‘Amma’ Jayalalithaa, a saga of grit and determination with few parallels

Chennai, December 6
Jayalalithaa did not know how to come second. At school, she was the brightest in her class, top athlete on the sports field, star of the stage whether in dancing, drama or debates, favourite teacher’s pet. One of her convent school class-mates told me many years later that, at the time, Jayalalithaa’s principal fear was that her mother, a cine-actor herself, would spirit her out to the sets before she completed her studies. That is what happened. But even if she was a reluctant debutante, from her very first film onwards, she emerged as the shining star of the silver screen.
That happened again in politics. MGR farmed her out to the Rajya Sabha. Her closest companion there was Khushwant Singh, then a nominated RS member. He would regale me with stories that seemed to him fantastic at a time when she was no more than a first-term backbencher in Parliament, of her conviction that she would make it to Prime Minister via CM, TN’s chair. Fate has snatched Race Course Road from her at a relatively young age when she certainly had it in her to make it one day to the highest grade, but she did make it repeatedly to the CM’s chair in Fort St. George, Chennai.
The dramatic story of how she catapulted herself from the somewhat low-profile assignment of celebrating Tamil poet, Subramania Bharati’s birth centenary in 1982, to Propaganda Secretary of the AIADMK, before overtaking Janaki, MGR’s wife, to claim the mantle of MGR’s legacy, is a saga of grit and determination with few parallels in our public life. Despite being reviled and defamed, she became leader of the AIADMK before the decade of the 80s was out, and, by 1991, in alliance with the Congress, Chief Minister, TN with an overwhelming mandate. Indeed, but for that alliance having won all 29 TN seats, it would perhaps have been impossible for PV Narasimha Rao to become and remain the Prime Minister. Of course, Rajiv Gandhi’s martyrdom in Tamil Nadu in the middle of the election had a great deal to do with that stunning victory.
But even as PVNR squandered his opportunity through inaction and worse on the Babri Masjid, Jayalalithaa’s first term as CM was marred by acts of mis-governance and charges of nepotism and bribery. In the Lok Sabha elections of 1996, her defeat was as decisive was her win in 1991. She even lost her own seat and her party returned but one member to the state assembly. (Ironically, that gentleman is now the Tamil Nadu Congress chief.)
The set-back was so definitive that anyone but Jayalalithaa would have retired hurt from the maidan. She fought back like a tigress. In under two years, she had recovered so much ground that in the next parliamentary elections of 1998, which initially led to the government of Vajpayee II, her characteristically idiosyncratic decision to withdraw support to the BJP after their having been less than a year in office led to the fall of that government. Jayalalithaa had arrived on the national scene as a key player, holding the swing vote that determined the fate of Prime Ministers.
For the Congress, this was a windfall. For she fought the election that followed in the company of the Congress and we were in consequence able to win two seats (including mine) and worst the breakaway Tamil Maanila Congress of G.K. Moopanar. The alliance held till the assembly and local body elections of 2001, but as it became clear by 2002 that a resurgence of the Congress was in the offing when, after GKM’s passing away, the TMC merged back into the Congress, she launched a bitter attack on the Congress President. That, followed by an incident of physical assault involving me, effectively put paid to the alliance. In consequence, Jayalalithaa lost all seats in the elections to the Lok Sabha that followed in 2004.
Once again, Jayalalithaa, with her usual resilience and resoluteness, returned to the fray. She did fairly well in 2009 and outstandingly well in 2014, besides winning the state assembly elections twice over. I am glad she passed away in harness for it would have been a sad ending had she been deprived of office before she was deprived of life.
I had a somewhat tempestuous political relationship with her, closest when we fought the Cauvery issue together in Opposition, but fraught when either or both were in office. She was an extremely intelligent, very well-read, alert and able stateswoman, a fierce fighter for her rights, a champion of women’s rights and gender justice, a politician of great gifts and a chief minister who has left behind her one of the most progressive states in the country. She went as she lived – destined for the number one position. She will be missed – and remembered.

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