Cover Story

J Jayalalithaa (1948-2016): The Ideal and the Icon

S Prasannarajan is the Editor of Open magazine
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In Jaya’s Tamil Nadu, history and biography became one

My epiphany came on a sweltering day fifteen years ago, when, in the temple town of Madurai, I was among a swirling sea of seekers outside the hotel Ashok, and the object of our anticipation continued to remain an overwhelming absence even as she smiled at us from pen caps and gold rings and shaven heads and car windows and garish posters. The air conditioner in the Tempo Traveller, the chariot of the day with registration number TN 07U995, kept whirring, adding to the whispers of servility, and someone never stopped perfuming the carpet that spread from the doorway to the van. Hands remained folded in the corridor, and heads bowed, and when she finally appeared, she did not look sideways, there were no knowing nods, her feet on the perfumed carpet took her straight to the front seat of the waiting Tempo, and behind her sat two other women, an attendant and ‘sister’ Sasikala. It was the start of another day’s campaign for Jayalalithaa (the name was shorter by an ‘a’ then), another day of roadside surrealism, speeding ahead in a convoy of more than a hundred cars. At thirty public meetings, she spoke almost the same words from the safety of her chariot, and every speech was greeted by a mass invocation of Puratchi Thalaivi Doctor Jayalalitha… vazhka! vazhka! (Long live the revolutionary leader.) I wrote then: ‘This is Tempo Rani as Dravidian Evita: I’ll come back, and I’ll be millions.’

She did, many more times than most of the others in her league whose mythologies were written during their lifetime. Each comeback added extra luminosity to the aura, made the iconography of Dravidian politics a lot more maudlin. The rise of Jayalalithaa, shattering the kitschiest glass ceiling in politics, not just repudiated, in ways more spectacular than even her difficult mentor MGR could have imagined, the original ethos of the Dravidian as imagined by Periyar EV Ramasamy. As Jayalalithaa soared, rationalism was replaced by emotionalism, and in the frenzied submission of a people she saw the validation of a divine mandate. And the cult of Amma was born.

Behind the serenity of the mother, and behind the ferocity of her avenging self, was a story that hardly touched another fundamental of the Periyar movement: women’s emancipation. The political theatre was overwhelmingly male, no matter it wore dark glasses or put on a fur cap, and no matter it danced in green meadows or wrote vaudeville scripts. It was all the same. To begin with, it was an on-screen romance, and the leading man would become the first cult of south Indian politics that reduced the distance between the dark movie hall and the brighter political arena. As MGR made his journey from silver screen to popular conscience, setting forth in the process a sub-culture of political super-heroism, Jaya, his heroine, followed him. As long as he loomed over Tamil Nadu, a state caught in what the late sociologist MSS Pandian called an image trap, she was the voluntary second sex. The mentor did not make the way smoother for her in politics, she would later confess. The passage from being a beautiful face in the drama of the saviour prince to a life of her own as a woman of self- respect was not easy.

She suffered in stoic isolation, betraying a higher sense of purpose. Remember that image, the woman in a white sari with red border, looking into the void as the body of MGR, the glasses and the cap still intact, lay in Rajaji Hall in Chennai. The grieving consort, suddenly orphaned, could only be ejected from the hearse of MGR by hostile ‘relatives’. She was not to be denied the mentor’s mantle, for she alone inherited his covenant with the people. In power, Amma would become the most frenzied invocation in Tamil. It was not meant to be a monochromatic image of benevolence. It was, in its overpowering Kancheepuram kitsch, the unforgiving protector, the avenging goddess, and no mortal knew what else stirred behind that serene façade. The saga of the mother was co-written by fear and adoration. The Tamils’ emotional intimacy with her only grew even as mother withdrew into the inaccessible realm of the autocrat.

The excesses were balanced by large heartedness, which in the glossary of me-alone politics is called populism, and in Dravidian politics, it was about competitive sops. Jaya, like any other Leader with a capital L, did not see her transgressions as violations of power. Questions were profanities that threatened men dared to hurl at her, and when they put her in jail, victimhood only added to the narrative of suffering. Punishment became the crime. That was how rulers who put their own destiny above the people’s faced up to the worst moments of history. Anything beyond their control, anything that intervened to change the course of their desire, was evil. And it was so on Planet Jayalalithaa, where nothing was absolute except her own power, and the theory of moral relativism did not apply. As giver, avenger, aggrandiser and victim, she turned every moment in her political life into a testament of faith, not to be measured by the usual yardsticks of realpolitik. In Jaya’s Tamil Nadu, history and biography became one.

Such a confluence brought out the redundancy of whatever was left of Periyar’s movement. The so called Tamil self-respect in Dravidian politics degenerated into political vulgarity. The old sub-nationalist streak of the movement evolved into family-owned cultural exceptionalism. Caste did not go away either; it prevailed and sought political legitimacy through new adjectives to Dravidian nomenclature. MGR was the infallible fairy prince; Karunanidhi, the erstwhile scriptwriter, created the most bloated political dynasty in the south. There were no ideals left in the Dravidian political space for Jaya to hold on to in the beginning. There was nothing out there for her except memories, and they were not pleasant. The past was her cruellest country; only the future could be fabulous. She would not let anyone else shape it for her—they were allowed only to paint her legend on cardboards or to contain her force for a while in prisons. The future she built for herself was in the delirium of the faithful. That is the safest place for Jayalalithaa in death, as it was in life.

That day in May fifteen years ago, Amma did not touch the earth during the entire campaign. She preferred to alter reality while floating in fantasy.