at extremely cheap prices) or distribution of amenities, all of it was taken as the blessings from a mother to her children and this had gone ahead to give her tremendous support.

AIADMK anyways remains a kind of loose political organization, where everything depends on the charisma of top leaders and which has always been decisive for garnering electoral support. With Jayalalitha’s demise, the question of party’s leadership had indeed been thrown into the state of oblivion, however, Sasikala, Jayalalitha’s closest aide is being urged by the party members to take over the reins of the party. Several party functionaries, who were earlier being alleged to be attempting to capitalize over the situation, have come forward to show their support for Sasikala and have publicly urged her to take over the post of party General Secretary. If some analogy is sought to be drawn between the current developments and the ones which occurred after MGR’s death, Sasikala at present seems to have an easier way, given that AIADMK so far does not appear to have any other faction rising up in the wake of the situation. Her appointment, at least for the time being, may put an end to the questions of caste as a deciding factor in deciding its next leader and party supremos. However, Sasikala would have the challenge of keeping the party together, given the sudden demise of its indubitable and unquestionable leader.

Another significant question which can be raised here is that whether the current situation provides an opportunity to the other political parties to take advantage of the situation. This question assumes great significance given the fact that figure plays important role in party politics in Tamil Nadu. Karunanidhi has been reluctant to officially handover the reins of the party to his obvious successor Stalin, perhaps the reason being the role of personalities in the Tamil politics. The importance of personalities in the Tamil politics can be well judged from the fact that a Brahmin could unquestionably and boldly lead a Dravidian party for years (Besides Jayalalitha being a Brahmin, MGR too was an upper caste Malayali). Though, this somehow has also sent a message through years, that AIADMK is more of a rationalist-inclined party than based on the popular case for the Dravidian movement.

The case for the parties like BJP, who have been able to build up a sensation at the national political stage remains blur, given the importance of appeal to the regional sentiments in Tamil Nadu. A practical difficulty arises for any Government at the Centre in taking one-sided stands on certain issues such as that of Cauvery water issue or anti-Hindi movement of the past and therefore the prospects for any regional party remain very less, unless there is a possibility of forging alliances and garnering external support only. There of course will not be any possibility for any internal arrangement with any of the Dravidian parties.


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