Jayalalithaa: Empress of the South

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There is too much at stake during the 2016 assembly polls in Tamil Nadu where either Jayalalithaa could be propelled to the national stage or the DMK’s future could be in jeopardy
By Kalyani Shankar

A Wikileaks telegram sent from the US embassy in New Delhi to Washington in 2009 described Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa as behaving like an empress of the South on her way to conquer the rest of India. It added that she was considered the toughest, most muscular political figure in the state and has leveraged this image of strength into power.

The actress-turned-politician’s life has been like a film script, full of romance, suspense, drama, action, surprise and tragedy. Jayalalithaa’s success lies in the fact that her party members worship her like a goddess. It is common for even senior AIADMK leaders to fall at her feet and keep her photograph in their shirt pockets. Mass hysteria and self-immolations were common when Amma faced any challenge.

Just like her mentor and first AIADMK chief minister MG Ramachandran, she too pulls in fawning crowds and transfers them into votes. She has built a personality cult quite like MGR.


However, Jaya has seen highs and lows ever since her entry into politics in 1982. She has served many terms as CM—from 1991 to 1996, in 2001, from 2002 to 2006, 2011 to 2014 and from 2015 to the present. She became the first incumbent CM who had to step down following conviction in a disproportionate assets (DA) case on September 27, 2014. She was jailed and sentenced to four years jail in 2014. However, the Karnataka High Court acquitted her and she triumphantly came back to office on May 23, 2015. But the case is in the Supreme Court presently.

Jayalalithaa’s career has been marked by her long-running political feud with 94-year-old DMK chief M Karunanidhi. Both have succeeded each other as CMs for most of the last three decades and played vendetta politics against each another.

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Going back in time, Jayalalithaa stormed in as CM in May 2011 when she trounced the DMK with an overwhelming majority. She was able to do so as she had got her arithmetic right and aligned with the CPI, the CPI-M, the DMDK and other smaller parties. She also toured the length and breadth of the state and campaigned against the DMK, which was facing several problems, including family feuds, indiscipline and factionalism.

Another feather in her cap was that three of Karunanidhi’s children were fighting for his political legacy. The DMK patriarch continues to be the peacemaker between his sons MK Alagiri and MK Stalin and daughter Kanimozhi. Now Alagiri is out of favor, while the other two have patched up. Karunanidhi, who has been leading the party from 1969 after the death of founder CN Annadurai, has made the party subservient to his family. Stalin was the deputy CM, while Alagiri was a central cabinet minister in the UPA regime. Kanimozhi is the chief of the DMK women’s wing, while his grandnephew, Dayanidhi Maran, was a telecom minister at the center. However, the family has been tainted as Karunanidhi’s wife Dayanidhi, Kanimozhi and Maran, were alleged to have been involved in the 2G telecom scam and currently face court cases.


Making use of the anti-incumbency wave to her advantage, the AIADMK coalition won 203 of the 234 seats in the 2011 polls. Before the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, Jayalalithaa had nursed prime ministerial ambitions. However, the BJP emerged as the single largest party with a comfortable majority, dashing her hopes. But a massive swing of 21.3 percent in vote share propelled the AIADMK to a resounding victory, with Jayalalithaa stunning everyone by winning 37 of the 39 seats in Tamil Nadu and emerging as the third largest party in the Lok Sabha. The crestfallen DMK not only had a 1.6 percent drop in vote share in this election from the 25 percent in 2009, but suffered a major jolt by drawing a blank. The Congress got just 4.3 percent vote share from the 20 percent earlier and no seats. By controlling 48 MPs in both houses of parliament, the CM once again began to dabble in national politics, trying to carve a bigger role for herself.

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However, the 2016 assembly polls are different from the 2011 one as anti-incumbency will not hurt the AIADMK. Jaya has the ambitious “Mission 234” (getting 234 seats) target before her and she has deputed her ministers and party leaders to go to districts to publicize the government’s achievements over the last five years.

Enthused by the over Rs 2,42,000-crore global investment into the state, she launched Vision 2023 Programs, where an investment of $250 billion is expected to flow in. “I feel it is essential to tell the 5,62,06,547 voters covered in 64,094 polling stations on behalf of the AIADMK that Tamil Nadu is marching on a growth path never seen before due to efforts aimed at people’s development,” she said in a party release in Chennai a few weeks ago. The government also claims to have recruited over 70,000 teachers and provided liberal funds for infrastructure projects.

Amma has also launched several welfare programs over the past five years for the poor and the lower middle class. These include Amma drinking water pouches, Amma canteens, medicines at 15 percent discount, cheaper salt, cement and even baby kits.

