J Jayalalithaa, one of the most controversial politicians of contemporary India, passed away on Monday (December 5) following a prolonged illness at a hospital in Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu, the state she had widely influenced for nearly three decades. She was 68 at the time of her death and the demise has left her party, which virtually is a one-man outfit, in disarray.

The actor who became an iron-fist politician

Jayalalithaa, who was once an actor, was brought into politics by her co-actor and mentor MG Ramachandran in the early 1980s. An eager student, Jayalalithaa had made her way up too fast and it was not liked by many in the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), the party which was formed by MGR after pulling out of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK).

Jayalalithaa’s time came after an ailing MGR died in December 1987 while serving as the chief minister. A tug-of-war over the succession had followed between MGR’s legal wife V N Janaki and Jayalalithaa, with the latter facing massive humiliation from a section of her own party. The Congress had tried to take advantage of the vacuum which was created in Tamil Nadu politics by backing Janaki’s faction but it didn’t work out as Jayalalithaa was destined to become the queen of the state for the next three decades.

Jayalalithaa had become the Leader of the Opposition in Tamil Nadu Assembly in 1989 and became the chief minister for the first time in 1991 after her party’s alliance with the Congress in the wake of the assassination of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi earned huge dividends.

Jayalalithaa’s first steps as a pro-women leader had won her accolades. Her ‘cradle baby scheme,’ whereby families that didn’t want female babies could give them up for the state to look after was a populist step which had made her support very strong.

The populist politician who also had her problems with law

Jayalalithaa also had her share of problems with law. In September 2014, she was convicted by a special court in connection to a disproportionate assets case but it did not last long as she was acquitted and she returned to become the chief minister again.

In 2016, Jayalalithaa equalled her late mentor’s feat of winning two consecutive state elections after a gap of over three decades. And like MGR, she also breathed her last while serving as the chief minister. Between 1991 and 2016, Jayalalithaa had become chief minister for five terms.

Jayalalithaa was one of the most ruthless politicians India has seen in recent times. She was not only known to be a dominating figure in her own party but even did not hesitate to bring down the national government to show how significant her preferences are. The government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, which was at the mercy of the mercurial Jayalaalithaa, had fallen short of just one vote in Parliament in 1999, necessitating yet another general election.

Her influence in national politics was not the same in recent years

As long as the Centre in India saw coalition governments, regional leaders like Jayalalithaa always had chances to make them dance to their tune. She had politicized the issue of releasing Rajiv Gandhi killers’ or that of the Sri Lankan Tamils to keep both her state rivals – the DMK as well the central government under pressure. However, Jayalalithaa’s influence in national politics had receded in the recent years mainly because of three factors – the return of a majority party rule at the Centre under Narendra Modi in 2014, the legal battles around the corruption cases against her, and her fast-deteriorating health.

Her demise will surely leave a void in Tamil Nadu politics and it will be interesting to see how different forces rise to the occasion to show who’s the best alternative to the leader who was fondly known as ‘Amma’ (mother).

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