Jayalalithaa made her presence felt in Parliament with her impressive speeches in the Rajya Sabha from 1984 to 1989. Yet, she could not be a major player in Delhi’s corridors of power in subsequent years. She had told her fellow backbencher and writer Khushwant Singh of how she had dreams of becoming chief minister of Tamil Nadu and even prime minister. In 1991 and 2016—when she achieved electoral miracles in Tamil Nadu—she shook the nation, causing political cataclysm, but she could not conquer Delhi.
She was an avid reader of biographies and was fascinated by women who wielded political power in Delhi, including Razia Sultan and Queen Victoria, who had ruled from afar. Jayalalithaa’s role model, however, was prime minister Indira Gandhi, who had come to listen to her maiden speech on Tamil Nadu’s demand for electricity from the Kalpakkam nuclear plant. Power—electric as well as political—fascinated her. Her last major public function, for instance, was the launch of the second stage of the Kudankulam nuclear plant, albeit through video conference.
After a stormy succession struggle within the AIADMK, Jayalalithaa’s big moment came in 1991, when she fought the assembly and Lok Sabha elections in alliance with the Congress, which was led by Rajiv Gandhi, who would be assassinated midway through the campaign in Tamil Nadu. The alliance won both elections. Jayalalithaa became chief minister for the first time, and the Central government of P.V. Narasimha Rao depended on the AIADMK for survival in the Lok Sabha. She expected full support from Rao, but he suspected that she might support his rivals. A bitter fight between Jayalalithaa and Karnataka’s S. Bangarappa, both new chief ministers, soured her relationship with the Centre.
After the demolition of the Babri mosque, Jayalalithaa withdrew support to Rao’s government in 1993, forcing the Congress to lure, with money, members of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha and other parties for survival. Rao did not forget Jayalalithaa and sent the acerbic M. Chenna Reddy, the former Andhra Pradesh chief minister, as governor to torment her.
Yet, ironically, when Jayalalithaa lost her popularity amid corruption scandals, Rao faced an internal dilemma. Senior Tamil Nadu leader G.K. Moopanar argued that the party could not go with Jayalalithaa, and wanted it to align with the DMK, or even go it alone in the 1996 Lok Sabha elections. Rao, however, did not want to risk an alliance with the DMK, which had been accused of complicity in Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination by senior leader Arjun Singh, who was perceived to be close to Rajiv’s wife, Sonia. The Tamil Maanila Congress, which Moopanar floated, allied with the DMK and trounced the emaciated AIADMK-Congress alliance.
Interestingly, Rao had once said that his differences with Jayalalithaa were because of a “generation gap”. He was 70 when he became prime minister; she was 43.
The DMK-TMC combine occupied important ministerial positions in the United Front governments of H.D. Deve Gowda and I.K. Gujral, who both had short tenures as prime ministers. Courts ordered an investigation into Jayalalithaa’s disproportionate assets and the investigative agencies were after her. Enemies from the TMC were in charge of critical Central departments such as income tax, the enforcement directorate and company affairs (all with P. Chidambaram) and the CBI (with S.R. Balasubramaniam).
Jayalalithaa’s revenge came in 1998, when the Lok Sabha elections threw up a hung Parliament and the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance was close to power. With 18 MPs, Jaya became the kingmaker. For a while, she made Vajpayee and his negotiators huff and puff, before finally relenting and giving a letter of support to President K.R. Narayanan. “Chitti mili (got the letter),” exclaimed a relieved Vajpayee.
Jayalalithaa, however, rejected an offer to become a cabinet minister in the Vajpayee government; she wanted to rebuild her party. This was also part of her resolve to never work as a minister under any man or woman. Nevertheless, she bargained for two cabinet and two minister of state positions, and she wanted the portfolios previously held by the DMK and the TMC. Vajpayee saw this as a sign of vindictiveness. Her nominees became ministers of state in the revenue and personnel and training departments, controlled by Yashwant Sinha and Vajpayee, respectively.
Soon, Jayalalithaa found that the BJP leaders were still in touch with her bete noire, Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi, who had earlier allied with the BJP against the Congress. Also, her ministers could not dig up any dirt against DMK and TMC leaders. Meanwhile, Sonia Gandhi had become Congress president. Then, Tamil politician Subramanian Swamy—who wanted to play a big role in Delhi and who had filed the disproportionate assets case against Jayalalithaa—brought Sonia and Jayalalithaa together to topple the Vajpayee government. The bonhomie of the two reclusive ladies led to Jayalalithaa sending, for the second time, a letter withdrawing support to a prime minister. Unlike Rao, Vajpayee could not save his government, losing the vote of confidence by a single vote.
However, this was a miscalculation, as the BJP teamed up with the DMK and smaller parties to win a clear majority in the 1999 Lok Sabha elections. Jayalalithaa had lost her clout; her strength in the Lok Sabha was reduced to 10 MPs. Her legal troubles mounted, but they also produced enormous sympathy and the AIADMK regained power in 2001. She became chief minister, but she had to step down because of a court order and had to face trial in a corruption case.
The DMK, meanwhile, hit a purple patch in Delhi—it was part of the Vajpayee government for four years, and then switched sides to team up with the Congress to win the 2004 and 2009 Lok Sabha elections. Jayalalithaa’s relations with both national parties had ebbed to the lowest. She was a rare figure in Delhi, yet when she came, the whole political class took note.
One of her abiding passions was national security and she was not one to treat the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam with kid gloves. She also kept up the pressure on the Centre regarding water disputes with Karnataka (Cauvery) and Kerala (Mullaperiyar).
In 2011, when she swept aside the DMK in the assembly elections, she again faced a hostile Central government. Sonia Gandhi was unreceptive, and Jayalalithaa made it clear that she did not need the Congress. Though DMK ministers like A. Raja were mired in corruption cases and the party withdrew from the United Progressive Alliance, Jayalalithaa stayed aloof, correctly reading that the generation gap with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the political gap with Sonia would not be bridged. Meanwhile, there were changes in the BJP, and a leader of her own generation emerged in Narendra Modi.
They were of the same age, had seen strong victories in their states, controlled the state government with an iron hand, and were outsiders to Lutyens Delhi. So, with Modi as the NDA’s prime ministerial candidate and Jayalalithaa at the apex of her popularity, there were expectations of an electoral alliance. Jayalalithaa, however, decided to live on her own terms and swept Tamil Nadu in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. She had calculated that with more than 35 seats, she would become a policymaker. Modi, however, won a strong majority, and did not need her support.
Jayalalithaa ignored the BJP during the 2016 assembly elections and came to power on her own. Unlike other regional satraps such as Mulayam Singh Yadav, Mayawati and Lalu Prasad, who were equally comfortable going to the assembly and Parliament, Jayalalithaa limited her focus to the state. The southern rose could never bloom in the indifferent soil of Delhi.