Jayalalithaa Jayaram, chief minister of Tamil Nadu, who passed away in Chennai, aged 68, on Tuesday, will be remembered as a charismatic leader, who, while heading a regional party, commanded respect from leaders and people across the country. She joined politics after a stint in cinema. Her hero in many films and the founder-leader of the AIADMK, MG Ramachandran—or MGR, as he was popularly known—initiated her into politics in 1982 and, two years later, sent her to the Rajya Sabha. Cinema was the vehicle the Dravidian Movement deployed to take its political message to the masses. Jayalalithaa’s association with MGR gave her a headstart, but her mentor, who was chief minister of Tamil Nadu for over a decade, passed away much before she could carve out her own space in the party or in state politics. The AIADMK she took over in 1989 was a party riven by factionalism and chastened by a devastating defeat at the hands of its prime rival, DMK. She rebuilt the AIADMK, winning four assembly elections, and turned it into an extension of her personality. In the intensely patriarchal world of Indian politics, Jayalalithaa was a rare woman politician who set the terms and remade the field.
Jayalalithaa acknowledged her party’s debt to the Dravidian Movement and its ideals like Tamil pride and sub-nationalism, social justice, welfarism. Yet, ideology was not the main force that drove her politics. As for her mentor MGR, politics was a means to extend state patronage with the leader’s stamp on it. The welfare measures she initiated as chief minister of Tamil Nadu were presented to the people as evidence of her largesse and generosity. Of course, the people did not complain; in fact, they elected her over and over again. The state’s finances took a hit on account of the numerous subsidised initiatives she launched. But the welfare programmes—subsidised rations, medicines, canteens among others—also enhanced the capabilities of the people. These did not start with Jayalalithaa—for instance, the mid-day meal scheme dates back to the 1950s when Congress stalwart K Kamaraj was CM—but she expanded the basket of goods offered and fine-tuned them to benefit targeted groups like women and children. They helped shore up Tamil Nadu’s claim to being an industrial powerhouse with exceptional social development indices. Her record in office is tainted with corruption scandals and she was known for her whimsical and autocratic behaviour, but Jayalalithaa is likely to be remembered, most of all, as an exceptional administrator and leader.
Jayalalithaa did not mentor a second-rung leadership in the AIADMK. Without her at the helm, the party stares at an uncertain future. But her legacy could be the brand she conceived in office: Brand Amma—which includes services like state-run canteens, goods like salt and cement, and public spaces including cinema theatres and marriage halls—is the monument she has built for herself. That is also the political capital the AIADMK can bank on as it figures out the way ahead.