Tuesday, 6th December 2016. I remember waking up in the morning and switching on the Television with bated breath. Jayalalitha was battling for her life and I had slept hoping for a miracle. I was still hoping for one when I pressed the button on the remote but there she was; wrapped in the National Flag. She was no more. I had to rush to office so I took my towel and moved towards the bathroom but I stopped. Instead, I went to my room, switched off the light, hid my face in the towel and started crying. Wife came and consoled but I wanted to cry. I was quite surprised about me breaking down because I am someone who had mocked my cousin years ago when he had dropped tears when Bala Saheb Thackeray had passed away. But the death of Jayalalithaa felt like personal loss.
Since I come from the Northern part of India, a lot of people have (shockingly) asked me about my fascination with the Southern leader. More so, when I don’t even understand the language of politics in Tamil Nadu. I was 11 when I first read (rather saw) about Jayalalitha as she was all over the place after withdrawing support from the Vajpayee government in 1999 but I was probably not big enough to take interest and mature enough to understand politics. Cut to 2006, the 18 year old me had started taking an interest in politics and much of this was because I could now vote.
I remember watching one of the episodes of the show ‘Follow the Leader’ with Jayalalitha on Star News in 2006. It was an intriguing show where a journalist covered a political leader and his/her election rallies for 24 hours giving us great insights into their daily lifestyle and routine. As Jayalalithaa’s van moved on the streets, I saw women standing in long queues with coconut, deepak and kumkum adorned on the thali and welcoming ‘Amma’. There were images of men wearing ugly huge rings with Amma’s face, Amma tattoos on their arms and their hair cut in the symbol of two leaves which is the election symbol of her party AIADMK. Not to miss, the huge cut outs of hers, some of them were quite literally taller than the buildings surrounding them.
I was of course amused but at the same time surprised to see the sheer hysteria and devotion among the people because I had never seen this in North. I couldn’t help but notice her impeccable English, panache, sophistication and style. Or as people say it was probably her ‘charisma’ that left me mighty impressed. I was intrigued by this lady who had men falling on her feet so I decided to read her story and the more I read, the more I started loving her. 10 years now that I have been following the leader. I seldom miss an article, news or a video on Jayalalitha. I often go to You Tube and see her old interviews (everyone should) and my admiration for the woman keeps increasing.
Amma’s life has been a battle, full of struggles and hardships but like a warrior she fought with dexterity and won. Her story inspires, motivates and uplifts. Every time she was written off, she rose from the ashes just like the Phoenix would. In fact, hers is a story which seems straight out of a film and there are moments in her life when you just want to stand and applaud her for the sheer grit, determination and bravery shown by her.
She has fought and won many elections in her life but that is what every politician does and she was no different. However, I call her a fighter because these were different fights; fights with a society that was deeply patriarchal & misogynistic – Jayalalitha was not allowed to enter her mentor MGR’s house when he passed away. Women pinched her, dug their nails into her skin and stomped on her feet while the men (who were jealous of her rise in the party) attacked her and called her a Prostitute when she rushed to see his body. But she didn’t move. She stood there for two continuous days without shedding a tear. She was portrayed as the ‘other woman’ by the workers of AIADMK but she fought hard and after 2 years was elected as the leader of AIADMK and the same men who attacked her were now reporting to her. This was her first of the many wins in her life. In the same year (1989), in an infamous incident, her saree was pulled in the TN assembly by DMK leaders. This was an incident which shook the entire state as it was the first time when the Police had entered the Assembly. A teary eyed Jayalalitha with unkempt hair came out of the assembly & in a dramatic move, compared herself to Draupadi and took a vow to defeat Karunanidhi. She did and became the Chief Minister of the state in 1991. These two incidents made a strong impact on me and I couldn’t help but admire the sheer courage and fighting spirit of this woman;
fight against the party ideals and beliefs. Dravidian movement in the state was essentially anti Brahmin and believed in rationality i.e. atheism. But here we had a god fearing Brahmin woman who went on to take hold of the party and did that unopposed for 27 years. An Iyengar Brahmin, Jayalalitha has often thanked God post her wins in elections and whether it was sending the party manifesto in a temple first, performing special Pujas or her belief in numerology. She has proudly flaunted her beliefs in public. In spite of this, she headed a party which was in principal against this. Sadly, her beliefs were ignored and she was buried on her death;
fight against oneself. As a child she wanted to become a lawyer but she was pushed into the film world because of the worrying financial conditions of her home. May be her inner self would have asked her to pursue her dreams instead of sacrificing her desires. Like any other girl, she fell in love and wanted to settle down but that love was never reciprocated and she remained single forever. When she was humiliated or when she was sent to jail for the innumerable cases of corruption, somewhere a voice inside her would have asked her to quit because she never wanted to be in politics anyway. But her will power over powered everything else.
The Able Administrator
In spite of the controversies of corruption surrounding her, there is one thing on which even her critics would agree i.e. she was an able administrator who governed the state with an iron fist. When she took over as CM in 1991, LTTE had spread its wings in TN and the previous government of Karunanidhi was seen as supporter. She went after them relentlessly and drove them out of the state. In 2001, under the POTA she got many pro LTTE leaders in the state detained. While Gujarat was always known as one of the best governed states because of the excellent marketing, Tamil Nadu wasn’t far either. The industrial growth, crime rate, education and other social indicators of Tamil Nadu are one of the best in the country. Tamil Nadu has the maximum number of women police stations; an initiative started by Jayalalitha when she became CM for the first time. Though people have criticized the schemes for creating a financial burden on the state, her welfare politics has won many hearts. Amma canteens offering food at a nominal price were a runaway hit. Amma Baby Kit, Amma Cement, Amma Seeds and Amma pharmacies also served as an icing on the cake. A lot of these schemes were targeted at the women who constitute about 2.1 crore of the population.
The Proud but Sensible Hindu
In a country where religion is intertwined with politics, Jayalalitha was like a breath of fresh air. She was neither a champion of Hindutva (like the BJP) nor was she a minority appeaser (like the Congress, Left and other parties). I admire her for some of the stance she took as a politician. When the unfortunate 2002 riots hit Gujarat, she was one of the few politicians to speak for the violence in Godhra and said that minorities alone don’t enjoy rights under the constitution and when majority community is attacked no one speaks up. In 2002, amid protests by DMK & Congres, she passed the anti-conversion law in the state which has seen a lot of conversions to Christianity. When told that Pope has raised concerns over the law, she said he has ‘no businesses in the affairs of the state. Likewise, when her opponent questioned the existence of Lord Rama, she called for declaring the ‘Ram Sethu’ as a national monument.
A lot of you might wonder why I don’t speak about the corruption allegations against her. She was acquitted in most of the cases which were filed against her as most of them were political vendetta. The disproportionate case was pending and had she lived we would have known the result. But as they say, innocent till proven guilty and I rest my case.
As she makes her final journey towards heaven, I hope she finds peace, love and companionship up there; something which she could never get when she was alive. It would have been great if we could have met but it was not destined. I would probably come to Marina Beach some time and see you there.