Jayalalithaa: The battler of Tamil Nadu politics

Written by: R Mani
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"A political Jayalalithaa is only possible when rumour, gossip and secrecy are a way of life," said social scientist Shiv Viswanathan in a recent piece on the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister. This observation speaks volumes about the politics of the southern state.

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The 68-year-old Jayalalithaa, a former matinee idol and Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, battled for her life in the last two months of her life. But then, she had always battled.
"Since politics was not her cup of tea she did not relish it like an aggressive politician. But her luck helped her to come on top. She did not want to be an actor but her mother forced into the business. She wants to study and became a lawyer but fate had other plans," said a former All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader.

The battler of Tamil Nadu politics

Jayalalaithaa, who acted in over 125 films in a cinematic career that spanning over 16 years, was a dream girl in her heyday. She entered active politics in 1982 and was sent to the Rajya Sabha by her mentor and then Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M G Ramachandran popularly called MGR.

The death of MGR in December 1987 pushed her to take up the reins of one of the breakaway groups of the AIADMK. Although her arch-rival, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam president M Karunanidhi, captured power in the 1989 assembly elections , Jayalalithaa showed an impressive performance and became Leader of the Opposition to that short lived government which was dismissed by then Prime Minister Chandrashekhar's government in 1991.

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The 1989 elections also helped Jayalalithaa to consolidate her position in the AIADMK especially since MGR's widow V N Janaki magnanimously relinquished her political ambitions. This paved the way for Jayalalithaa to become the one and only political heir to MGR.

The ascendency to power by Jayalalithaa in the 1991 assembly polls immediately following the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi was a watershed year in the history of Tamil Nadu.
The first time Chief Minister was a ruthless leader from day one. The voice of the opposition was suppressed from the beginning and the media was gagged.

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From 1991 to 1996 the Jayalalithaa government filed over 120 defamation cases against the media and her opponents for criticising her. The same continued during her second term from 2001 to 2006. But astute politician that she was she always withdrew the cases at the eleventh hour usually before the assembly polls. That changed in her third term. From 2011 to 2016, Jayalalithaa filed 213 defamation cases against her political opponents and the media for criticising her policies.

There was an iron curtain thrown around Jayalalithaa ever since she became came to power in the state. She was one of the most inaccessible CM's in the history of Indian politics. This inaccessibility became the hallmark of her political career. Her bitter animosity towards any sort of criticism was described best by the late Congress leader G K Moopanar in 1994. "The problem with Jayalalithaa is that she is taking any criticism of the government as a personal criticism of herself and that's why she is filing defamation cases left, right and centre against her opponents," he'd said.

Jayalalithaa's legal travails were also legendary. The DMK government, which came to power in 1996, filed one case after another against her and she won them all except the infamous disproportionate assets case which is still pending in the Supreme Court.

She may be the only politician of recent vintage who employed the services of all the top lawyers of the country. Any top lawyer in India would be hired as her counsel; a list that included three former union law ministers -- Arun Jaitley, Ravi Shankar Prasad and Ram Jethmalani -- along with Kapil Sibal, K K Venugopal, Fali S Nariman, Siddhartha Shankar Ray et al.

The fees alone paid to these legal luminaries would have easily crossed few hundred crores because of their stupendous services rendered over two decades and more.

Jaylalithaa's way of hitting below the belt on her political opponents was most evident when she told the assembly that she wouldn't meet the Governor in person person to brief him about the functioning of the government since he "tried to misbehave with me". This charge came after the then Governor of Tamil Nadu Dr M Chenna Reddy gave sanction to Dr Subramanian Swamy to prosecute her.

In 1993, when there were repeated highway robberies in the state, she told the assembly, "Those who were caught for indulging in these robberies speak Telugu. Prime Minister Narasimha Rao is a Telugu man and you can draw your own conclusions".

These sort of attacks are stuck in the minds of many in the state.

Though she praises and glorifies her mentor MGR formally, those close to her once said that it was not Karunanidhi but MGR who she saw as 'enemy number one'.

In fact, a former AIADMK minister once told this writer, "MGR exploited her to the hilt and when he fell ill he brought her to take on his arch-rival Karunanidhi."

This analysis of Jayalalithaa reveals her as a reluctant politician. She certainly was no power monger like her bête noire Karunanidhi.

Nonetheless, she antagonised every political party in the state since 2014 and steered single handedly her party to great victories both in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls as well as in the 2016 assembly elections without any alliance. Though she had kept most of her political opponents at an arm's distance the study line of visitors to Apollo Hospital's to inquire about her health was surprising.

This includes every shade of political opinion from the left to the Bharatiya Janata Party to the sundry political parties in the state.

In personal life she was a loner. Both her brother and his wife passed away and their children were not given an audience since 2002. Sasikala was her sole companion in a relationship that continued for over three decades. Unlike half a dozen power centres in the Karunanidhi's clan there was but one in Jayalalithaa's life.

"Sasikala's loyalty to Jayalalithaa was very strong. Sasikala loved Jayalalithaa like anything and that's why she was in prison for 10 months from 1996 to 1997 in a foreign exchange violation case. Sasikala stood like a rock and turned down offers to turn an approver against Jayalalithaa. Sasikala's influence on Jayalalithaa was enormous. Sasikala could change the decisions of Jayalalithaa at any point of time. You can survive in AIADMK even if Jayalalithaa does not like you but you can't survive if you are not in the good books of Sasikala," says a former AIADMK minister who is now in the Congress.

In spite of being the most inaccessible Chief Minister of the country she constantly had the pulse of the people. It's puzzling how a person who was inaccessible to her own party men, to the Opposition and the media was able to achieve repeat success politically.

Jayalalithaa had the dubious distinction of being the first Chief Minister since Independence to be sent to jail on a corruption case while being in office. But in another first, she won the immediate next elections and retained her power.

A local journalist describes her personality thus: "The basic ingredient of Tamil politics is anti-Karunanidhi and anyone who represents this political line will win again and again in the state. That's why V N Janaki, the wife of MGR, could not win polls but Jayalalithaa did."

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