Mapping Jayalalithaa’s Incredible Journey

In a state where leaders are usually hero-worshipped and critics discouraged, Vaasanthi's new book is an objective, rigorous and textured view of 'Amma'.

Following Tamil Nadu chief minister J. Jayalalithaa’s conviction in the disproportionate assets case in 2014, many grieving supporters and party cadres attempted suicide. After her release from jail, Jayalalithaa announced compensation for the victims, but also gently reminded survivors and others that they should draw lessons from her own life on how to face adversity and fight on instead of ending their lives. While many observers criticised her announcement about compensation, few failed to notice that her advice was most likely heartfelt.

Jayalalithaa is a fighter – a successful one at that. In her life, one can see not only how events and ‘destiny’ often overwhelmed her, but also how, when she refused to give up, circumstances changed in her favour. She has often considered giving up, but even when opportunities of an ‘honourable exit’ have presented themselves, adversities have become challenges that she has then taken on. In Tamil Nadu, where political allegiances often seem rooted in psychological factors, Jayalalithaa’s personal story has dominated the discourse.

This comes through strongly in veteran journalist Vaasanthi’s new e-book, Amma: Jayalalithaa’s Journey From Movie Star to Political Queen (Juggernaut Books app, 2016). Jayalalithaa’s is as much a story of a political leader as it is about a woman carving a niche for herself in, and dominating, a man’s world. When the male leaders of her party – hardy Tamil men boasting handlebar moustaches and reputations of being tough bullies in their districts – fall at her feet in a gesture of ‘sashtang namaskar’, many Tamil women feel a tinge of vicarious pride. For them, she is a woman who has not only survived, but also emerged at the top in viciously masculine professions, while enduring what many successful women face – sexism and slander.

A woman’s story

Women voters, including those who do not necessarily agree with her politics, identify with Jayalalithaa, and that identification has been key to her electoral success. In the 2016 assembly election, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) won 58% of the constituencies where female turnout was higher than male turnout, giving statistical evidence for this hypothesis. Vaasanthi’s book, therefore, inevitably fleshes out a woman’s story.

Amma: Jayalalithaa's Journey From Movie Star to Political Queen, by Vaasanthi (Juggernaut, 2016).

Amma: Jayalalithaa’s Journey From Movie Star to Political Queen
Juggernaut Books app, 2016

The writer’s sympathies are with the protagonist of her book, though she does bring in a level of journalistic objectivity towards and critical distance from the chief minister of Tamil Nadu. This sympathy does lead to certain omissions. For instance, Vaasanthi describes the day Jayalalithaa was arrested in 1998 and writes that in Jayalalithaa’s mind, she had done nothing wrong. While Vaasanthi does point out that the high court acquitted her in the Tansi case saying there was no rule that a public servant shouldn’t buy government land, she omits the Supreme Court’s strong criticism of Jayalalithaa even as it upheld the acquittal.

Vaasanthi also says that Jayalalithaa’s 1991-96 term in office saw no major communal or caste clashes. But this was the time when Thevar-Dalit conflict increased and the police action on Dalits in Kodiyankulam happened – a tipping point in the Dalit movement in southern Tamil Nadu. Jayalalithaa’s period as head of the AIADMK has been marked by a persistent and determined effort to woo Thevars – a dominant and large other backward class group in many southern parts of the state – with negative social consequences for Dalits.

Strong but also vulnerable

The ‘Amma’ in the book’s title should also have been explored in greater detail. The reinvention of Jayalalithaa as a caring mother-figure who ensures the welfare of her people has been a remarkably successful political move. The moniker Amma goes back to her first term in office. During a students’ agitation against a hike in the fares of state-owned buses, Jayalalithaa pleaded with students not to disrupt their studies. Barely in her forties, she adopted the role of a mother figure in doing this. Over time, Amma has become a political and marketing brand – a reminder to Tamil Nadu’s poor that ‘The Mother’ is watching, but benignly. Vaasanthi’s book does not engage enough with these aspects of Jayalalithaa’s personality, although it shines in its account of her childhood and teenage years. The account of her film career and early life in politics are enhanced by references to primary sources and published writings, including by the protagonist herself.

What may resonate with many women readers is the book’s recounting of the M.G. Ramachandran-Jayalalithaa relationship. Women seeking lives and careers of their own often develop problematic relationships with father figures and mentors. Male mentors can be nurturing and assuring towards women, especially in the fiercely competitive world of film, where the rules of engagement are often virtually non-existent. But the same mentors can also be possessive, controlling and dominating, and ultimately act against the woman’s further growth and maturity into married life. For Jayalalithaa, who lost her father early, M.G.R., as he was popularly known, may well have stepped in at that crucial time when a girl on the verge of adulthood most misses a father’s presence.

