If Dr J Jayalalithaa was a cut above the rest, it was for her redoubtable courage. Although vastly inspired by her mentor MG Ramachandran (MGR), Jayalalithaa’s brand of politics stood out for her refusal to suffer fools. MGR emerged as the messiah of poor and weaker sections.
Watching the deeds and gestures of the yesteryear superstar of Tamil filmdom at close quarters as Chief Minister for years together, Jayalalithaa did not need any special training to learn the ropes in the murky Dravidian politics of Tamil Nadu. With abundant sensuous appeal and equal talent, Jayalalithaa towered over the Tamil tinsel world for a long time with effortless ease. The close association with MGR proved a bonus for her meteoric rise, first in films and politics later. To her credit, Jayalalithaa knew how to convert her popularity into a charismatic aura that drew the masses like a moth to the flame.
The twin challenges of taking the party workers of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) along and keeping the hostile rival party Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) at bay were tackled by her, by and large, with aplomb. Winning the Tamil Nadu Assembly election in 1989 from Bodinayakkanur, Jayalalithaa became the first woman Leader of Opposition in the House. Although a Brahmin by birth in a State that did not hesitate to show its anti-Brahmin sentiments, her party managed to grab the eyeballs of the dominant OBC Thevar community, which paid her huge dividends in election after election. Never to back out from vengeful politics, she was instrumental in arresting DMK stalwart K Karunanidhi from his house when she was Chief Minister in 2001 after the former threw her into prison in 1997 when he was the Chief Minister.
Known for an autocratic style of functioning, Jayalalithaa bared her fangs during the 2003-union strike and went for the jugular. Even the Supreme Court chided the employees, who presumed ‘going on strike is their birthright’. The second time she was imprisoned in Bengaluru was as Chief Minister in 2014 in a disproportionate assets case filed by BJP senior leader Subramanian Swamy. However, what worked in her favour in good measure was her awe-inspiring connect with the people of Tamil Nadu. Innovative schemes like Amma Canteen, Amma Cement, Amma Mineral Water and Amma Salt on one side and freebies such as mixer, grinder and television sets on the other transformed her into an indisputable icon in Indian politics, particularly in the south. The difference in her untimely departure in comparison with that of MGR’s is that she fit the bill to fill the void then which is not quite the case now.