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A Colossus of Tamil Politics

Jayalalithaa’s Journey

D Karthikeyan ( is a PhD candidate at the Centre for South Asian Studies, University of Edinburgh,
United Kingdom.

Amma: Jayalalithaa’s Journey from Movie Star to Political Queen by Vaasanthi, New Delhi: Juggernaut Books, 2016; pp xiv + 175, ₹290.

The book under review, Amma: Jayalalithaa’s Journey from Movie Star to Political Queen, captures the life of a highly enigmatic personality who fought against the odds to reach a status where many worshipped her. It is layered with interesting details and deals with the subject critically as well as sympathetically. The book talks about a woman who cultivated her image meticulously, ever attentive to the symbolic needs of Tamil politics. It was published just before Jayalalithaa—who followed her mentor, M G Ramachandran (MGR), to become the chief minister of Tamil Nadu for the fifth time—passed away while in office.

Jayalalithaa was a paradox: a Brahmin who was highly religious and believed strongly in astrology, who headed a party that had emerged from the Dravidian ideology of anti-Brahminism (and was anti-Brahmin, too) and rationalism. The paradox remains even if the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), founded by former matinee idol and Chief Minister MGR, was comparatively less committed to the original tenets of Dravidian ideology. As the unparalleled leader of the AIADMK since the 1990s, Jayalalithaa stood like a colossus in the highly masculine, misogynistic world of Tamil politics, and invoked both admiration and fear amongst her political allies and opponents.

The first few chapters of the book eloquently capture the trauma of a child who yearned for the love of her mother and affection of her friends, only to be continually denied both. A highly talented student who had dreamt of becoming a civil services officer or a medical doctor, she had to give up those dreams due to the vicissitudes in her life and was pushed to pursue a career in acting against her wishes. However, as a strong believer in committing herself to the task given, she had a meteoric rise in her film career and went on to become the most famous South Indian actress, who had the distinction of having the largest number of fan clubs for a female actress at the time (Hardgrave 1979).

The author of this book, a female journalist, had access to insightful sources in various fields. “Film News” Anandan, for example, was an archive in himself when it came to news about the Tamil film world, and Solai was a famous political commentator in Tamil. Drawing on interviews with such insiders, the author needs to be appreciated for bringing out how Jayalalithaa was a victim of patriarchal institutions, especially the highly patronising presence of MGR in her life and how she was controlled both emotionally and physically by the former.

The old patriarch that he was, ’s hegemonic presence over life was too much as he started to control her everyday life even to the extent of deciding on what clothes she should wear. (p 28)

In what was a highly complex relationship with MGR, who rose to become the most powerful man in Tamil Nadu from being the most powerful man in the Tamil film industry, Jayalalithaa was caught in a quagmire, unable to overcome the domineering presence of MGR, but at the same time accepting him as her mentor and guardian.

The book is interspersed with interesting examples of Jayalalithaa’s multi-layered personality, for example, her grit and determination when she had to confront the Kannada nationalists in Mysore and her indefatigable stoicism in the face of their chauvinism highlighted her determination and strength of character. Though this incident was in the popular domain, no one actually knew the whole story and the author has narrated it well. Jayalalithaa’s resilience as a strong woman can be understood from her own words, “I can will myself to do anything in this world.” That was the mantra that she held on to throughout her life (p 19).

Though the popular perception is that she never wanted to enter politics, the book actually provides us a glimpse of her political ambitions in terms of how she manoeuvred her way around MGR, which other famous heroines of her time were not able to do.

A Gritty Politician

The highlight of the book is the details of her travails of trying to build a political career when MGR passed away without naming a successor; there were conspicuous efforts to throw her out of politics. Jayalalithaa’s meteoric rise in politics and her immediate fall due to the handiwork of disgruntled senior leaders in the party have been captured in good detail in the book. She was insulted during MGR’s funeral, she was isolated but was undaunted, and what made her the “Iron lady” was her grit and resoluteness to fight back. Following MGR’s death, her arch-rival R M Veerappan had the garnered support of 98 MLAs (members of the legislative assembly) to install ’s wife, V N Janaki, as the chief minister. The AIADMK split into two and there were rumours that Jayalalithaa would quit politics, but she came back and claimed that she was the successor of MGR and the AIADMK.

