Jayalalithaa: death of a political mother goddess

Jayalalithaa: death of a political mother goddess

India’s most populous state, Tamil Nadu, faces uncertain political times following the death of its charismatic chief minister, Jayalalitha, writes Peter Mayer

The unexpected death of J Jayalalithaa1, five-time chief minister of India’s populous Tamil Nadu state, evoked an eruption of mass grief. Four hundred and seventy people are reported to have died of shock on hearing the news of her death. Hundreds of thousands lined the streets to witness ‘Amma’s’ (mother) funeral procession in Chennai. Many shaved their heads, as they would for the death of a close relative. Agence France Press reported one party worker as saying ‘To me, she was a goddess.’

The intensity of mass grief reminded me of two earlier occasions when a Tamil Nadu chief minister had died in office and to ponder the unique history of politics in that state, the future of which is suddenly quite uncertain. The first, that of CN Annadurai, the second, that of film star turned politician, MG Ramachandran.

When Annadurai (widely referred to as ‘Anna’, elder brother) died of cancer in 1969 the 15 million mourners who came to see his funeral cortège was so large that it earned an entry in the Guinness Book of Records. A number of grief-stricken party supporters also took their own lives.

There were at least two principal reasons for the intensity of feelings evoked by Annadurai’s death, both of which arose from the Dravidian renaissance with which he was associated. At the heart of that movement was a reaction against the near monopolisation by Tamil Nadu’s small Brahmin community of jobs open to Indians in the colonial civil service and in the emerging modern urban economy, due to their early mastery of English.

The protests were led by higher-caste members of what are conventionally if loosely termed non-Brahmins. The most prominent of the campaigners for non-Brahmin rights was EV Ramasamy Naiker (often referred to as ‘Periyar’ (elder) or by his initials as EVR).


A militant atheist, EVR was a caustic and brilliant critic of brahminical Hinduism, including the institutions of caste. As his ideology developed, EVR came to argue that the majority of south Indians, speakers of Dravidian languages such as Tamil, had been suppressed and oppressed by Aryan invaders from northern India, principally by the custodians of Sanskrit, the Brahmins. Emancipation for EVR involved throwing off the institutions of caste, solemnising marriages without Brahmin priests (‘self-respect’ marriages), and purging Tamil of the many Sanskrit-based words which had come into use over the centuries.

These ideas came to a sharp focus in 1937 when a Congress government elected the previous year sought to make Hindi compulsory in all schools in the Madras Presidency. EVR led a major political campaign against the legislation. Such has been the strength of anti-Hindi feeling in Tamil Nadu that every subsequent attempt to make Hindi the national language has provoked mass protests including suicides.

The political movement which EVR founded was the Dravida Kazagham (Dravidian Association, DK). CN Annadurai was one of EVR’s principal lieutenants in the DK, but he split from the party when, at age 70, EVR married a woman less than half his age and made her his political heir. The new offshoot was called the Dravida Munnetra Kazagham (DMK) (Tamil Progressive Association).

What was extraordinary about the DMK was its deep involvement with the burgeoning Tamil film industry (sometimes referred to as Kollywood). Annadurai, himself a noted orator, was also an author and the screenwriter and producer of popular films which featured prominent Dravidian renaissance themes, all spoken or written in a Tamil purged of Sanskrit. Two other significant individuals who were prominent in both the film industry and the DMK were the screenwriter M. Karunanidhi and the immensely popular actor MG Ramachandran (MGR). One of MGR’s most frequent co-stars was none other than J Jayalalithaa.

Rival stars

In a largely unsuccessful attempt to counteract the support which MGR brought to the DMK, the Congress Party recruited a rival star, Shivaji Ganeshan, to its ranks. Fan clubs for the two actors soon became centres for political activism as well.

After Annadurai’s death in 1969, Karunanidhi succeeded him as chief minister. Three years later, his former colleague and friend, MG Ramachandran, broke from the DMK to set up a rival party, the All-India Anna DMK (AIADMK). Although essentially personality-based parties, the DMK and the AIADMK soon formed the centrepiece of a stable, highly competitive two-party system. Over many years the electors of Tamil Nadu gave their support first to one, and at the next election, to the other of the two offshoots of the DMK. Karunanidhi, now aged 90, has been chief minister five times.

MGR was chief minister twice. He died during his second term, in 1987. As with Annadurai, vast numbers of ordinary Tamilians attended his funeral procession. Twenty-six individuals were so distressed that they took their own lives. In the power struggle which followed his death, his former co-star and alleged lover, Jayalalitha, was able to predominate and was installed as chief minister shortly thereafter.

It is almost impossible to offer a summary evaluation of the nearly 30 years that Jayalalithaa was leader of her party. To begin, there were obvious but nevertheless fascinating contradictions. She was a Brahmin who headed a party which was the offshoot of the anti-Brahmin movement. And she was a woman head of a party in a largely patriarchal society.

Populist policies

Her terms in office were characterised by numerous populist policies such as implementing policies which reserved 69 per cent of government jobs and university places for various historically disadvantaged groups. She also pushed through a major expansion of a health insurance scheme. At various times she offered voters free fans, gold for women’s wedding necklaces, and created subsidised ‘Amma’ canteens.

Both Jayalalitha and Karunanidhi implemented policies which promoted manufacturing. Tamil Nadu is now the ‘Detroit of India’ and its most heavily industrialised state.

She established a reputation as a hardworking administrator, willing to take tough, unpopular decisions. She was also widely respected as a hard-boiled and remarkably successful politician. In 1998, for example, she withdrew AIADMK legislators from a coalition government in New Delhi and was thus responsible for the downfall of first BJP government.

Among her less attractive qualities was her autocratic behaviour. Jayalalitha was a ruthless concentrator of power

Her five terms as chief minister were self-evident indication of her success in electoral politics. Jayalalitha was also extraordinarily resilient. She successfully fought numerous legal cases brought against her, including two major charges of corruption (for possession of disproportionate assets). She also spent brief periods in jail before being released following successful appeals. In all those instances, her total control over her party remained intact.

Among her less attractive qualities was her autocratic behaviour. Jayalalitha was a ruthless concentrator of power. She demanded total loyalty from party leaders and encouraged sycophantic behaviour from them such as touching her feet, or carrying her portrait in their shirt pockets. In that respect she was like many other South Asian leaders: a ‘banyan tree’ in whose shade no alternative leaders or centres of power could emerge.

Jayalalitha’s death leaves the political scene in Tamil Nadu in an uncertain state. Her close friend and confident VK Sasikala (often referred to by the nickname ‘Chinnamma’, Little Amma) is poised to take over leadership of the AIADMK. But Sasikala’s nepotistic inclinations and her lack of the charisma which has characterised other successful Tamil politicians indicates that it will be difficult for her to claim Amma’s mantel for herself among the rank and file of the party.

In the rival DMK the future is also potentially clouded. M Karunanidhi is in his 90s and may not be in the best of health. It is evident that there may be family rivalries for the succession, when it comes, between his anointed heir, his son Stalin (sic), and Stalin’s older brother MK Alagiri.

1. Traditionally, most Tamilians have only a single, given name. That name is often preceded by two initials, the first abbreviating the name of an ancestral village, the second the name of the person’s father. Thus the full name of the renowned singer of Carnatic music M S Subbulakshmi was Madurai Shanmukhavadivu Subbulakshmi.

Featured image
Jayalalitha, a leader of obvious but nevertheless fascinating contradictions. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Peter Mayer is an associate professor and visiting research fellow in politics and international studies, University of Adelaide.

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