Speaking Of Asia

Jayalalithaa's death marks an era's end

J. Jayalalithaa parlayed an acting career and a relationship with a leading actor-turned-politician into long dominance of the state of Tamil Nadu, where she was Chief Minister till her death on Monday at age 68.

Watching television coverage of Ms J. Jayalalithaa's body lying in state on the steps of Chennai's Rajaji Hall this week, the thought crossed my mind that India was surely witnessing the passing of an era.

The 68-year-old Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, the southern Indian state closest to Singapore in so many ways - Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan flew there to pay respects - had ruled her province with an iron hand.

The peaceful expression on her face masked the tumult in her life - a convent-school education that could not proceed because of pressing family need, the dancing lessons she hated, the early success as an actress, the thrill and pain of being the unquestioned love interest of M. G. Ramachandran, the married man 30 years her senior whose acting and then political career had Tamil Nadu in thrall, then being his political legatee and, finally, persistent ill health.

It took me back to December of 1987, when I stood within touching distance of her at the same spot where she lay in state, the events to unfold proving to be decisive in her remarkable ascent.

That late-December day, her mentor - "MGR" as he was called - was lying in state, having died while in his third consecutive term as chief minister. For two days, she sat next to his head without taking a toilet break, moving off only once when MGR's widow, Janaki, arrived to pay respects to the body.

Throughout, Ms Jayalalithaa wore a look of pained sorrow, her face relaxing only during the rare moments when cameras were not trained on MGR and her.


On the second day of this vigil, I saw why this woman would pick up a reputation as the Iron Butterfly of her time. Since MGR was accorded a state funeral, the army had taken charge. Ms Jayalalithaa tried to clamber up on to the gun carriage to sit by MGR, and was promptly ordered to dismount by the military brass since only the body could rest on the carriage.

Thereupon, I saw her moving off and trying to get into the open truck just behind, in which sat MGR's relatives. A nephew of the chief minister then stepped up and, cursing, kicked her in the face. Two security men in safari suits immediately appeared and led her away. Ms Jayalalithaa, physically hurt but poised, showed no emotion.

Mrs Ramachandran succeeded her husband as chief minister for a few weeks but she neither had the stamina nor the zest for a fight.

Within two years, Ms Jayalalithaa had pushed aside all contenders within MGR's All India Anna DMK Party (AIADMK) to emerge as unquestioned boss of the outfit. While there was sympathy for Mrs Ramachandran, everyone knew MGR's heart had been with the woman three decades younger.

Surely, Ms Jayalalithaa, revered by Tamil Nadu's 77 million people as "Amma" - which translates variously as The Lady, or Mother - picked up many lessons from her mentor.

While the state became notorious for grease under her watch, many populist schemes - including "Amma canteens" that served meals at cheap rates and shops that sold medicines at hugely subsidised prices - helped keep her in power.

A year ago, when Chennai was devastated by floods, Ms Jayalalithaa, already ill, was nowhere to be seen. But aid organisations that sent relief to Chennai had their trucks stopped on the city's outskirts by AIADMK thugs, who posted "From Amma" posters on the vehicles.


Ms Jayalalithaa's passing is of significance beyond Tamil Nadu and India. The state has close bonds with Sri Lanka's Northern Province, headquartered in Jaffna, the cultural capital of that island's influential Tamil minority. During the 1980s and 90s, Sri Lanka's Tamil separatist groups drew support and safe harbour in Tamil Nadu and it is well known that MGR protected and funded Tamil Tiger supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran.


Interestingly, and much to New Delhi's relief and gratitude, Ms Jayalalithaa, as chief minister, kept a wary distance from the Tigers and because of this, she herself faced a threat from them.

The state also has a history of secessionist movements and a reputation of standing up to domination by the northern half of India. The linguistically proud Tamils vigorously opposed the imposition of Hindi as the national language. Tamil Nadu is the rare Indian state where railway station name boards were written only in English and Tamil, the local language. Everywhere else, they are rendered in Hindi as well.

Early in the 20th century, Tamil Nadu gave birth to the Dravidian movement (the "D" in AIADMK stands for Dravidian), which saw the teeming backward castes militate against the supremacy of the high-born Brahmin minority in the Hindu social order. Called Self-respect Movement, it influenced Tamil society in Singapore and Malaysia and laid the seeds of the current political domination that so-called "other backward classes" enjoy across the Indian heartland.