Following the defeat of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in the 1989 assembly election and the routing of the Janaki faction, Jayalalithaa assumed leadership of the united AIADMK, and even senior leaders like Veerappan later joined Jayalalithaa sensing that the party cadres supported her. Throughout this period, she faced a turbulent time; all the misogyny of Tamil politics was on show and she was demeaned as a lowly woman because of her profession as an actress. Rumours about her private life were bandied at public meetings by both the DMK and the anti-Jayalalithaa camp in the AIADMK, but she stood firm.

Jayalalithaa’s transition from a film star to a politician in the 1980s was very well-managed, both in symbolic and real terms. The author narrates how she carefully presented a deglamourised self whilst simultaneously capitalising on her stardom. Once she entered politics, Jayalalithaa utilised her screen image and proximity to , and built a strong symbolic presence that made her the widely acceptable political successor of . The juxtaposed images that became an essential part of posters and banners of Jayalalithaa and saw the latter being placed as overseeing the AIADMK rule and blessing it. This helped Jayalalithaa symbolically transfer ’s legacy on to herself, especially the demigod-like status (Jacob 1997). All these aspects of the transition have been touched upon in the book.

Though Jayalalithaa had utilised MGR’s image and charisma as a launch pad, over the years she carved out a place of her own. During the crisis in the AIADMK in the late 1980s, important leaders like K K S S R Ramachandran (who is with the DMK now) were convinced that the AIADMK needed a charismatic leader like Jayalalithaa and believed that MGR’s legacy had passed on to her. The legacy extends to political style too. Unlike the DMK, which gives more power to a central committee, in the case of the AIADMK all leaders in the party except MGR were null and void, and for them their identity was all in relation to their association with MGR. That centralisation continued under Jayalalithaa too in a much harsher way.

Even in terms of her style in politics, she, like MGR, used her stardom and had a very easy but effective way of approaching the crowds in her public meetings. As against the alliterative rhetorical flourishes that the DMK had mastered over the years, Jayalalithaa, more like her mentor, used her already accumulated fame as a star and a dialogical mode, posing questions to the crowd. This form of public speech became her trademark and continued till her death. In an era of memes and the large presence of social media, her famous 2011, 2014 and 2016 election speeches asking the people of Tamil Nadu to remove the corrupt DMK government—“Neengal seiveergala” (will you do it?)—went viral.

The author highlights the entry of V K Sasikala into Jayalalithaa’s life in the 1980s as a confidante and how it provided her great comfort during a period of emotional trauma, making the former almost a permanent caretaker and a close friend at her residence in Poes Garden. Throughout the book, the author provides a glimpse of how Sasikala and her family became a parallel powerhouse in Tamil politics. The political climate that prevailed in the 1990s—like the softened approach of the DMK towards the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the subsequent assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi prior to the 1991 elections—resulted in the decimation of the DMK in the legislative assembly and Lok Sabha elections, ensuring an astounding victory for Jayalalithaa. There was a great sense of expectation from Jayalalithaa during her first stint as chief minister. A symbolic makeover involved wearing a cape, and she presented herself as a strong and powerful lady.

Though she started off well, her first stint as chief minister exposed her highly authoritarian side. The press was muzzled, the IAS and IPS officers were treated shabbily, and her political opponents were threatened with dire consequences. Her close friend Sasikala’s grip and the dominance of the Thevars as a political class became highly visible, which also went beyond political circles to the everyday aspects of culture. Sycophancy reached its peak during this period with larger-than-life size cutouts of 80 feet to 120 feet becoming a part of the visual culture of Tamil Nadu. All these details, though publicly visible, have been brought out well in the book; additional information capturing the implications of these actions would have enhanced the readability of the book.

Scams and Corruption Cases

This period was also marked by a lot of scams and corruption cases against Jayalalithaa and her ministers, the emergence of Sasikala’s family providing both muscle power and the much-needed caste component to the AIADMK’s politics. Sasikala, who hails from the Thanjavur Kallar caste, and her proximity to the chief minister made the already powerful caste cluster of Thevars even more powerful. This resulted in a lot of caste clashes in the southern districts among the Thevars and Dalits. This aspect of her first tenure as chief minister is palpably missing in Vaasanthi’s account; the infamous Kodiyankulam incident alienated from the AIADMK a section of the Dalits who were staunch loyalists since MGR’s time.

