Amma leaves millions in shock and grief

The only Man in the jungle of politics is no more
Venkat Raman – 
venkat@indiannewslink.co.nz

As journalists, we have opportunities to meet and travel with international, national and regional leaders. While most of them become good friends and therefore accessible wherever there is a need, Jayalalithaa Jayaram, General Secretary of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, remained an enigma throughout her political life.

And yet, her death on December 3, 2016 following a cardiac arrest in Chennai, the Capital City of Tamil Nadu brought the entire State to a grinding halt, with millions of people rushing to ‘Rajaji Hall,’ for a final glimpse of their Leader before she was buried (on December 4, 2016) next to that of her mentor, former fellow actor and charismatic Chief Minister M G Ramachandran.

Leaders’ homage

Prime Minister Narendra Modi was among the first leaders to arrive as the Apollo Hospitals doctors announced that Jayalalithaa was no more; soon other leaders followed. The Tamil Nadu government declared a seven-day mourning and she was accorded a state-funeral as hundreds of thousands of people cried. Prominent among them was O P Panneerselvam, who was sworn in as the Chief Minister of the State for the the third time. On two earlier occasions, he held the coveted post for his ‘revered Amma,’ when she was behind bars on charges of undeclared assets that were disproportionate to her income.

There are few parallels to Jayalalithaa, not just in Tamil Nadu but in the entire country. She ruled with authority but never showed excess on people. She recklessly appointed ministers and ruthlessly dismissed them but seldom showed her anger or anguish to 78 million people who live in her State. She neither endorsed nor stopped her ministers and supporters prostrating before her at public meetings but always greeted people with the traditional Namaste.

Style of governance

While she entered politics with a vengeance, ironically after she was ousted by MGR’s third wife V S Janaki in December 1987, her style of governance was somewhat unique in the annals of India’s State politics. She was autocratic, did not suffer dissention and enforced discipline among her cabinet colleagues; and yet, people loved her.

Although AIADMK was in a state of disarray, it was not until 1989 that Jayalalithaa emerged as its Leader. Thereafter, the Party remained firmly in her hands even during the years on the Opposition benches and on occasions when she be in a hospital or prison ward. She ruled through remote control and there was never a murmur of anyone attempting to stage a coup. That would have been disastrous for those tried.

People’s Moods

Since February 1967 Tamil Nadu has had only two parties in governance – Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the original Party in which MGR was a member and AIADMK which he established in 1972 following differences of opinion with DMK Leader Karunanidhi. Jayalalithaa has held the office of Chief Minister three times and is the only second person in Tamil Nadu (after MGR) to hold the high office for the second successive term.

The two parties have almost formed a pattern of taking turns in occupying the treasury benches, save on a few occasions, when the DMK governments were overrun by the government.

I have known Jayalalithaa (the final’ a’ in her name was the result of her immense belief in numerology about 25 years ago) since our formative years in Bangalore; we went to the same class but in different schools; our friendship was fostered through her mother Vedavalli (who took the screen name of Sandhya) through Bharat Ratna, the late M S Subbulakshmi and other members of the family.

Lofty goals

During an interview in June 1991 ahead of the State elections, I asked her what goals she would set her government if she had an opportunity to become the Chief Minister.

“There is no question that I would win in this Assembly elections. I will make sure that food, medicine, and all necessities are made available to common people at prices they can afford. No one in my State would go without proper medical attention,” she said.

Convictions and Acquittals

None of these schemes were implemented and her Party failed in the 1996 Assembly elections; even Jayalalithaa lost her seat in the Bargur Constituency. She courted arrest on charges of corruption but was acquitted.

She bounced back in 2001 but was arrested and convicted on criminal offences; but two years later, was acquitted and allowed to return as Chief Minister.

Impressive Schemes

It was during her term as Chief Minister in 2011 that she began to implement several popular schemes; among them were ‘Amma Restaurants’ which served sumptuous breakfast, lunch and dinner – all for Rs 30, ‘Amma Pharmacies’ which dispensed free or highly subsidised medicines, ‘Amma Water,’ ‘Amma Cement’ and many other items of every day need. Woe betide those who adulterated or diverted supplies to their personal benefits, for ‘Amma’s eyes were cast everywhere.’

I have never known a leader who has had such close encounters with the legal and health systems as Jayalalithaa did. She emerged victorious at the end of each of these; except the last. Destiny finally conquered her.

India’s provincial politics are a bruising affair, and Jayalalithaa took some knocks; once quite literally when she was manhandled on the floor of the State Assembly. The courts jailed her twice for corruption; both times a placeholder, O Panneerselvam, stood in until she could return.

He is now Chief Minister again.

Next Issue: An indomitable woman who embraced solitude

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