Since late 2015, if not longer, the health of the late J Jayalalithaa—the former chief minister of Tamil Nadu and the erstwhile head of the All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam—had been the subject of not only repetitive hospital and government bulletins, but also of rumour and anecdote, fantasy and fiction. In the months that preceded her death on 5 December 2016, an air of deliberate secrecy kept many citizens guessing. Amid the prevailing confusion, a frustrating moment brought home the absurdity and poignancy of her situation.
After Jayalalithaa won the assembly elections in May 2016 and took over as chief minister for the second time in succession, she expected to go from victory to victory. Once the usual rounds of cabinet re-shuffling were concluded—these happened so often that it is hard to keep count—it seemed that her government had settled down to business. But her being admitted to a hospital in September changed everything: while her party and ministers tried to reassure themselves and the supporters of AIADMK that Amma, as she was known to them, was indeed recovering, there was a clear diktat that one ought not speculate on her well-being, or even wonder whether she was getting better or not. This anxiety surrounding her health, or rather her mortality, acquired an absurd resonance, when those accused of spreading rumours about her worsening condition were threatened with legal action. The injunction to even imagine that her health could be deteriorating, showed her in a new and vulnerable light: she was literally being placed outside the pale of what we consider human, as it were, and disallowed her mortal and suffering status.
However, it was hard to hold the poignant moment, because the menace—of state action against those who wondered aloud about her health—embedded within this moment was all too real. It was also in character with her mode of governance as it had unfolded during all her terms in office. Jayalalithaa spoke in her own voice and person, made it clear that it was she and not her party that was in power, demonstrated that her will was sovereign, and that neither the executive nor the legislators from her own party could dare consider it to be otherwise. If they did, they would have to risk facing punitive state action or veiled civil menace.
This imperious manner of functioning earned Jayalalithaa grudging praise and also admiration, especially from women. Indeed, it would appear, if one were to go by media reports, that she was sensitive to women’s issues, and that her successful rise to power and ability to hold her own in a misogynistic, patriarchal political culture proved inspiring to many women. It is certainly true that hers was not a life devoid of struggle. But it is important to remember that while she displayed remarkable courage and steely resilience in pursuing what was important to her, she was not entirely without support. For one, Jayalalithaa had social capital. Her caste privilege ensured an English education that made it possible for her to speak back to the English media and her urbane liberal critics. It also helped cement her appeal to the middle class across India, which scorned the politician in white who preferred to speak in the vernacular. Further, she made good use of the gendered culture of allure that is associated with the stage and theatre. This culture, to be sure, was not easy on her, but she also learned to deploy it to great effect, transforming herself from a popular actor to a woman with a distinctive public presence that commanded instant attention, if not devotion. This transfiguration was made possible by a party organisation that effectively orchestrated the loyalty she appeared to command, and reflected this loyalty, in turn, by being servile towards her.
Meanwhile, Jayalalithaa had set in place a complicated system of political rewards and punishments to ensure political obedience. She also established an effective system of quashing all those party men and women who were either popular with their constituencies, or showed signs of what she considered upstart ambition. Finally, she deployed state power expertly, cultivating a ferocious populism that combined welfare and coercion in equal measure. She made it clear that she would only tolerate those whose political authority derived from her own. It is telling that hundreds of men did not mind that Jayalalithaa demanded this of them, and they were willing to comply, because it meant power of office, access to resources and participation in a culture that thrived on perceived impunity.