Jayalalithaa Jayaram: What makes the actor-turned-politician from Tamil Nadu an immortal leader

Jayalalithaa breathed her last on Monday after suffering from cardiac arrest.

Jayalalithaa Jayaram
Jayalalithaa become the youngest chief minister of Tamil Nadu at 45 Reuters

Months into her second successive term as the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, Jayalalithaa Jayaram suffered a major setback, which also turned out be her last - prolonged illness followed by a fatal Cardiac arrest.

On 5 December, after 74 days of struggle with her own self at a private hospital in Chennai, the capital city of the Southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, it was announced that the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) supremo had passed away at 11:30pm after failing to recover from the illness. Thousands of her supporters, who had gathered outside the hospital, were shaken by the news and million others, even her fierce rivals, had a moment to express their condolences to the actor-turned-politician.

Shortly after Jayalalitha's demise, her long-trusted aid and Finance Minister of the state - O Panneerselvam, was appointed as her successor. However, it was not difficult to believe that a huge vacuum in Tamil Nadu politics had been created on Monday night.

Silverscreen stardom comes calling

One of the most followed and idolised politician, popularly known as "Amma" [mother], in the country would not have imagined a career in politics when she was shuffling between her grandparents' and her aunts' houses after losing her father as early as when was two.

Jayalalithaa, who was born on 24 February 1948 at in Mandya district of Karnataka, moved to Chennai from Benglauru when she was around 10. Apart from being enrolled in one of the top schools in the city, she also learnt singing and classical dance.

Jayalalithaa Jayaram
Jayalalithaa supporters were distraugt after her health condition worsened on 4 December Reuters

It was at one of her dance performances in the city, Tamil cinema actor Sivaji Ganesan, who presided over the event, found the performer in Jayalalitha and suggested her to have a shot at an acting career, according to The Hindu. Her family condition was such that, the then 16-year-old could not say no and played her first lead role in a movie named 'Vennira Aadai' in 1965.

Over the course of her film career, which spanned over 125 movies across regional languages, she rose to become one of the highest-paid Tamil actors and also was closely associated with the then superstar of the industry - MG Ramachandran, who later went on to become one of the most revered chief ministers of the state.

The ostracised protege

But Jayalalithaa's transition from acting to politics was also not a smooth one. Despite projecting her as an able leader, Ramachandran, the then AIADMK supremo, did not name his co-star as his political heir and thus his protege was on the verge of being thrown out of the party after his demise, during his reign as the chief minister, in 1987.

Despite being sidelined, Jayalalithaa did not give up and went on to become the youngest chief minister of the state at 45 in 1991. However, during her tenure she was slapped with a lot of corruption cases, that led to the public voting against her party in the following elections in 1996 following which she even reportedly mulled quitting politics.

Jaya wooes the masses

However, that is not how Jayalalithaa operated as she came back stronger and her party won the 2001 election in the state. While she was chosen as the chief minister, the Supreme Court of India, had called her appointment void as she was charged of criminal acts, including land acquisition. However, after she was acquitted in some cases, she won a mid-term poll to be elected as the chief minister.

Jayalalitha in her subsequent terms as the chief minister (2011-2015, 2016) worked more towards creating a stronger base and introduced quite a lot of welfare schemes along with freebies, that wooed the weaker sections of the society.

Jayalalithaa Jayaram
Jayalalithaa always had a strong women voter base Reuters

Her government's plans to come up with state-run restaurants, that served food at subsidised price was an instant hit and helped her become the only second politician after Ramachandran in the state to hold office for two successive terms. She was re-elected in 2016 even after she faced a jail term for another corruption case, which saw her stepping down as chief minister in 2014.

Autocrat or authoritative?

Jayalalithaa was also seen as the only face of her party, who believed in taking control of things and calling all the shots in the party. All the welfare schemes, including the subsidised restaurants had the word "amma" in the brand name. Her cabinet ministers rarely were allowed to express their views in public.

While her critics labelled her an autocrat, her supporters backed her way of administration as they believes that Jayalalithaa knew how things worked in a male-dominated political sphere in the country. Nevertheless, quite a few will miss a strong and bold leader, who was able to carry forward her mentor's charisma over the years. Even her fiercest rivals would rue miss a strong figure in the opposition.