rom the political rib of the formidable K Kamaraj, early Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, president of an undivided Congress, came a young Telugu-Tamil screen-writer, M Karunanidhi. It was Karunanidhi who gradually rose to spearhead the Dravidian movement that transformed the politics of Tamil Nadu.
Kamaraj, the mundu-clad, literally tall southern leader, a Cardinal Wolsey-like figure, crucially steered the Congress after Nehru died. But this was only until Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi, the assumedly demure ‘gungi gudiya’ (mute doll) whom Kamaraj sought to control, revolted. Indira Gandhi vanquished the kingmaker’s grip, sending Kamaraj and his rump of the Congress Party, into oblivion. She, whom J Jayalalithaa echoes in her later political career, with her decisiveness, authoritarianism, and welfarism, more or less inherited the Congress government, and its vast canvas, at the Centre.
This, just as an obedient Jayaram Jayalalithaa inherited the political machine of the AIADMK in Tamil Nadu, from her mentor MG Ramachandran, after a brief period of initial turbulence. Once firmly ensconced, Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK alternated in polarity and power with Karunanidhi’s DMK.
A dark-glasses sporting M Karnunanidhi, rising from behind the legendary Annadurai, champion of the lower castes, has now outlived Jayalalithaa. Eyes forever shaded, in his wheel-chaired 90s, the writer and poet in him is shocked by Jayalalithaa’s early departure at just 68. Quite evidently, he misses his actress cum consummate political rival, whose abrupt departure has left no obvious political or biological heirs in place.
Despite their rivalry, it was the DMK and AIADMK together, that chased away the all-pervasive Tamil Brahmin presence, forcing an exodus similar to the banishment of the Pandits from the Kashmir Valley — albeit through marginalisation and not terrorism — sending most of them scurrying, all the way to a distant New Delhi.
And it was Karunanidhi’s rib, in turn, that begat MGR, a fair and lovely, cleft-chinned movie idol, with even more stylish shades, Elvis puff, and Madras chic pencil moustache. The matinee superstar turned politician, with his very own alternative DMK, the off-shooting AIADMK.
MGR initially chose his well-spoken and polished Tamilian Brahmin co-star of 27 jubilee hits, to speak for the AIADMK, not just in Madras, but at the Rajya Sabha in the nation’s capital. And fatefully, a young Indira Gandhi came to the house to witness Jayalalithaa’s first Rajya Sabha speech.
Jayalalithaa Jayaraman maintained both her highly successful careers, her entries into which were involuntary. She was ‘propelled by fate’, she said, first by her character actress mother to stardom in the world of southern films, beginning at just 15, and later, by co-star and mentor MGR, into politics. It was when Jayalalithaa emerged from MGR’s shadow that she began, at last, to live her own life and become a political titan in her own right.
Her political career was catalysed, at the very start, by savage attacks from MGR’s lawfully wedded wife Janaki, and her followers, which informally split the party, but in Jayalalithaa’s favour. And then the infamous, Draupadi-like physical humiliation at the hands of DMK MLAs, her roughed up and dishevelled appearance plastered across the next day’s front pages. And this, in full view of then Chief Minister M Karunanidhi, his wife in the viewing gallery, and all others on the floor of the Tamil Nadu Assembly!
Jayalalithaa consequently grew a strong female backing in Tamil Nadu, akin to the fervour aroused by Evita Peron, and never had to look back politically after this. And gradually, as she grew in stature, she outdid all the populist measures ever undertaken, not only in Tamil Nadu but the country, offering up a template on how this is done. This secured her place in the hearts of all her AIADMK cadre and the people of the State at large.
In the latter day, the intensely private Jayalalithaa became a universal ‘Amma’ to the people of Tamil Nadu. However, through it all, the power, the glory, the spells in jail for the corruption scandals to follow, there was no heir to her growing legend. Though adoptive efforts via confidante and caretaker Sasikala Natarajan, a nephew of the latter, was attempted, it had to be abandoned when secret manipulations of the Sasikala family came to her notice.
Jayalalithaa is also estranged from any of her own blood relatives, a situation that has persisted till her death. After Jayalalithaa died, near midnight on the 5th of December, all of Chennai has shut down for a week’s official mourning. But one symbol of her legacy, the ubiquitous Jayalalithaa canteens, set up in 2013, where idlis are sold to the poor for Re 1, have wisely not been closed by her successors.
In retrospect, it must be said, however, that Jayalalithaa combined the competitive populism, with firm administration, strict law and order, and a formidable, steely grip on her party. And this, for all the 3 decades of her political life, coming to the chief ministry of Tamil Nadu multiple times, and finally dying in harness.
Jayalalithaa also played a significant supporting role at the Centre, both propping up and withdrawing support to the NDA government of AB Vajpayee. While she did send emissaries to participate in central politics, she never left her base unattended in Tamil Nadu. She knew instinctively where she belonged, throughout her first career in films,when there were only brief forays into Hindi and English projects, and her second, in politics.
Buried, like the political titans of Tamil Nadu before her, at the mausoleum created for mentor MGR on Marina Beach, the immortalisation of her legend has possibly just begun. Much married rival M Karunanidhi, by way of contrast, does have heirs, but it is unlikely that his chosen successor MK Stalin, will go unchallenged by his siblings.
As for the AIADMK, despite alleged efforts by friend and caretaker, Sasikala and her family to inherit her political mantle, the party is probably in for a long spell of rule by consensus. This, till another charismatic leader is thrown up.
A single point of focus seems to be essential in personality-based Tamil Nadu politics. To illustrate this, let us note that the only spontaneous cheer that went up while the mortal remains of J Jayalalithaa were lying in state, was not for the President or Prime Minister, come to pay their respects, but for cine-superstar, and Poes Garden neighbour, Shivaji Rao Gaekwad. Gaekwad, beloved of the people, and known to them as Rajinikanth.