A few days back, when the nation was still reeling under the suspense and secrecy surrounding four-time Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa’s health, I had an interesting conversation with a friend. “Why is the Indian media so obsessed with her, what is the big deal?” – This was the question.

Unlike many reporters and journalists who have followed her career for years and decades altogether, I have limited knowledge about the Indian politician. I may not know a lot about her, but if someone were to ask me to name the most influential female politicians in the country, Jayalalithaa would be second only to Indira Gandhi. In fact, if I were asked who I think is the most influential Indian politician during my generation, Jayalalithaa would top the list. In a male dominated political arena, she literally fought her way to the top.

The fact that she has been chief minister of her state four times itself is a big feat in itself.

Here are some interesting things that I came to know about Jayalalithaa:

  1. Nicknamed Ammu, she was pushed into acting by her mother at the young age of 16 because they weren’t as financially stable as Jayalalithaa thought they were.
  2. Jayalalithaa was brilliant academically; she had been the state topper and always topped her class throughout her school years. She even won a scholarship and wanted to study further, so when her mother asked her to become an actress instead, there were a lot of tears and heartbreak. Her dream to be a lawyer would never be fulfilled.
  3. Jayalalithaa had been inundated with numerous offers from the south movie industry and went on to star in over hundred movies.
  4. The first big low in her life came when her mother passed away, Jaya in an interview said she was like a “babe lost in the woods blindfolded”. Her mother controlled all aspects of her life, she did not even know how much money she was making through her movies.
  5. She was propelled into politics by actor-turned politician MGR, who had starred opposite her in over 2 dozen movies. Her oratory skills and command over English had played a key role in winning him over.
  6. She had made a public speech on the topic “The Greatness of a woman” at an event and her speech helped her get the role of propaganda secretary in the MGR-led AIADMK party.
  7. MGR who served as the chief minister of Tamil Nadu for ten years, passed away in 1987, marking another low in Jaya’s life. With MGR gone, many in the party turned against her and it led to the party breaking into two factions.
  8. Jayalalithaa was firm that she was going to be the political heir of MGR. When he died, she refused to leave his side. During his funeral procession, she was left out of the vehicle which carried his body. But not one to be left behind, she tried to get on to it, even as MGR’s wife and son-in-law tried to push her away. She was left humiliated; she resolved it would not let her down.
  9. Jaya’s most important milestone came in 1989, when the AIADMK faction led by her won 27 seats and she became the first woman to be the leader of Opposition in the state of Tamil Nadu.
  10. Soon after her political win, came the most humiliating experience in her life. The incident took place in the Tamil Nadu Assembly and while there are different versions of what really transpired, in Jaya’s own words, she was “attacked on the floor of the Assembly”. The then CM was about to present the budget and Jayalalitha called him corrupt and tried to prevented him for proceeding. The leaders from the CM’s party formed a human chain around her and Jaya claims they physically assaulted her. They pulled at her hair and even tore at some strands, it was her MLAs who managed to rescue her. Burning with humiliation, Jaya swore she would only enter the Assembly after she became the chief minister.
  11. Two years later she won the elections to become the CM, she defeated political heavyweight and showed that nation, that she could not be written off easily.
  12. Jayalalithaa had caused the collapse of Vajpayee-led government in 1999, she withdrew AIADMK’s support to the fragile 19 party coalition that was ruling India.

Jayalalithaa had to battle raging male egos in a deeply patriarchal society and climb her way to the top the hard way. Her entry into politics completely changed the power circles of Tamil Nadu. In 2016, she became the chief minister of the state for a record fourth time. She still had pending cases against her. She had been accused of corruption, land grabbing, what not, although she always maintained that they were all conspiracies. She once famously said “my party is corrupt, not me”.

While the truth about how corrupt she really was, may now be buried in the Chennai soil with her coffin, there are other things we do know. She was known to have a mercurial temper and was believed to have developed an inflated ego herself, with the course of time. But no matter what was said about her in the hushed circles of the rich and powerful, her sway on the public only continued to grow stronger. She was seen as pro-poor and pro-women. One of the very first schemes announced by her govt was the ‘cradle baby scheme’, which was aimed at tackling the problem of female infanticide in the state. In fact, it is believed that it was this scheme, that led her to be called ‘Amma’, which means mother.

She also went on to announce many populist measures during her political career and is infamous for giving away innumerable freebies to the poor, but they were all well thought out for. For example, in the 2016 election, her govt said they would give a free ‘Amma Kit’ that would include sanitary napkins (many women in rural India do not have access to proper sanitation amenities). She announced a waiver on all farmer loans and announced a 9-month maternity leave for women.

One could perhaps go on about her, but what I am trying to get to is the fact that Jayalalithaa had a lot of layers to her and was a powerful politician. Her supporters have died out of shock when they heard the news of her demise, such is the power of her popularity. And to answer my friend’s question – yes, she was a big deal.