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J Jayalalithaa (1948-2016): Farewell to an Icon

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As Jayalalithaa was interred with state honours next to MGR and CN Annadurai and her life committed to the folds of history, her ups and downs in the mild cycle of electoral politics suddenly seemed inconsequential. She had left behind a legacy of welfare schemes, many of which will have to be upheld by governments to come.

Bare feet. Beads around their necks. Black veshtis and prayers on their lips. As they walked resolutely through the surging masses on Marina Beach, the men who had been preparing for a pilgrimage to Sabarimala seemed oblivious to any god other than the one who had just left the mortal world: J Jayalalithaa. “She gave meaning to the lives of the poor. She was an incarnation of Ayyappa, who also never married,” said G Manikkam, a 38-year-old floor assistant at a sari shop in T Nagar. Manikkam and his nine friends from Kannagi Nagar in north Chennai drove a friend’s truck to Egmore and walked nearly 4 km to get here in time for the arrival of the late Chief Minister’s funeral procession from Rajaji Hall. “We just had to come,” he said “Sabarimala is a tough journey, but it is not easy to see our Amma either. This is our last chance.” In death as in life, Jayalalithaa, the prophet and the Pied Piper of the poor, was an invincible force that had to be followed: from the hospital where she had spent the last 74 days to Poes Garden and then to Rajaji Hall, to which her mortal remains were moved on the morning of December 6th, and finally to her funeral at AIADMK founder MG Ramachandran’s memorial near Marina Beach.

As evening wore on at the MGR Memorial—the beach lay deserted for once, not a soul interested in the waves today—it became increasingly clear that Jayalalithaa’s cult was no less than an organised religion, and she had been preternaturally aware of it. A catalytic force in the Dravidian welfare politics of her time, her death, following a long illness and eventual cardiac arrest on December 5th, left the state of 72 million bewildered. The next day, nearly a million of them set out to catch a glimpse of her, hoping for closure, paying tributes, walking like sleepwalkers within the police barricades along Anna Salai and the beach road. There was nothing else you could do in Chennai on Tuesday; the pullulating city had come to a standstill in deference to the passing of its most popular leader, and as a precaution against any impulsive violence, of which, fortunately, there was none. When MGR died—also of cardiac arrest—in 1987, anarchy broke loose in Chennai: shops on Anna Salai were ransacked, vehicles were vandalised, a statue of DMK leader M Karunanidhi was broken and the city was left ravaged by loss. With Jayalalithaa’s death, the reaction has been a controlled one, partly because of the large police presence across the city, but also because Amma was a dignified leader, and as such, merited a dignified farewell. “Not since Jawaharlal Nehru’s death in 1964 has there been a total voluntary lockdown like this in Chennai,” said S Murari, a senior journalist. Amidst this spontaneous lockdown, the streets lifeless, shopfronts and banks shuttered, hulking buildings shrouded in a pall of silence, helpless mourners scattered along Amma’s final journey like pieces of glass reflecting her glory.

There was little erratic behaviour even as the crowds heaved. Grown men teared up, women in tattered saris swallowed tiny sobs, a few wept louder for the benefit of TV cameras. Partymen from other districts, dressed in white, worried if their region was adequately represented. Mylapore mamis in their diaphanous sungudi saris hobbled together to pay obeisance to Tamil Nadu’s first woman Chief Minister. Tired old men trudged on towards the site of the funeral in drunken obstinacy. Yet others munched on chickpea sundal and made a picnic of it. A clump of students who waited at the Marina, under a golden pegasus threatening to gallop into the sky, came bearing a vague sense of gratitude. “We have heard so much about what Amma has done for the people. Our families are grateful for the subsidised rice and the free home appliances. We thought she deserved our respect,” said T Kumaresh, an 18-year-old student of Engineering at a city college who is here with five of his classmates.

As Jayalalithaa was interred with state honours next to MGR and CN Annadurai and her life committed to the folds of history, her ups and downs in the mild cycle of electoral politics suddenly seemed inconsequential. She had left behind a legacy of welfare schemes, many of which will have to be upheld by governments to come. If MGR’s idea of giving schoolchildren a noon meal is a model welfare scheme today, Amma’s canteens, where anyone can eat a square meal for Rs 5, will become even more important in history’s retrospective gaze. Walking back along the Marina, where crows clung to bare treetops and plastic bags floated up like dead fish from the sand, I was struck by some of the figures that lord over this socio- cultural site—the statues of poets Bharathiyar, Bharathidasan, Thiruvalluvar and Avvaiyar, and of Kannagi, a legendary Tamil woman worshipped as a goddess. Jayalalithaa was in good company, next not only to political greats like CN Annadurai, but also to the most influential figures in the history of Tamil civilisation. She belongs there, for she had the best of her Dravidian predecessors in her. A cerebral leader who spoke the language of the poor and that of the capitalist, and a devout Brahmin who broke free of socio-political and gender norms, Jayalalithaa, in her own way, polished the pearl of Dravidian thought and at the same time made it elastic.

