Jayalalitha Jayaram was one of India’s most powerful politicians as well as the first female and the youngest chief minister to have been elected in the state of Tamil Nadu. She was an ambitious, relentless populist authoritarian leader who motivated her followers to take extreme but necessary measures. Jayalalitha started out as an Indian film actress and eventually became a politician and government official. She served three terms as chief minister and was the leader of the All India Dravidian Progressive Federation (AIADMK), a political party based in Tamil Nadu. Maruthur Gopala Ramachandran, with whom she made dozens of movies not only founded the AIADMK but also served as the chief minister of Tamil Nadu. He introduced Jayalalitha to the political world and, to some extent, served as her mentor in both the movie industry and politics.
As the first woman opposition leader of the AIADMK, Jayalalitha made her party feel powerful, even invincible. With her charisma she drew the people of Tamil Nadu to her and won their trust and admiration. Having acquired a larger-than-life persona as a leader, she was seen as a motherly figure and called “amma” (meaning mother) by her followers. She took initiative where necessary, improving environmental conditions and focusing especially on welfare programs. She made water harvesting structures mandatory for all buildings in Tamil Nadu. She established subsidized food canteens, gave away food mixers and grinders to families and supplied thousands of students with free laptops and cycles. As the generosity of giving away food is a great cultural value in India, Jayalalitha established not only an economic bond with the people of Tamil Nadu but a cultural one, thereby obtaining her populist credentials.
An authoritarian leader, Jayalalitha ensured that her party was dependent on her alone. She even encouraged extreme displays of devotion, having her top-bureaucrats and party functionaries lie full-length at her presence and press their faces against the floor. She was said to make this a spectacle. Jayalalitha inspired an unusual passion in her followers. Throughout her time in office, her supporters would tattoo themselves with her image and chop off their own fingers to draw her portrait in blood. When she faced political setbacks, like being convicted of corruption and imprisoned in 2015, some of her followers publically lit themselves on fire. When Jayalalitha died from a cardiac arrest in 2016, Tamil Nadu declared seven days of state mourning and shut both schools and colleges for three days. Her death caused civil unrest as Tamil Nadu’s citizens began stockpiling food and gasoline or rushing away from Chennai for safety. Nearly 300 of her supporters committed suicide or, as natural causes of death are counted as expressions of allegiance in India, died of shock. Over 6,000 security personnel had to be deployed in Chennai to control her grieving followers’ vigils, riots and self harm. Jayalalitha’s follower’s dramatic displays of devotion that even continued after her death show what a strong and lasting impact she made on her country. Her death resulted in a political vacuum.
Jayalalitha was a bold leader who took extreme measures when she saw it was necessary. She won her elections by running alone instead of forming coalitions like other parties did. She used people to her advantage gain back power, like general secretary Vaiko whom she had previously imprisoned for 19 months. Unforgiving and authoritative, Jayalalitha obsessed over defeating her enemies. Critics even say that her authoritarian leadership style lacked democratic values. She challenged Tamil Nadu’s sexist, male-dominated politics that failed to restrain her rise to power. After her release from imprisonment in early January 1997, she quickly and seemingly without much effort returned to power, mainly through her welfare work. From her party she commanded respect and loyalty, and her commands were responded to with extreme expressions of dedication, as she herself remained loyal to her beliefs and intentions and led her state with confidence.