The Iron Lady of India

By Raman, A. S. | Contemporary Review, September 2001 | Go to article overview

The Iron Lady of India


Raman, A. S., Contemporary Review


GLAMOUR queen turned grisly politician! She is the new 'Iron Lady of India'. The 53-year-old Jayalalitha was once a screen star. Though only a provincial leader, she is, in the words of a political commentator, 'a colossus who dominates national politics'. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi loved to be known as the only man in her cabinet. Jayalalitha goes a step further. As chief minister of Tamil Nadu, a southern State, she loves to be known as the only man in the 100 million strong political party she heads. This is surprising because Tamil Nadu, though small, is respected for the intellectual strength, political sagacity, legal acumen and moral rectitude of its people. Indira Gandhi's power was not resisted because of her Nehru bloodlines. But Jayalalitha has no pedigree to flaunt. Whatever she has achieved -- what has she not achieved? -- she owes it wholly to herself. She models herself on Margaret Thatcher and Indira Gandhi.

Born in poverty in another State, Mysore, with her father dead in her second year, she and her mother found themselves cast away in a heartless man's world. In sheer despair, they moved to the neighbouring Madras (since renamed Tamil Nadu) State. Forced to fend for themselves, they developed a crushing sense of insecurity. Happily, soon enough, with her youth and good looks on her side, the mother had no difficulty in making a debut in films. Gradually, she managed to get her little daughter admitted to one of the best Convent schools in town, Church Park. Jayalalitha, a once shy, timid, tiny introvert, was so outstanding in her studies that her portrait hangs in her school as a star alumnus with academic excellence as her only passion.

After her matriculation she was very keen on doing law. But her mother, compelled by circumstances, had other ideas. The decision was made. She put her teenage daughter through her paces for a screen career. But Jayalalitha's heart was not in it. She wished to continue her academic career. Finally, out of necessity, she launched herself on a film career with a bang and soon reached the top. Her academic pursuits continued privately and informally. She took a special interest in Law. Though she had no opportunity of studying the subject at a Law College, through her own efforts she acquired greater legal expertise than any professional lawyer. No wonder, she became a headache to the best of jurists in the country, when, driven to the wall by a spate of corruption cases, she had to fight her own legal battles with only notional support from her counsel.

This is her second five-year term in office. Earlier, from 1991 to 1996, as chief minister, she allegedly committed every conceivable indiscretion and impropriety. But in her party nobody had the courage to question her. There were reports of enormous wealth acquired by her through corrupt means. There was severe criticism in the media of her obscenely flamboyant and extravagant lifestyle as well as her fascist political culture permitting no dissent. She was also accused of having abetted the vulgar excesses indulged in by a favoured upstart family closest to her. But she wouldn't bother. She believed that she could do anything and get away with it, because God was on her side.

Then came the 1996 poll which resulted in the humiliating debacle of her party. But personally she behaved as though nothing had happened: the same swagger, the same superciliousness, the same stiffness. She wouldn't accept her defeat gracefully and extend cooperation to the next government. On the contrary, she mounted a strong hate campaign against the winner, Dr M. Karunanidhi, the leader of a rival Dravidian party, alleging that he was behind the more than 40 corruption cases filed against her. Actually she has been convicted in three, though the sentences have been stayed, pending the disposal of her appeals. She strutted about protesting her innocence. Despite her electoral rout, the masses, seduced by her silken eloquence into believing that Dr Karunanidhi and his men had been witch hunting her, stood solidly behind her.

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