The worry, for party cadres, is that sans Amma, the AIADMK could fold into a frail origami of itself. It takes a hero to harness the immense beast of the party machinery; it would not allow itself to be controlled by political lightweights like MGR’s wife VN Janaki, who took the reins for a brief while, to disastrous effect, in the late-1980s. Is the new Chief Minister, O Panneerselvam, up to the challenge? As carefully sympathetic statements pour in from the opposition parties, there is a sense that without the minatory aura of Jayalalithaa that made everyone do her bidding, the party could splinter or lose the people’s mandate. “This is not a time to be discussing politics, but some parties have already made their first move,” says Thol Thirumavalavan, leader of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi, after paying his respects to Amma and to BR Ambedkar, who died 60 years ago on December 6th. “When the Centre sent AIIMS doctors to assist the Apollo team in caring for the Chief Minister, I saw it as BJP’s intervention in Tamil Nadu politics,” he says. Indeed, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union ministers Venkaiah Naidu and Pon Radhakrishnan were hard to miss at Rajaji Hall, a two-centuries- old structure with graceful arches where Jayalalithaa’s body—like MGR’s before her— was kept for public view. Leaders of other parties, such as Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi, AAP leader and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and the DMK’s MK Stalin, were there too, but the emotional connect with the BJP was palpable. It may be too soon to read the tea leaves, but even as emotions run high in the public sphere, so do ambitions among the political class. It is in the BJP’s interests to back the AIADMK, which has 37 MPs in the Lok Sabha, and to ensure it doesn’t break apart. In the event of a split, the DMK, the largest opposition party with 89 Assembly seats, will stand to gain. Meanwhile, smaller regional parties hoping to muscle their way into a coalition will try to talk the fence-sitters in the AIADMK into leaving the party.

The elephant in this house of mourning is Sasikala Natarajan, whose unwavering presence next to her companion’s body prompted the media to draw comparisons to a pensive Jayalalithaa at MGR’s funeral

The elephant in this house of mourning is Sasikala Natarajan, whose unwavering presence next to her companion’s body prompted the media to draw comparisons to a pensive Jayalalithaa at MGR’s funeral, declaring in not so many words that she was taking over his political mantle. “It is a flawed parallel,” says Gnani Sankaran, a writer and political commentator. “Sasikala already controls the party and does not need to make a claim to power,” he says. After MGR’s death in December 1987, his wife and senior leaders led by RM Veerappan wanted Jayalalithaa banished from the party—“discarded like a curry leaf after she had helped win the election in 1984,” as a senior journalist put it. She was manhandled and pushed off the funeral car. Sasikala, in contrast, presided over Jayalalithaa’s funeral, performing last rites and receiving condolences. “She is in a position of power, with everyone in the party looking up to her for instructions,” Sankaran says. “There is no voice of dissent, at least not yet. This suggests Sasikala is capable of holding the party together.”

Outsiders, though, are bristling at Sasikala’s imminent takeover of a party that Jayalalithaa worked hard to strengthen. Striking the stone of an all-powerful Sasikala against the tinder of a party in shock could prove hazardous, especially given her history. In 2012, Jayalalithaa cast her companion of 30 years out of Poes Garden over her family’s misuse of power, but took her back after she vowed to sever ties with her husband M Natarajan and their relatives who had “conspired against akka”. Now, hours after Jayalalithaa’s passing, the family was out of the woodwork, with sister-in-law Ilavarasi, nephew Vivek Jayaraman, brother V Divaharan, Natarajan and others sharing the stage with Sasikala at Rajaji Hall, talking to the media and to party functionaries, and presumably consolidating their considerable political and material inheritance. Their unaffected interest in the party’s affairs is dangerous, warns a leader who defected to the DMK some years ago. “They are all here to undermine Jayalalithaa’s legacy. The AIADMK should know better than to trust them,” he says, on the sidelines of the funeral proceedings. It doesn’t help that under Jayalalithaa, AIADMK ministers and senior leaders led political half-lives, worshipping and existing in the shadow of the potentate. In the overlit politics of Tamil Nadu today, the one figure who fills the stage is Sasikala. Jayalalithaa would have seen this coming as she lay in her hospital bed, and perhaps smiled to herself—may the best man, or woman, win.

EARLY STORIES, SKETCHES really, of a young woman politician in a man’s world, jostling her way through and brushing off death threats and insults, seem like snatches from another world. But these very indignities forged her into a mighty leader. She was fond of saying that her arch-rival Karunanidhi made her stay put in politics by throwing challenge after challenge at her. Within her own party, however, she ensured there was no match for her leadership, sidelining the most capable leaders and leaving a trail of ex-ministers who would bide their time like broken- hearted suitors eager for a second chance.

