Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa passed away on December 5.
Late in September, she was admitted to Chennai’s Apollo Hospital for “fever and dehydration.” As the months progressed, it became clearer that her condition was graver than originally thought. Until today, while the 68-year-old political matriarch was still on life-support, and many of her supporters had occupied the space outside the hospital, to mourn her, while still harbouring some hope that she will survive.
Some may consider it odd to see so many people openly display their shock and despair at the suggestion of a politician’s death – especially a leader who has been embroiled in one scam after another. But her popularity as a leader has always drawn intense, and even emotional, responses like these.
“An autocrat she is, no doubt. But a benevolent one,” writes Tamil author Vaasanthi, in her 2016 biography of Jayalalithaa. Jayalalithaa’s social welfare schemes – and the somewhat absurd branding of rice, cement, televisions and rations that she was criticized for – did eventually make a huge impression, especially on people from rural areas. And when the 2004 tsunami and earthquake devastated Tamil Nadu, she and her government, writes Vaasanthi, “rose admirably to the challenge”. But more than all of this, it was Jayalalithaa’s charisma and personality that made the largest impact on people.
Her rise to power as a woman in largely male-dominated profession was remarkable. But it all started outside the realm of politics. Jayalalithaa speaks sparingly of her childhood, but from what she has said, it was not an easy one. In an interview with Indian talk show host Simi Garewal she speaks about how her mother’s career in films often separated the two of them and caused her a lot of grief:
“I always used to cry whenever she left,” said Jayalalithaa. “She used to put me to [bed], and I always used to sleep clutching her saree pallu in my hands. So my mother found it impossible to get up and leave. So leaving the edge of the saree in my hand, she used to gradually unwind the saree and she used to make my aunt drape the saree around herself and lie down beside me so that I wouldn’t notice her leaving […] I would be inconsolable for three days.”
As the daughter of a single mother who worked in the film industry she was often taunted by her classmates. She says all of this only drove her to work hard at school, and consistently be the best in class. But she soon went from being a “tongue-tied” and “shy” teenager to a glamorous Tamil film actress.
Despite her torrid relationship with MGR, who co-starred with her in 28 films, Jayalalithaa never married. In the interview with Garewal, she reflects on how this cemented her public perception. “If you look at all the other women leaders who have made it to the top in Asia, they were all either daughters or wives or widows of former prime ministers or presidents.” But dynastic politics aside, she points to what the association with a male relative does: “If you are a wife, automatically so much respect is given to you.”
And that respect was not extended to Jayalalithaa, who was at the time an unattached and singularly ambitious woman in politics, and continued to be. Was she an ideal to aspire to? Many would argue not, while many more would feverishly agree. She was one of the very few women in a seat of political power, and even with the many criminal charges to her name, her absence will be felt deeply, by her supporters and her most vehement opponents alike.
With her gone, it remains to be seen how Chennai, her stronghold, copes with a loss like this.