Jayalalithaa was probably the last of a breed. Evolving from a movie star to a politician and chief minister of Tamil Nadu, she set a benchmark in personality-driven politics that is so unique that there is unlikely to be another.

Though her mentor and predecessor, MG Ramachandran (or MGR, as he was popularly known), an actor, founder of the AIADMK and former chief minister, had done all of that, Jayalalithaa put her stamp on the job.

Deified, MGR had worshippers, not film-fans, supported him wholeheartedly in his political venture, too.

But a female star has never enjoyed the fan following on a scale commanded by popular male lead actors, leave alone on a scale that MGR enjoyed. As an actor, Jayalalithaa was not very different. But on the political firmament, the hold she had over her followers was unprecedented.

In a State where prominent political leaders have always been put on a pedestal, Jayalalithaa raised the level of adulation to such a high that not just her followers, but even cabinet ministers, prostrated before her.

Started at the top

Though in films and politics Jayalalithaa started at the top, it was her own talent and ambition that kept her there. As the daughter of Sandhya, a popular star of her times in Tamil films then, Jayalalithaa got her first break in movies immediately after school.

Fresh out of school, she played the female lead in Vennira Aadai , her first movie in Tamil, released in 1965. This was followed the same year with an even bigger production, Aayirathil Oruvan , a period film in which she starred opposite MGR, already a legend. For nearly a decade they were paired in a couple of dozen films, all of which were box-office hits.

After nearly three decades in films — acting in over 140 movies from the mid-1960s to the 1980s — Jayalalithaa turned politician, joining the AIADMK. She quickly rose up the ranks and eventually led the party to power four times in the State.

MGR the mentor

A common factor in Jayalalithaa’s life both as an actor and a politician was MGR. It was MGR who introduced her to politics. He made her a member of the AIADMK in 1982 and the party’s Propaganda Secretary the next year. In 1984, he gave her a Rajya Sabha seat.

However, this mentorship did not last long as MGR passed away in 1987 after a brief illness. Her subsequent political life was something she carved and created for herself. Within two years of MGR’s death she took over the lead role in the party, which she headed as its General Secretary, a post she made her own with her followers prefixing ‘permanent’ to the designation.

It was during her early days as Propaganda Secretary in the AIADMK that she met Sasikala, commonly believed to be the power behind the scene, and who, in the years to come, would play a major role in Jayalalithaa’s life.

Looming presence

Whether in government or personal life, Sasikala’s was a looming presence along with her relatives. In many of the corruption charges that Jayalalithaa faced, Sasikala and several of her relatives were co-accused. During Jayalalithaa’s first stint as Chief Minister, Sasikala’s name figured often as a major influencer and wielder of power, even an extra-constitutional authority.

In 1989, Jayalalithaa became the first woman Leader of the Opposition in the Tamil Nadu Assembly. But that year also saw an incident that will always be a black mark in the history of the Legislature — she was physically assaulted in the House allegedly by DMK members. Possibly this was one of the incidents that fuelled her rabid animosity towards the DMK, from which MGR had earlier split to launch his own party.

In the few short years after entering politics Jayalalithaa had consolidated her position enough for senior members to recognise that they needed her charisma to hold the party together when it split after MGR’s death.

When one faction supported her, she even came to be known as the ‘Puratchi Thalaivi’ to mark her natural claim to power after MGR, who was known as the ‘Puratchi Thalaivar’ (revolutionary leader).

MGR’s wife, Janaki Ramachandran, led the other faction and she became the Chief Minister for a few weeks in January 1988. But in 1989 both factions united under Jayalalithaa’s leadership.

This was followed by the 1991 elections that saw Jayalalithaa head the government. The first of the four times that she would do so. Though on two occasions she had to step down on being convicted on corruption charges, both times she was acquitted on appeal and resumed office.

Unique style

Every one of her first three stints as head of the government had its unique characteristic. Her first stint in office was marred by controversies over her style of administration, even violence against critics, complaints of high-handedness and influence of Sasikala as an extra-constitutional authority.

The garish display of wealth during the marriage of her foster son, VN Sudhakaran, a relative of Sasikala, (she later disowned him) was the last straw for the voters. Estimates of the money spent on the wedding range from ₹3 crore to ₹6 crore and the number of guests set a record in its day.

The DMK government that followed in 1996 filed a dozen corruption cases against her. Though she was acquitted in most of them, in two cases — Tansi Land Deal case and a case relating to amassing wealth — she was initially convicted, leading to having to step down as Chief Minister on both occasions.

But on both she was acquitted on appeal and resumed office after being re-elected in by-elections. At the time of her death, an appeal against her acquittal in the wealth case was pending in the Supreme Court.

Dabbling with reforms

Administratively, her second stint, in 2001-2006, will stand out for various stringent reform measures in the State though she did not sustain them for long. Her government brought out a white paper on the status of Tamil Nadu’s finances, which painted a grim picture.

Some of the decisions related to this included stringent austerity measures in government including slashing subsidies such as food and free power for agriculture, staff strength, privatisation of cash-strapped cooperative sugar mills, takeover of alcohol procurement and marketing by government — a move that saw it emerge as the leading source of income for the State in the years to come — and banning of lottery tickets.

Jayalalithaa remained unfazed when the Opposition united against her and government employees went on a strike. She hit back with stringent disciplinary action including dismissing errant employees.

It was during this period that she also antagonised the minority vote base and a number of Hindu communities by introducing a Bill relating to anti-conversion and banning animal sacrifices in temples.

All this also led to antipathy with the electorate that resulted in her party being trounced in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections. She immediately reversed most of the reform measures and announced a number of populist schemes. But by then the mood was set and she lost to the DMK in the 2006 elections.

But the DMK government had its share of issues and the people’s mood swung again. Jayalalithaa came back for a third time as chief minister in 2011.

Social security and freebies

This was an election driven by promise of freebies targeting every segment of population — gifts and subsidies galore. For students she promised free laptops, cycles, uniform and stationery; for the household, home appliances like fans, stoves, blenders and grinders; rice was given free over the public distribution system.

Also, she launched a chain of subsidised eateries across the State known as ‘Amma Canteens’; these sold food at a fraction of the market rate. These were followed by ‘Amma pharmacies’ and subsidised products like Amma salt and bottled water.

While in the first two years a buoyant economic condition drove revenues that supported the expenses, the later slowdown saw tax revenues slip and debt mount.

A record fourth

The Assembly election of 2016 was a record maker. Jayalalithaa retained power, breaking a three-decade trend of the AIADMK and the DMK alternatively winning the Assembly polls. This had even given the State a reputation for anti-incumbency sentiment in elections.

A key decision Jayalalithaa took was to go it alone. She gauged the mood of the voters clearly ahead of the elections to the 15th Legislative Assembly and decided that the AIADMK would face the elections alone. She did not align with any of the national or major regional parties as had been the norm.

Though the AIADMK partnered with half a dozen small political outfits to which she allotted a total of seven of the 234 constituencies, she decided that all of them will have to contest under the AIADMK’s “Two-Leaf” symbol.

Her party swept to power, bagging 134 seats. The election manifesto was an extension of the previous one — more freebies. On the first day in power, she implemented a number of welfare schemes she had promised the voters including a cooperative loan waiver of ₹5,780 crore for small farmers; 100 units free power to households representing about ₹1,600 crore in subsidy; and said she would close 500 of the 6,800 liquor shops as an initial step towards prohibition.

But the few months she remained in power, concerns over her health always loomed in the background. Till she finally had to be hospitalised in Spetember.