The book does offer detailed accounts of the wedding of her foster son, which invited public wrath and also brought focus on Sasikala’s family, which then became popularly known as the “Mannargudi Mafia.” The author brings out clearly how Dravidian politics at this stage had entered into mass mediatisation and family-owned channels more or less became propaganda vehicles. This political advantage was used to the fullest possible by the DMK and its family owned Sun TV, which ran footage of the wedding and her arrest, and her collection of footwear and jewellery.

Jayalalithaa, unfazed over the arrest, bounced back and won the sympathy of the people. In order to showcase that she had no desire for wealth, she stopped wearing any jewellery and that had a great symbolic appeal. Jayalalithaa worked hard and made strategic alliances prior to the 1998 Lok Sabha polls, and the author does well to highlight that it was Jayalalithaa who welcomed the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to Tamil Nadu first by striking an alliance. However, there was no mention about Jayalalithaa’s sympathy and support for Kar Seva; unlike M Karunanidhi, she was never a vociferous critic of the Hindutva forces. Through Jayalalithaa’s support, the BJP formed the government, but she is also known for her shabby treatment of political allies and senior leaders of the national parties who were made to wait for hours at her Poes Garden residence. The BJP had a good taste of her politics of blackmailing when they got her support to form the government only to be left in the lurch; all this has been captured brilliantly in the book.

The author had brought out the lack of adequate support and political acumen on Jayalalithaa’s part while making important decisions like the arrest of Karunanidhi after she came to power in 2001. Though she exacted vengeance by arresting Karunanidhi, unlike the master tactician, she was in a hurry to have him arrested, and the way she tried to arrest him in the wee hours inflicting physical violence shook the nation and she received widespread condemnation across the nation. More like during 1991–96, her authoritarian attitude was highly visible in the 2001–06 period, which saw such blatant decisions as banning of animal sacrifice, termination of government employees under the Essential Services Maintenance Act, etc, which resulted in her downfall. Though she tried to provide better governance in the second half of her tenure, the writing was on the wall and she was routed in the Lok Sabha polls in 2006.

Populism Makes Its Presence

The 2006 elections brought to the fore the highly populist welfare measures, and through a masterstroke in its manifesto the DMK caught the imagination of the people and Tamil Nadu was exposed to an era of freebies. The DMK, which came to power, scripted its own defeat due to internal ramblings and lack of the central leadership’s control over the ministers who started acting like small kings in their own turf. Both Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi have set bad examples as opposition leaders during each other’s regimes, and Jayalalithaa, after being a non-functional opposition leader, rode on the anti-DMK wave at the fag end of the DMK’s five-year term and gave the DMK a taste of its own medicine by drafting a manifesto with freebies that was even more populist, and won the elections comfortably.

Her popularity among the people was still prevalent as the massive gathering at the public meetings in Coimbatore and Madurai in 2010 showcased. After winning the 2011 elections, Jayalalithaa’s approach changed a lot, she introduced even more welfare schemes and all of them carried a maternal element that cemented her transformation from the Golden Lady of the 1980s to the revolutionary leader of the 1990s, to her final avatar as Amma (Mother). Though the book captures this transition, the last phase of her career was not brought out very well. For example, the turn towards this highly populist and narcissistic discourse, to the extent that even goods meant for flood relief were hijacked and plastered with her images, is missing in the book.

This is a pity, since the book is strong on detail in other respects. Minutiae like Jayalalithaa’s Rajya Sabha seat number coinciding with the DMK founder C N Annadurai’s—when the latter became a member of Parliament in 1963—makes the book an interesting read. Crucially, Vaasanthi provides an answer to the much discussed and taunted politics of devotion, where the AIADMK cadres, including top ministers irrespective of their age, used to prostrate themselves before Jayalalithaa.

The book is a good read and offers an overview of one of India’s most powerful leaders who was always mired in controversy. We are fortunate to be able to read it, given some controversial attempts to ban the book; Jayalalithaa herself was against the idea of a biography on her life, and it is said that a lot of material has been lost from the first draft. The book does not carry any analysis or try to provide an in-depth account of any of her political actions, but is a good attempt at showcasing the enigmatic and highly authoritarian leader who was worshipped by hundreds of people.


Hardgrave, Robert L (1979): Essays in the Political Sociology of South India, New Delhi: Usha.

Jacob, Preminda (2009): Celluloid Deities: The Visual Culture of Cinema and Politics in South India, New Delhi: Orient Blackswan.

Updated On : 16th Jan, 2018


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