A Woman In Power: J Jayalalithaa

 Being a woman, she rose triumphantly from several personal and political challenges.

Shruthi Padmanabhan

J Jayalalithaa, the Iron Lady of Tamil Nadu, the beloved leader of the masses, passed away on 5 December 2016 in Chennai, India, after suffering from a long illness. In one of her interviews, speaking on her success as an actress and later a politician she said “I didn’t like it. But once I decide to do something whether I like it or not, I give it my all. I must excel in it. I must do it superlatively well.”

Jayalalithaa was among the last few enigmatic leaders in Indian politics. Being a woman, she rose triumphantly from several personal and political challenges.
Fondly called ‘Amma’ (mother) by the people she was the leader of the masses, developing many welfare schemes for the betterment of the marginalized. A charismatic regional leader with a nationalistic outlook. Tamil Nadu is mourning the loss of a mother. What was it like growing up in Chennai in the land of Amma?   Freelance writer Shruthi Padmanabhan shares her thoughts.


I was born in 1984. At the time, MGR was the chief minister of Tamil Nadu then. In South India, a matinee idol becoming the most powerful man in a State meant that he was revered as a god. A reverence that literally no one in the West will understand.

I grew up in a home that loved MGR. He was my amama’s (maternal grandmother) matinee idol. A handsome Malayali man who was this swashbuckling hero who could do no wrong in Tamil films, was everything to her. Her afternoons were spent watching old MGR movies along with the young girl who worked in our home at the time. According to my mother and aunts, Lakshmi tolerated no nonsense about MGR.

MGR died in office in 1987. The southern State of Tamil Nadu in India plunged into chaos overnight. There was looting and raids. His funeral procession was telecast live on Door Darshan (DD), India’s state-run broadcasting service. What an entire nation of viewers saw was a woman who went up to stand next to her mentor’s dead body and subsequently get sexually harassed in full public view by a member of the opposition.

All this is information freely available online to anyone who cares to read up about the recently deceased Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. As on date, rumours and speculation abound regarding the circumstances of the last days of her life. J Jayalalithaa was the mysterious and enigmatic movie star in life as she is in death.

To me, in 1991, when she won the election to become the first female, youngest Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, India, it was an awesome feat. It was amazing that a woman had the power to make important decisions on behalf of all of us. I desperately wanted to be old enough to vote, so that I could vote for her, a woman. Her saris, her demeanour, everything was awe-inspiring to 7-year-old me.

Then came the denouement to my rose-tinted narrative – the inevitable reports of wrongdoing, and corruption. It seemed as if we elected politicians to power just so we could have someone to blame all of the world’s problems on. As her term wore on, there was a lot of talk and a lot of flak going her way about her style of leadership, but, everything had a hint of admiration. Why? Because she was a woman who had overcome so much to be the top boss in a very, very patriarchal TN.

In 2001, when Jayalalithaa was elected back to power, I was doing my graduation. My college and her residence shared a compound wall. This was the time that she was indicted for crimes and found not guilty of these crimes. I remember the day vividly. We all went to class knowing that the announcement was due to be given that day. It was December, there were a number of things going on – the Christmas fete, a term test for all our papers before we shut for Christmas vacations, and inter-collegiate competitions that needed to be prepared for.

As a first year student, I wasn’t actively involved in college activities, but, I was planning on a stall at the fete and my friends and I were busy planning on how to sell it and how much to keep aside for us to wolf down! There were firecrackers heard and cheers doing the rounds, loud horns, and screaming people were collecting near college (the lane to reach her residence was adjacent to the “Out” gate).

We were asked to go home and we rushed back. I lived near the Naval base at the time, 2 minutes away from Fort St George, where the State Assembly is located. Going back home was not an option for me; I couldn’t imagine having to deal with the situation there. I went to my grandmother’s house.

The next few days were a blur of news articles about Jayalalithaa, the cases from which she was acquitted, how she managed to do it again, her mystery and enigma, the puppet she had installed, her rise from the ashes, it went on. After a point, I stuck to the supplements, because I simply couldn’t deal with reading about her.

What I noticed the most about her terms as the Chief Minister is the complete 180-degree turnaround by law enforcement. While with one government, they’re borderline incompetent and happily corrupt, the minute AIADMK came to power; it seemed like Tamil Nadu went and got itself a new police force – one that did its job, and did it excellently. I always wondered at it. There were spot checks, the processes were transparent, they were actually taking a keen interest in doing the needful, as corporate emails say these days!

Growing up with such a mercurial leader was an interesting process for me. There was no other female role model. Jayalalithaa was someone I knew – I’d watched those black and white movies with amama sometimes. She was a beautiful, articulate, educated woman who stood her own and never backed down from a challenge. Her epic exit from Karan Thapar’s interview is my definition of peak TV! This was a woman I wanted to be – strong, able to hold my own, and never ever stepping down from where I stand, no matter  what people thought my opinion should be. That exit was discussed at home for days!

Every single time there was any conversation about J Jayalalithaa, the one thing that was standard was that she was a woman. Each term of hers coincided with some major debates about women, in my opinion. There was the time when the 33% reservation for women was being hotly debated. I remember thinking then that Jayalalithaa was a woman in power, so how hard could it be for us? If she, from the era of black and white cinema was literally ruling the roost, then, what did I have to worry about? By the time I got around to being a part of productive society, leaders like her would have paved the way for us.

Speculations and fan fiction are a part and parcel of being a public figure, but I never could understand the near obsession with Jayalalithaa. It could be that she was markedly silent about herself. It could be that she was always surrounded by people who seemed more keen on worshipping her than on actually doing the things that elected leaders should do. It could be a number of things, but, I always felt that she was better off left alone, doing her job of being a woman in power and showing girls like me that it was possible to have it all.

To me, watching someone like her was fascinating. She was making decisions unabashedly and owning every single one of them by justifying none of her actions. She didn’t have to because all of her decisions as chief minister were welfare oriented and geared towards the upliftment of the poor. What she did as J Jayalalithaa the individual was not up for discussion, if it was, she didn’t hesitate to drop the mic and leave the room!

Everything about her screamed a kind of quiet dignity. Irrespective of the reams of press that have been devoted to her firm control of the narrative, her expectation of absolute loyalty, and her utter refusal to make any personal statements, I found in her a woman who had transitioned from success in her early career to success in her later life choices as well.

It does seem that women will be judged by eyes who want to frame an image that may or may not reflect the truth, but, no matter what happens, to deny that Jayalalithaa had an impact on the lives of young women is wrong. Her being in power was an assurance to us that we could also dream big and reach those heights. After all, we had in her a pioneer.

Here was a beautiful and talented woman, who had topped her school exams who had achieved the heights of fame and success in the movie industry and then went on to become a beloved leader of a State that is more about the machismo, than it is about gentility. She had 5 terms as the CM. While she was at the peak of her political career, she had managed to overturn the government at the centre and force a re-election within a year. No one since J Jayalalithaa has managed to do all of this and yet maintain their aura and mystique.

In the era of over-sharing and connecting, Jayalalithaa was a relic of times past – when privacy meant something and the press controlled the narrative while reality played out where it should, in real life!

Shruthi Padmanabhan is a former journalist, now aspiring writer, and full-time army wife. She teams up with her husband to temporarily adopt stray dogs wherever they move.


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