Chennai/Bangalore: There is this anecdote which an old time Tamil Nadu political journalist, who wants to remain anonymous, narrates which captures one facet of All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) leader Jayalalithaa Jayaram perfectly. When K.K.S.S.R. Ramachandran with a handlebar moustache, rejoined the AIADMK in mid-1990’s after a bout of dissidence, the imperious Jayalalithaa made him fall at her feet. Not satisfied with his self-abasement, she made him do an encore thrice, once each for the benefit of assembled photographers, television crew and for assembled personnel from the party.
If that was the imperious Jayalalithaa, a long stint out of power has chastened her enough to ignore an undercurrent of tension with actor Vijayakanth, called ‘Captain’ by his admirers, to form an alliance with his DMDK.
For key events in her life, Jayalalithaa Jayaram, who has an extra “a” in her first name for numerological reasons, unfailingly consults astrologers. And 24 March was no exception. The AIADMK supremo chartered an aircraft to ensure she reached Srirangam on the banks of the Cauvery river much ahead of the inauspicious Rahu Kalam to file nomination papers for the 14th Tamil Nadu assembly elections.
“The election will be a do-or-die battle for her. She will not be able to hold on to her cadre if she loses this election,” says A.R. Venkatachalapathy, a social historian at the Madras Institute of Development Studies.
Seemingly emulating her bitter political rival, Tamil Nadu’s octogenarian chief minister Muthuvel Karunanidhi, she appears to be going back to her roots by contesting this assembly election out of Srirangam. Although Jayalalithaa was born in Karnataka, her family hails from a Tamil Iyengar family that was native to the temple town of Srirangam in Trichy district. Analysts believe that it is a tight electoral race and any advantage could prove to be decisive.
“This election in Tamil Nadu is going to be the closest ever,” says Barun Mitra, director of the Liberty Institute, an independent New Delhi-based policy think tank that runs a website to educate voters.
The 63-year-old Jayalalithaa’s rise from Kollywood, the Tamil film industry, to the state’s political stage has been far from easy. Nearly three decades ago, the popular Tamil film actress, who started out as a teenager acting in nearly 30 films with MGR, joined the AIADMK to become his representative. Her former co-star, with whom she shared great chemistry both on and off screen, started the party in 1972 after breaking off from the DMK and five years later became the first Tamil film actor to wear the chief minister’s crown.
While her proximity to MGR, despite being 31 years younger than him, helped in scaling the AIADMK party ranks, it also turned into a liability after his death in 1987 when a faction of the party chose to support MGR’s wife, Janaki Ramachandran, who took over as chief minister.
But she deftly wrested control of the party that, ironically, had its roots in anti-brahmin rhetoric and won her first contest in the 1989 Tamil Nadu assembly elections, to become the first female opposition leader. It was only two years later, in the 10th assembly election, that she tasted power as an alliance partner of the Indian National Congress, that was riding the sympathy wave following the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in the state. This victory was a sort of a political coming-of-age for Jayalalithaa, who finally emerged from MGR’s shadow to become the face of the party.
In fact, she turned into the party deity with gigantic cut-outs of hers around the state, temples with her images, and all this amid rising allegations of corruption. During this period, the wedding of her foster son,V.N.Sudhakaran, found its way into the Guinness Book of World Records because of the size of its guest list. Eventually, her first stint as CM ended in defeat in the 1996 assembly elections, only to make a comeback five years later in 2001.
Referred to variously as “Madam”, Puratchi Thalaivi (revolutionary leader in Tamil) and the more popular Amma, Jayalalithaa commands deep loyalty among the faithful. The best example being Sashikala, friend and confidante, who refused to give up even after the former chief minister was arrested on corruption charges in 1996. It only bonded the relationship with Sashikala, who had initially started out managing a video cassette rental that Jayalalithaa would frequent.
The big question is whether she can weave a similar equation with the volatile voters of Tamil Nadu.