Vaasanthi fleshes out the film industry history between M.G.R. and Jayalalithaa quite well. She also evocatively narrates Jayalalithaa’s attempts to ‘grow wings and fly’. Jayalalithaa acted with heroes other than M.G.R. and built up an independent film career for herself. She performed roles that went beyond the song and dance routine. Suryagandhi was an Abhiman-like movie: both were released in 1973 and explored discord between working couples. It was a role for which Jayalalithaa received a Filmfare award. As her film career waned, Jayalalithaa did seek married life, but was not successful in her efforts.

While Vaasanthi describes M.G.R.’s role in thwarting Jayalalithaa’s marriage plans, it is quite mysterious why Jayalalithaa plunged into politics and the stifling world that he ruled, if they really were as estranged as she claims. Jayalalithaa’s career shift was probably her decision. But why did she take it? Some informed guesswork here would have helped, for her mentor was very much in-charge.

Vaasanthi recounts an episode when M.G.R. entrusted Jayalalithaa with the job of convincing the Congress to dump the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and ally with the AIADMK. Jayalalithaa did a fine job of holding then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s attention and persuading her, but once the deal was sealed, Jayalalithaa, boosted by her success, did not immediately report back to M.G.R.. M.G.R. taught his ward a lesson by, metaphorically speaking, clipping her wings for trying to fly too soon.

The latter half of Vaasanthi’s book is only a quick retelling of events well-chronicled by the media, but it does portray the excesses of Jayalalithaa’s first two terms in office, including her financing V.N. Sudhakaran’s marriage. Jayalalithaa may have thought the wedding would resonate with the people. Not having had one herself, she probably wanted a grand wedding in ‘her family’ – a wedding with which women of the state would identify. But this was a gross miscalculation, as it turned out, and she lost the 1996 elections badly.

A new Amma

Jayalalithaa’s third term in office has shown that she has stepped out of her mentor’s shadow – although nearly 30 years after his death. The Amma of 2011-16 has become her own person, with the impulsive excesses gone. Rash, impatient decision-making has been reined. The 2016 poll showed that since 1991, each election in Tamil Nadu has indeed been Jayalalithaa’s election to win – or lose. She ensured that she did not lose the 2016 election. But Vaasanthi’s book barely touches on this, although she speculates that her style of keeping an enigmatic distance may be passé in the state.

There are other, more important, gaps as well. While discussing Jayalalithaa’s political tutelage under M.G.R., the grey areas and gaps in the narrative, which are recurrent features of the 30,000-word e-book, become prominent. Vaasanthi avoids dating many of the events – she is seeking to compress an epic after all – and months and years go by without being accounted for.

This may well be due to the lack of an established culture of recording events to minute detail in Tamil Nadu. Painstaking reporting is not the norm in the state, although, to be fair, this is true for most of Asia. In Tamil Nadu, there is a reluctance to objectively portray the lives of leaders – warts and all – and reliable sources can be hard to come by.

“Balancing history (like in the West) with the cult worship with which Dravidian or generally Tamil leaders are viewed is a near impossible task,” says R. Kannan, head of the Basra regional office of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq and author of Anna: Life and Times of C. N. Annadurai. His MGR: A Life is due to be published in 2016.

In Tamil Nadu, cadres and fans see their leaders as faultless beings, so much so that an objective historian would be considered a maverick or biased, says Kannan. “Accessibility to living leaders is an issue for a variety of reasons. Peers and contemporaries of the leaders rarely talk on record or for that matter even off the record,” he adds.

There are also practical reasons for journalistic caution. Vaasanthi’s earlier book on Jayalalithaa spurred legal action by her and was never published. Vaasanthi’s present work may, however, spawn, in the future, more rigorous, detailed and textured books that are journalistically narrated but also offer deep insights into Amma. And if such works are published, they will indicate that politics in the state has matured to give space to reasoned criticism, which today exists more in academic contexts.

Jayalalithaa’s preference for filing criminal defamation cases against critics including journalists – she has filed hundreds of them – as well as the state government’s power as a major advertiser in newspapers and as the owner of an agency that controls cable TV distribution, has had a chilling effect on independent journalism in the state. Many have interpreted her actions as intolerance. But, personal wariness could also have motivated them, since male criticism against Jayalalithaa has often degenerated into personal attacks and character slurs.

Now that Jayalalithaa has been voted back to power – a rare event in a state where the party in power is typically voted out in every election – one can only hope that Vaasanthi’s latest book does not invite a negative reaction from Amma.