Who was India’s "Iron Lady"?

India’s southern state of Tamil Nadu has declared a week of mourning after film star-turned-politician Jayalalithaa Jayaraman, 68, died on December 5. She gained cult-like status that helped her survive corruption investigations over 34 years.

Photo by: AP (Archive )
Photo by: AP (Archive )

Jayalalithaa dominated Tamil Nadu politics in the 34 years that she was in power.

Updated Dec 9, 2016

Why was she called India’s "Iron Lady"? 

Her ability to hold onto power and ward off rivals in a political landscape dominated by men earned her this title. She entered politics at the height of her film career at age 34, and went on to dominate politics in Tamil Nadu, one of India’s most developed states, with a population of 78 million people. 

In 1982, she joined the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) political party, drawn into public office by her former co-star and party founder MG Ramachandran. 

Jayalalithaa, who starred in 100 films, used her fame to quickly dominate one of Tamil Nadu’s biggest political parties. Two years after joining, she was appointed propaganda secretary and by 1991, Jayalalithaa was chief minister, the highest ranking state official, a position she held five times until her death.

What made her so popular?

Some called her a goddess and others called her “Amma,” Tamil for mother. 

The former teen actress fought against the practise of aborting female foetuses and is praised for increasing access to contraceptives in her state. She set up an all-female police unit to deal with crimes against women. 

She also introduced Amma canteens, that offer cheap lunches to millions, as well as subsidised medicine, and water. When Jayalalithaa was convicted for corruption in 2014, over 200 supporters committed suicide. 

The former chief minister of Tamil Nadu was popular with women due to her progressive policies. (AFP)

What about allegations of corruption? 

Jayalalithaa’s gifts to the poor and her lavish lifestyle raised questions on where the money was coming from.

During campaigns she offered gifts to potential voters. These included anything from household appliances, such as fans and blenders, to cable tv connections, as well as cattle for rural villagers. 

During her first term as chief minister in 1995, she threw 10 extravagant wedding ceremonies for her stepson, all in different locations.

A year later, police raided her house and found 28kg of gold, 10,000 saris, and 750 pairs of shoe – which earned her the title "Imelda Marcos of India." 

She was investigated for accumulating wealth beyond her known source of income. Jayalalithaa spent 18 years fighting that case. In 2014, she was sentenced to four years in prison and fined $16 million. After spending eight months in prison, she was acquitted of corruption charges in 2015. 

Supporters of Jayalalithaa and her party flocked to the streets after she was acquitted of corruption charges in 2015. (AFP)

What impact does her death have?

Jayalalithaa’s policies are likely to remain for as long the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam is in power. But whether the party can still draw millions of voters is unclear.

The loss felt by scores across the state was reflected in local media with headlines like “Amma dead, millions orphaned.”

Former finance minister and Jayalalithaa ally O. Panneerselvam was elected and sworn in as chief minister and leader of the party. 

Jayalalithaa's followers mourned her loss by shaving their heads. (AP)




TRTWorld and agencies