With her acquittal and return as CM, AIADMK cadres were quite confident of returning to power, till the disastrous rains of December 2015. The floods that submerged Chennai seem to have shaken the confidence of AIADMK leaders as there was large-scale public anger about delay in relief and rehabilitation. Jaya has tasked the administration to deliver results and hopes to reap benefits before the polls.


Meanwhile, the DMK-led opposition has not been able to take advantage of this situation as it is divided and weak. Karunanidhi is trying his best to build a coalition for the polls and has already built an alliance with the Congress. However, the smaller DMDK has not responded to the DMK’s overtures. Another disadvantage for the DMK is that Karunanidhi is 94 and is not very mobile as he has been moving about in his motorized wheelchair since 2002. And though he has projected younger son Stalin as his political heir, he is no match for the charismatic Jayalalithaa.

Karunanidhi’s image-making team is working hard to project Stalin as an accessible and likeable leader. It is for this reason that the “Namakku Naame” yatra (a mass contact program) was launched a few months ago, where Stalin was seen riding auto-rickshaws, kissing babies, wading into markets and even visiting temples despite the DMK’s atheist principles. After all, the party has eight percent Hindus. Meanwhile, he has to contend with elder brother Alagiri, who has a following in the southern districts of the state.

There is also a growing understanding within the DMK that the Tamil Nadu electorate has changed. About 60 lakh first-time voters will exercise their franchise in 2016. At the same time, some 85 lakh youngsters are in the waiting list at the state Employment Exchange.

DMK cadres are also demoralized after the 2011 and 2014 poll debacles and more so after Jayalalithaa was acquitted in the DA case. Although the December rains have come as a setback for the CM, the flow of central funds and quick relief works might bail her out.


But it is not roses all the way for Jayalalithaa either. She is not in good health, affecting her mobility. This is expected to impact her campaigning. Also, she has not developed second-rung leaders. Her development agenda were also temporarily halted when she had to step down after being convicted in 2014. Not just that, a Damocles’ Sword still hangs over her head as the Supreme Court is yet to acquit her in the DA case. Like all parties, there is disgruntlement within the party itself due to the appointment of district secretaries and complaints that the AIADMK ministers had got their own men in positions of power. It also waits to be seen if she can cobble together a viable coalition. The AIADMK is already in informal talks with the CPI, which is now part of the People’s Welfare Front (PWF) which has other Left parties, the MDMK and the Vidudalai Chiruthaigal Katchi. GK Vasan’s Tamil Manila Congress (TMC) too hopes it’ll get a fair deal from the AIADMK.

Though the electoral battle will be between the ruling AIADMK and the DMK, there are smaller parties in the fray too. National parties such as the Congress and the BJP are minor players in this state. While the Congress lost primacy since 1967, the BJP is yet to find its roots.

Then, there is the DMDK. In the 2011 assembly polls, the DMDK, led by actor-turned-politician Captain Vijayakanth, had emerged as the second largest party with a ten percent vote share when it was an ally of the AIADMK. Since then, both have fallen out. With a 7 to 8 percent voter base, Vijayakanth is the most-sought-after leader for an alliance, with the BJP, DMK and the PWF wooing him.

However, on February 21, 10 opposition MLAs, including eight from the DMDK, resigned, making Vijayakanth lose his position as leader of the opposition. No party presently is qualified for the post of leader of opposition as all have lost the minimum required strength of 24 MLAs. All these MLAs, however, had been supporting AIADMK for nearly two years in the assembly.


As for the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), a caste-based party representing Vanniyars, it has already nominated former Union health minister Dr Anbumani Ramadoss, son of party founder Dr S Ramadoss, for chief ministership. While the DMK may benefit from an alliance with the PMK, which has influence in at least ten districts, the chief ministership is still in dispute. Despite its poll defeats in 2011 and 2014, the PMK is ambitious.

As for the BJP, the waning Modi magic is a problem. It lacks an ideological, organizational and social base in Tamil Nadu. There is no local leader to match any of the other regional parties here. During the Lok Sabha polls, the formidable NDA coalition of the DMDK, MDMK, PMK and other smaller parties got an 18 percent vote share and two seats (PMK and BJP). This has emboldened the BJP to aspire for expansion and it is now reaching out to more communities such as the Thevars and the Yadavas. However, it still needs a coalition to survive. But neither Ramadoss nor Vijayakanth are not willing to join it as both have ambitions to head the next government.

The 2016 polls are crucial for Jayalalithaa’s political future as she is aiming for a bigger national role. Should the AIADMK win again, it could finish off the smaller parties as well as deal a big blow to the future of the DMK. Turbulent times are ahead if it fails to perform as this is Karunanidhi’s last chance. The future of Stalin too is in question. The stakes are high and the future uncertain.

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