The Amma We Knew And Jayalalithaa We Did Not: An Obituary

“First of all I would like to thank our honourable leader Puratchi Thalaivi Amma for having given me this opportunity to speak in this house”. 

For avid followers of Indian politics, this sentence should strike a chord. Senior journalists and parliamentarians alike concur this as commonplace. A rehearsed phrase, spoken over and over. It speaks volumes of the iron grip Jayalalithaa had over Tamil Nadu politics. Add to that the constant eye on popularity meter as the  supreme All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader. Also, the men among these parliamentarians always carried a small picture of their ‘honourable leader’ in their pockets. Whereas the women parliamentarians used her photos on mobile phone covers, or on ear rings displaying Amma’s face prominently. Such was her effect.

jayalalitha2Such hold of politics and the following that she had, did not come easy. Jayalalithaa was the protégé to MGR, who himself had a humongous following. And when upon his death the infighting of the party, founded by him, broke open to the public, Jayalalithaa the rookie, had to fight one and all to rise up the ranks. And she did it gracefully and successfully. Right from the start the odds were plotted against her. The stories of how she was pushed off the truck that was carrying MGR’s coffin were a common knowledge. When MGR left for heavenly abode, she was 39 and yet unmarried. Rumours were abound. Yet like a master politician she climbed the steps of legislature, electioneering and assemblies one by one.

MGR himself being one of the most successful politicians of his times commanded a near God-like stature among the common people. Jayalalithaa took it from there and turned it into a bigger force than anyone could imagine.

It has been said that Jayalalithaa did not ever let go of power. This remained her signature style of working till the very end. Such was her want for control. She did not even hesitate to outcast her own nephew on the slightest sign of disobedience. Apart from her own party problems she also warded off the misogyny in Tamil politics prevalent all through This has always been awe-inspiring.

She knew social welfare was the way forward if votes were to be sought. Be it 1992 when the Cradle Baby scheme launched which earned the sobriquet ‘Amma’ or be 2016, the slew of freebies doled out was staggering. And if her fifth term in office made her start the immensely popular Amma Canteens. The food joints that have an idli for 1 rupee, a plate of curd rice for 3 rupees and sambar-rice for 5 rupees, to Amma bottled water at 10 rupees. It was to vie a sixth term in office. For which she made a promise of 400 bn rupees worth loans for distressed farmers. Jayalalithaa had everything in her name. Right from soaps to washing powder, television and even salt. It is a testament to the fact that her hold over masses was immense and yet she had an ear to the ground.

For people sitting in power centers such as Delhi, it is never an easy task to understand the complex politics of Tamil Nadu. Even though it is a largely two-party system, most of it depends on freebies and gifts. Jayalalithaa had mastered that. That the Tamil Nadu government exclusively runs a chain of alcohol shops called TASMAC. This will be remembered as one of the legacies of AIADMK, MGR and then Jayalalithaa.

jayalalitha1True that she had to remit office on more than one occasion as charges of disproportionate assets came back to haunt her. Yet every time she emerged from mud, she appeared cleaner than ever. Her indulgences were offset by her extravagances for the common and poor man, especially women. Critics would argue that she could have done a lot more given the following she had. Jayalalithaa however, was no naive politician. She only pushed the buttons that brought good to the masses. She touched on all the points that the people needed to hear, and she talked only when she felt she had to. The female was a kingmaker and exercised that talent cautiously.

As Jayalalithaa Jayaram was laid to rest beside her political guardian MGR, a collective pall of gloom, an eerie silence hanged over Chennai. The crowds in sorrow, and some still wailing returned to their homes. Some still sitting there, listening to the waves crashing on Marina beach, reflecting on life and death as tears dry up slowly.

Jayalalithaa has left behind a towering legacy of unflinching political devoutness within AIADMK’s rank and file. Something even the who’s who of Indian politics have not been able to do. The vacuum created due to her demise in the political space is somewhat reminiscent of 1987, the year when MGR died. The political acumen that Jayalalithaa had, the ability to hold the fort and being unflinching in the face of adversity shall haunt AIADMK.

Even though her trusted aide and Finance Minister O. Panneerselvam assumes the office his Puratchi Thalaivi vacated, the unfathomable depths of political foresight which Jayalalithaa possessed may never be replaced. In the reckoning to lead the party will also be another confidante Sasikala Natarajan, and party old hands M. Thambidurai and Edappadi K. Palanisamy. But it will not be easy for them to fill in the shoes that lie at her Poes Garden residence.

When the workforce returns to offices after a week, men would avoid looking each other in the eyes, lest someone else notices they have been crying or been up all this time. For this time, the crowd, the masses have to be strong. They have to be unflinching in their dedication to a newer and hopefully a better place. Like their bereaved leader. Just like Jayalalithaa. Just like Amma.

Her last journey, slow as it moved, will stay in the memories of people for decades to come.

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