Jayalalithaa's Legacy: Her Departure Leaves The Battlefield Less Spirited

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Jayalalithaa by BBC

By Kavitha Muralidharan



In her passing away, J Jayalalithaa has left a vacuum. That might sound too clichéd an obit, but the vacuum exists, for sure. Over the years, Jayalalithaa has come to dominate Tamil Nadu politics with such force and totality that it is hard to imagine what would happen next, both within the party and outside.

Also Read: Jayalalithaa: Setting Milestones In Tamil Nadu’s History

Jayalalithaa had always wanted to be a politician. Writing in a popular magazine in the 1970s, Jayalalithaa said she had never wanted to be an actor, but had other ambitions that included doing a doctorate in literature and becoming a politician to serve people. Acting was an accident she resented yet she gave it her best. Like she said in one of her interviews (and quoted by Vaasanthi in her book, Amma: Jayalalithaa’s Journey from Movie Star to Political Queen), Jayalalithaa can ‘will herself to do anything in this world.’

“I couldn’t be indifferent. Because I have this in me – once I take up a job I will never do it half-heartedly or indifferently even if it is something like giving a bath to my dog!” she had said in the interview.

That quality perhaps helped her sail through many adversities and made her an unlikely yet hugely successful politician. The tributes have been pouring in, even from political rivals. M K Stalin, DMK's heir apparent, called her an iron lady and a courageous leader. DMK MP Kanimozhi, Karunanidhi's daughter, called Jayalalithaa "a rare and uncompromising leader". She told reporters, "We have lost someone who was both talented and unique".

Jayalalitha Jayalalithaa (1948-2016)


"Character assassination is a usual weapon used against women leaders. She just brushed it aside and went ahead. And rose above it," Kanimozhi told SheThePeople.TV.

In his tribute, Jayalalithaa’s bête noire and DMK chief M Karunanidhi perhaps rightly pointed out that 68 was not the age to die. Perhaps Jayalalithaa thought she could pull it off like she always does and had made little plans for the party and the government. Unlike in the DMK, the AIADMK had no second rung leadership that could be seen as Jayalalithaa’s heirs apparent.

Yes, there was a Sasikala who was Jayalalithaa’s foster sister but the AIADMK leader ensured that Sasikala never overstepped her limits in politics. O Paneerselvam was Jayalalithaa’s choice of interim CM candidate when she had to relinquish the post twice in 2001 and 2014, but it was not because she wanted him to be her heir apparent. O Panneerselavam had earned himself a name for being a fierce loyalist who wouldn’t dream of rebelling against his leader, whatsoever. But when Jayalalithaa passed away, he became the natural choice for CM candidate because she had hand-picked him on two occasions earlier for the same job. But whether Jayalalithaa would have wanted him to lead an organisation that she had single-handedly revived and lead after MGR’s death will remain a million-dollar question.

Also Watch: J Jayalalithaa passes away, India loses political icon and women’s champion

MGR’s death in December 1987 perhaps left a similar vacuum. But unlike Jayalalithaa, MGR had dropped enough hints to his followers about Jayalalithaa succeeding him. She was made party’s propaganda secretary and later a Rajya Sabha MP. MGR was upset with Jayalalithaa during his last days and had not named her as his heir. Yet, the party threw its lot behind her after his death. For the next three decades, Jayalalitha led the AIADMK through various victories and defeats, through various milestones and pitfalls.


In her death, the party might yet again find itself in cross-roads. It is yet to be seen if O Paneerselvam will enjoy the same kind of support that Jayalalithaa had enjoyed among her party members and public alike. It also remains to be seen the kind of influence Sasilaka might influence on the party and the issues that would then crop up. Talks are already doing the rounds about Sasikala’s plan to take over as the general secretary of the party, and make herself Jayalalithaa’s heir politically.

Sasikala sought to perpetuate the memory of her relationship with Jayalalithaa in the public sphere by performing her last rites, along with Jayalalithaa's estranged nephew  Deepak Jayakumar. By doing so, she probably planned to do what Jayalalithaa did with the public memory of her relationship with MGR -- translate it into votes and the undying support that the two leaves symbol is capable of garnering.

What is perhaps worrying for politically aware citizens of Tamil Nadu is the possibility of hard-line saffron forces filling the vacuum created by soft-Hindutva peddling Jayalalithaa. Those who had opposed Jayalalithaa tooth and nail in Tamil Nadu now feel they have a more daunting task ahead – to check the rise of Hindutva forces in Tamil Nadu.

For former CM Karunanidhi himself, Jayalalithaa would have probably left a vacuum. Without a formidable enemy to take on, to pose challenges to his political acumen and remarkable alacrity, the nonagenarian politician might find the battlefield less spirited. But Tamil Nadu’s politics will never cease to surprise. What unfolds over the next few weeks in TN’s political scenario, perhaps holds the key to its future.

Views expressed are personal.  Kavitha Muralidharan tweets @kavithamurali

Tamil Nadu women politicians jayalalithaa politics AIADMK Sasikala Kanimozhi DMK