S Thirunavukkarasar, the present Tamil Nadu Congress Committee president and a seasoned politician groomed by MGR, has had the privilege of being dismissed by Jayalalithaa thrice: first in the aftermath of MGR’s death when he became deputy secretary of the AIADMK, then again in 1990—he then formed the MGR-AIADMK and merged it with the AIADMK just in time for the 1996 elections—and for the final time in 1997, after which he threw his lot with the national parties. Two weeks before he was last expelled, Jayalalithaa sent word to him through another AIADMK leader, Sulochana Sampath. She wanted to meet him. “When I went to Poes Garden, I found she was unwell and in bed, with the blanket pulled up to her chin. She asked me to take a seat next to the bed and asked why I wasn’t the same as before,” Thirunavukkarasar remembers. This was a distressing time for Jayalalithaa, the outgoing Chief Minister who was not just responsible for her party’s dismal performance in the 1996 Assembly elections but also for her own defeat from her constituency, Bargur. She was so upset she briefly contemplated quitting politics, says Thirunavukkarasar. A year later, however, she had picked herself up and had summoned him regarding statements he had made to the media pinning the AIADMK’s defeat on her disregard for MGR’s legacy. “During her first term in office, her ministers systematically wiped out MGR from party posters. They instructed party cadres to only use Jayalalithaa’s pictures. I thought this was wrong. I told Madam that day, there would be no party without MGR,” he says. Jayalalithaa explained that erasing MGR from party propaganda material wasn’t her idea. “Then she said, ‘After MGR’s death the party came to me. After my death, it will come to you. But you must be patient’,” says Thirunavukkarasar.

Two weeks later, reacting to a picture of GK Moopanar with Thirunavukkarasar at his niece’s wedding, she sent him packing again. “In 2009, she once again asked me to join her, but I had already committed to Soniaji. There was no future in the AIADMK for any senior leader,” he says. “Jayalalithaa had always been wary of MGR’s proteges such as Panruti Ramachandran and I. She gave youngsters opportunities, which was well and good, but sadly, she failed to groom confident leaders to take her legacy forward.”

Jayalalithaa dedicated her life to making herself indispensable to the party and to the state. She could never be supplanted—not even after her passing. Going by economic indicators, Tamil Nadu under the DMK fared just as well as it did under Jayalalithaa, even if she brought in the more well-known investments by Ford, Hyundai and other automobile companies. But in the socio-cultural milieu, the legend of Amma towered over any other Tamil leader’s popular appeal. She got the Gross Enrolment Rate for girls to climb steadily by offering free bicycles and laptops to students. She ensured women aspiring to join the police force got equal opportunity and training. And BPL families could now live off government benefits in the form of Amma marriage and maternity assistance, free livestock, subsidised medicines and food. Jayalalithaa carried forward Tamil Nadu’s ethic of welfarism like no other leader before her and made it her primary interface with her people. An introvert, Amma only spoke to them through propaganda posters that stretched their poetic licence and ever-new schemes that she had made it her manic mission to devise. Yet, news of her death plunged Tamil Nadu into intransigent grief.

On December 5th, hours before Amma breathed her last, a banquet of emotions unfurled at Greams Road outside Apollo Hospital. The hospital’s statement from the previous day attesting to her critical health had cast a long shadow on her supporters, some of whom now muttered prayers and called out to journalists from across the barricades, asking, was she going to be okay? At dusk, an array of ambulances whizzed past, sending a ripple of anxiety through the crowd. Soon after, as Sun TV and some other channels jumped the gun by pronouncing Amma dead, the streetlights on Greams Road came on, as if to focus on the premature theatre of grief. Overzealous youth negotiating their way past the barricades clashed with police—the bastion of khaki that maintained the peace in Chennai for two exhausting days—only to skulk back after mild laathi charge. R Sumathi, a 50-year-old homemaker from Vadapalani, fainted in the arms of her husband, K Rathinam, a retired Public Works Department engineer. “We want to see Amma,” thundered an old woman, shaking her billowy white hair. Others stood in disbelief, recoiling from the news of Amma’s death. Then, with Apollo’s unexpected denial, relief washed over everyone, including the security forces. For just a few hours, they could hold onto hope, whistling and cheering for Amma and playing her campaign songs to pass the time. Anything but the silence of death, which would strike deep into the night.

In 1963, a just-widowed Jackie Kennedy had declared that there would be great US presidents again but there would never be another Camelot. With J Jayalalithaa’s passing, Tamil Nadu’s Camelot moment too has passed.