Foreigners who visit Tamil Nadu, a southern state in India that’s home to stunning Hindu temples and a robust economy, would often puzzle over the matronly woman draped in a sari watching over them from posters and billboards seemingly splashed on every street. There’s even a statue of her in blood. She was born with the name Jayalalithaa, although it’s unlikely anyone would have called her that to her face. The state’s House speaker even ruled earlier this year, unlawfully, that she couldn’t be referred to by her name in the legislative assembly. (Here’s a list of epithets that can be used instead. Think “Great Revolutionary Leader.”) Supporters, of whom there are millions, would just call her Amma, meaning Mother, a term in keeping with her extraordinary power.
Jayalalithaa, Tamil Nadu’s top leader, died on Monday from a massive cardiac arrest at age 68 leaving supporters bereft, with some threatening suicide. Even before her death, when she was in poor health, at least one supporter had reportedly “died of shock.”
Visitors are often surprised to learn that Amma was once an actress, having started out in the movies at age 16. Groomed by her onscreen partner “MGR,” another wildly popular actor-turned-politician, Jayalalithaa fought her way to the top of power after his death, and spent the next decades alternating as chief minister with a rival political party, which also drew its head from the world of Tamil cinema.
Dinamalar, Chennai, Dec. 6, 2016
Yes, actors in southern India are treated like the Gods they sometimes portray in movies, often becoming the receptacles of astonishing political power and sycophancy. It’s not unusual to see Jayalalithaa’s fans, including, and perhaps especially, grown men, crouch down and touch her feet with their foreheads. When she was jailed for corruption, Jayalalithaa’s supporters threatened to lie down on the street in front of oncoming buses. Since the news came last night, the howls of grief and over-the-top vows of self-inflicted harm have continued unabated. Thousands of police have been deployed to avoid a repeat of the kind of riots MGR’s death had once provoked.
Jayalalithaa, who built her political party around the cult of her personality, left behind no clear successors. Tamil Nadu, home to 78 million people (larger than France or the UK) and carmakers from around the world, holds national sway. After her death, the state’s finance minister O Panneerselvam was quietly sworn in as chief minister. During a stint as temporary head of government while she was hospitalized, he had refused to sit in her chair instead placing a picture of her there during state cabinet meetings. He clearly knew who’s boss in Tamil Nadu.