The Queen of Charisma: Jayalalitha Passes Away

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Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa has died at the age of 68.

After battling for her life at Apollo Hospital in Chennai for 75 days, the iconic Dravidian leader and six-time Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu succumbed to her illness on Monday, December 5 at 11 30pm.

As the news spreads, a wave of sadness and disbelief is engulfing the state of Tamil Nadu. Tamil Nadu has not witnessed such a crisis since the death of MGR, or perhaps ever.

Jayalalitha, her compelling attractiveness was hard to miss even in loud and crass political banners. Her charm could throw any seasoned political operator off-guard. The devotion, and there is no better word for it, which she inspired among millions of her followers, made her the last such mass leader of Dravidian politics.

No leader since Jayalalithaa has been able to achieve such feverish popularity, cutting across class and caste divides. No leader who emerged after her has been able to match her in any capacity.

If DMK patriarch M Karunanidhi held sway with his literary flourish and ideological clarity, Jayalalitha brought along steel-grit, a demeanor defiant of the male-order, unparalleled administrative capabilities and a physical presence which held the electorate in a spell.

Jayalalitha was a talented and academically-gifted child, and she knew the power of her charisma at a very young age. To help out her mother, she entered films, and success came easily for her. Vaasanthi, in her book ‘Amma’, quotes her stating in an interview, “There was no intermediate or struggling period for me. Overnight I was famous and fabulously successful, the lead heroine in two languages, Tamil and Telugu.”

If her persona made her an easy success in films, it was her nuclear weapon in the political arena.

And that’s why, her loyalists held it dear. After the death of MGR, Jayalalithaa was insulted and abused by AIADMK men, even sent home by MGR loyalists, refusing to allow her to participate in the funeral. But many came to her support, and openly said, “We want a charismatic leader. Jayalalithaa is the only person with charisma.”

And that’s why, she used it at every opportunity she had. Vaasanthi writes how “… at her party conference in Madurai in July 1992, she made an audacious observation that the massive mandate she received from the people was due to her charisma alone, and not due to the sympathy wave following Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination.”

Vaasanthi further observes, “Unlike MGR, who was shrewd enough to realize that it would be detrimental to antagonize the ruling Congress in Delhi and its local members in Tamil Nadu, Jayalalithaa believed that her charisma, her popularity alone, would carry her forward in her path to glory.”

A single fact sheds ample light on the strength of her personality: she was the only person in Tamil Nadu politics who could rein in Karunanidhi. The wily old fox of Dravidian politics would defeat her several times, out-manoeuvre her with his political strategies. But every time she would bounce back, leveraging her image.

Jayalalitha also knew how to draw out charisma from humility. When she adorned the simple dark saree as the choice of her attire, her cadre admired her for that, too. Whether it was wearing a few kilos of gold on her neck, or just sporting a plain green saree, she would still have an aura around her.

But her allure did not always work to the benefit of the people, and helped her mask her vendetta-driven politics, which often translated to violence and a degradation of the government. It was due to her own arrogant belief in her popularity that Vaasanthi writes, “The governmental machinery receded to the background, the officials became mute observers, and party members, even ministers, covered their mouths in reverence and fear when they went near her to speak.”

One such victim was Chandralekha, an IAS officer who questioned the TN government’s divestment of SPIC (Southern Petrochemical Industries Corporation Ltd). Acid was thrown on her face, and it was believed that it was done with Jayalalithaa’s approval, though never proved. Chandralekha, who is now a political aide to Subramaniam Swamy, displays the scars on her face as proof of the pain and agony she endured.

Several others, from Swamy and Mani Shankar Aiyar, to lawyers like KM Vijayan, allegedly bore the brunt of opposing Jayalalithaa. Her legendary magnetism masked all the violence, reducing those digressions to forgotten footnotes in the political history of Tamil Nadu.

And with her death, her persona will come to her rescue yet again. In the minds of the people of India, she will forever remain that charismatic leader who cannot be replaced, and for the people of Tamil Nadu, she will always be Amma.

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