Because of this, Tamil Nadu also had the maximum affirmative action for admission into tertiary education and government employment. Current political research by political scientists such as Professor Ashutosh Varshney of Brown University suggests that the affirmative action may have contri- buted to boosting economic growth.

Against such social circumstances, it was a miracle that Ms Jayalalithaa's subjects would readily overlook her background - a Brahmin woman who spoke convent-school English and freely admitted to her favourite movie being the Hindi hit Junglee (The Wild One). In a land rife with diversity and centripetal pulls, personae such as hers unquestionably cemented the national glue.

But there is no question that Tamil Nadu, one of India's three most industrialised states when the Dravidian parties got hold of it in the late 1960s, suffered a period of decline under them. Three terms of MGR rule, preceded and succeeded by the parent-turned-rival DMK party, and Ms Jayalalithaa's own stints in power, saw corruption seep into the state. Every public contract went for a bribe, often a massive one. The stunning telecoms scandal at the federal level that paralysed Dr Manmohan Singh's government was the handiwork of the DMK party, which was a key coalition ally of Dr Singh's. While the DMK could at least be said to be taking grease money, the AIADMK administration, under MGR particularly, was both corrupt and sclerotic.

That said, Ms Jayalalithaa was a slightly better administrator than her mentor. Certainly, the Tamil Nadu she leaves behind is strong on some social indicators - fertility rates have declined, crime, particularly against women and weaker sections of society, is under control. The province is also going through an industrial revival in a region that overall is doing well against the national average in economic growth.

Still, few can forget that Ms Jayalalithaa ruled with an iron hand, with a goddess-like aloofness. She enjoyed her ministers prostrating before her ingratiatingly. And, of course, no one dared touch her with so much as a handshake. The media was muzzled.

Her vengeful nature was on show in June 2001, when she got Tamil Nadu police to enter the home of rival DMK party boss M. Karunanidhi, then had him bounced down the stairs and out into the yard. Mr Karunanidhi was 77 years old at the time. She was avenging an incident years earlier when DMK lawmakers had roughed her up within the State Assembly.

Ms Jayalalithaa's death opens political opportunities for both the Congress Party - Tamil Nadu was a Congress bastion until the mid-1960s and the Gandhi family that controls the party still enjoys popularity in the state - as well as Mr Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Without her charisma and iron grasp, the AIADMK is mere rubble, and with no election imminent, the outfit will probably meander its way to the next poll due in four years.

With DMK boss Mr Karunanidhi being a frail 92 and physically spent, his son, Mr M. K. Stalin, could be the man to beat in 2021. With Congress and DMK currently allied, the opposition space is available for the taking.

Since Ms Jayalalithaa and Mr Modi enjoyed a warm and cordial relationship - she bristled only when Mr Modi, during his remarkable run in 2014, held a massively successful rally in her state - it is well possible that the rump outfit will be amenable to overtures from the party ruling New Delhi, should BJP still be in power there. Until then, AIADMK, with 37 seats in the powerful Lower House of Parliament, only seven seats fewer than Congress, remains a significant power bloc in New Delhi as well.

It is difficult to imagine that another Tamil film star will ever parlay an acting career on to the political stage, as Ms Jayalalithaa and MGR did for five decades. For a state that was so proud of its Tamil heritage, it was always a surprise that it would pay so much adulation to MGR - a non-Tamil who was born in Kandy, Sri Lanka, to parents who hailed from Kerala state - and Ms Jayalalithaa, a Brahmin woman from next-door Karnataka. Tamil Nadu is going back to Tamils.

India's Tamils are also losing their innocence in other ways. When MGR died in 1987, some 30 people were killed in protest violence - covering the procession, I witnessed the police commissioner shoot and kill a wailing man leading a knot of other agitated youngsters who had approached the cortege. That week, another 30 committed suicide in grief over their fallen hero.

This time, there was very little of that. Instead, while grief was widespread, many of the thousands who went to see the body were eagerly taking selfies with Ms Jayalalithaa's coffin in the backdrop, perhaps seeking a personal frame with the actress. The generation that would gladly commit self-sacrifice for their film heroes is receding. Instead, the selfie generation has gained ground in Tamil Nadu as well.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 09, 2016, with the headline 'Jayalalithaa's death marks an era's end'. Print Edition | Subscribe