Amma, Tamil Film Star Turned Politician, Dead at 68

People pay homage to the body of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa Jayaraman in Chennai, India, on December 6. John Elliott writes that in recent years she has rarely met visitors, including her civil servants and fellow politicians, ruling mostly via messages from an upper floor of her home. Adnan Abidi/reuters

This article first appeared on the Riding the Elephant site.

India lost one of its most controversial and charismatic political leaders with the death on December 5 of J.Jayalalithaa, the 68-year-old autocratic chief minister of Tamil Nadu.

A former film star, Amma ("Mother") as she was widely known, managed to mix a reputation for massive corruption and an intensely reclusive lifestyle beset by illness with efficient administration, widespread and effective welfare schemes and an erratic but sometimes powerful role in national politics.

When she was briefly jailed for corruption two years ago, several people committed suicide by setting fire to themselves, as they had done in 2001 when she was ejected from office on a supreme court ruling.

She calmly announced in 2001 that "loyal and loving brothers and sisters" had become "martyrs" and gave each family a compensation payment of 50,000 rupees (then just over $1,000).

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"For more than two decades, Jayalalithaa loomed large on the horizon, in the minds of the public as a benevolent despot, a tough politician, an unforgiving leader, a vengeful opponent and an unfriendly, intolerant, ruthless chief minister who dragged journalists and opposition leaders to court on defamation charges," says an article in The Times of India headlined "Tragic End of a Lonely Empress."

Narendra Modi, the prime minister, flew to Chennai today along with many other political leaders. He said Jayalalithaa's death left a "huge void in Indian politics."

Hundreds of thousands of people, many weeping, thronged through Chennai to a public hall where Jayalalithaa's body, draped in the Indian flag, was on a raised platform. Later, they followed a procession taking her body in a glass coffin to a beach side burial ground.

The city has been under tight security for two days with at least 5,000 police and other security personnel stationed around the Apollo Hospital where Jayalalithaa had been in intensive care since September, with more paramilitary troops on standby.

The worry has been that there would be suicides along with general unrest and violence as news of her death spread through the massive crowds. That was avoided last night with a carefully planned series of moves involving police and politicians, including other leaders of her AIADMK regional party, that led up to the death announcement shortly before midnight and appointment of her successor.

Jayalalithaa had been on life-support following a cardiac arrest on Sunday night. Respiratory and other ailments that took her to hospital three months ago had seemed to be improving after treatment by a stream of doctors from India and the U.K. On November 13, she sent a message from her hospital bed to tens of thousands of followers saying, "I have taken rebirth because of your prayers and worship."

That statement helped to mobilize distraught All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) party workers for imminent local elections. It also added to the god-like aura that surrounded Jayalalithaa, who aroused a level of adulation that is hard to explain, even in Tamil Nadu where the cult of personality merging films and politics exceeds India's general love and adulation of icons.

Jayalalithaa came from a more prosperous family background and higher levels of education than many regional politicians. She was a Brahmin, India's highest caste, but her party was founded on anti-caste ideology.

After training in Western music and Indian classical dance, she became one of the most popular Tamil film stars in the 1960s, famous for her looks and voice.

She became associated with Marudur Gopalan Ramachandran, known as MGR, a cultural folk hero and a film star turned chief minister, who became her mentor and promoted her in politics from the early 1980s.

When MGR died in 1987, there was a tussle between Jayalalithaa and his wife for his political legacy, which Jayalalithaa won, securing the AIADMK's general secretary post in 1989. She led the AIADMK to victory in a state assembly election in 1991 and became chief minister. She later won four more elections, the latest being in May this year.

She was voted out of office in 1996 amid corruption allegations and criticisms of her extravagant and cult-like lifestyle—cabinet ministers rolled on temple floors and pulled golden temple chariots to mark her 48 th birthday just before the polls. She had an outrageously extravagant lifestyle and was reputed in the 1990s to be collecting Rs10m (then $300,000) a day in kick-backs.

Corruption cases based on owning assets disproportionate to her occupation have dogged her since those days. They have stemmed mainly from extravagant wedding celebrations that she staged for her foster son in 1997, which were reported to have cost over $1 million. Later, 400 pairs of diamond- studded gold bangles, 30 kg of jewelry and 750 pairs of slippers were found when her home was raided.

She managed to stave off court cases till she was convicted and briefly jailed in 2014. She was acquitted a year later, but that acquittal is being appealed by the Congress Party in Karnataka where the case was heard.

Tamil Nadu's other main political party, the DMK, has been her main rival and generally alternated with her AIADMK ruling the state.

Headed by Muthuvel Karunanidhi, a prominent film script writer who is 91 and currently in hospital with an allergy, the DMK's leaders center around one dynasty with excessive nepotism and corruption, and links to national as well as local graft cases.

From the mid-1990s, these two unlikely leaders ran an efficient administration. Tamil Nadu became an ideal location for investment by both Indian and foreign companies, despite demands for money and favors. "She is a chief minister we can do business with," an American ambassador said in the mid-1990s after he had met Jayalalithaa.

She won popular support with a series of "Amma" welfare schemes including subsidized pharmacies, meals, salt, drinking water and gifts for mothers with babies—and gifts of lap tops at election time.

She was an autocrat and said in interviews that this was necessary for her to succeed as a woman politician. In recent years she has rarely met visitors, including her civil servants and fellow politicians, ruling mostly via messages from an upper floor of her home. She demanded outrageous displays of loyalty with her most senior political colleagues, bureaucrats and police chiefs making obeisance and touching her feet in public.

"Over the last 25 years, what Jayalalitha has done is ensured that there was no second line, no third line, no fourth line, that there was not a single leader who had his own support base," a local historian, A.R. Venkatachalapathy, told The New York Times. "She ensured that everyone in her party was dependent on her and her alone."

Her successor as chief minister, who was sworn in this morning, is O. Panneerselvam, the state finance minister who stood in for Jayalalithaa twice as chief minister when she was banned from office and jailed. He is reported to have displayed the limits of his power when he ran a cabinet meeting recently with a photograph of Jayalalithaa in front of him.

Political power has also wielded by others during years of intrigues, notably by Sasikala Natarajan, Jayalalithaa's closest friend since the 1980s. She is being tipped as a possible party general secretary, though she is one of the accused in the corruption cases that are now being appealed.

With Jayalalithaa gone and the DMK's Karunanidhi ailing, Tamil Nadu politics are set for a period of uncertainty and upheaval as new leaders emerge. This will leave openings for Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party to extend its reach in south Indian politics and also for the Gandhi family's weak Congress Party to strengthen its links with the Tamil Maanila Congress that broke away in 1996.

New charismatic politicians will no doubt emerge again but they are unlikely to combine the positive and negative mix that made Jayalalithaa so irresistible to her followers.

John Elliott writes from New Delhi. His latest book is Implosion: India's Tryst With Reality (HarperCollins, India).

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