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Rise of Brand Amma: Chronicles of a Thespian and a Vibrant Leader

The fascinating story of Jayalalithaa who emerged as a political brand and an icon for the women in Tamil Nadu.

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Politics
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Born as Komalavalli on 24 February 1948, in a family that served the Wodeyar Kings of Mysore, Jayaram Jayalalithaa was the most popular woman politician the nation has seen.

Known as Amma to the world and ‘Puratchi Thalaivi’ (revolutionary leader) to her ardent followers, Jayalalithaa's rise in male-dominated Tamil Nadu politics is the story of a woman living life on her terms.

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The fascinating story of Jayalalithaa who emerged as a political brand and an icon for the women in Tamil Nadu.
Jayalalithaa’s co-actor and mentor MGR chose to induct her into AIADMK in 1982. (Photo Courtesy: Veejay Sai/The News Minute)

While the question how Jayalalithaa came to be known as Amma has no definite answer, the rise of Brand Amma is a fascinating story.

Read: What Made Amma Who She Was? A Look at 10 Defining Moments

Jayalalithaa wanted to be a lawyer, but with no money left to sustain herself, the 14-year-old left academics to act in Tamil films. Despite her reluctance to be part of the film industry, she soon became the first female superstar of the male-dominated industry. MGR was Jayalalithaa’s mentor and chose to induct her into the AIADMK in 1982. Critics believe that MGR's political legacy and fan-following was inherited by Jayalalithaa, which eventually launched her political career in the state.

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The fascinating story of Jayalalithaa who emerged as a political brand and an icon for the women in Tamil Nadu.
A weeping Jayalalithaa showing the media the spot on her head where DMK members had allegedly hit her in the TN Assembly (Photo: PTI)

Jayalalithaa became the first woman to lead the opposition in Tamil Nadu’s Legislative Assembly. But it was on 25 March 1989, during a clash between members of the DMK and the AIADMK that she emerged as the fiery woman politician of Tamil Nadu. During the fight inside the Assembly a member from the Treasury bench allegedly attempted to manhandle her. In the melee, her saree got torn.

Jayalalithaa emerged from the scene, disheveled and weeping. She was quick to draw a parallel with the disrobing of Draupadi and vowed never to enter the Assembly until the DMK government is dismissed and until conditions are created under which a woman can attend the Assembly safely.
Dravidian Chronicles, The News Minute

Days after the incident, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi visited Jayalalithaa in hospital. It was the beginning of a crucial alliance. Eight months later, the AIADMK-Congress combine swept the Lok Sabha polls in Tamil Nadu winning 38 out of 39 seats.

She is too complex and reserved to reveal herself fully.
Vasanthi, Jayalalithaa’s Unofficial Biographer
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Jayalalithaa's life is a chronicle of crowning ups and defeating downs, and every time she has emerged with a mightier force.

The corruption charges against her and the disproportionate assets case tarnished her image and even took her to jail, but 'populist-welfarism' is an idea Jayalalithaa discovered to ride above all her criticism.

The lesson she learnt was that it was always better to personalise the social expenditure of her government than to engage in individual opulence. 
Historian Ramchandra Guha for BBC
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The fascinating story of Jayalalithaa who emerged as a political brand and an icon for the women in Tamil Nadu.
Jayalalithaa has ensured that her legend, more as a ruler than as an actor, will live on after her time. (Photo: AP)

Behind Jayalalithaa's cult fan-following was the art of maintaining seclusion from public life and establishing a reign of 'freebies'. While the state coffers continued to remain in debt, there was no dearth of the populist schemes.

The revenue deficit for Tamil Nadu in the year 2016-1017 has been estimated to be Rs 15,854.47 crore.
IndiaSpend, data journalism portal
The fascinating story of Jayalalithaa who emerged as a political brand and an icon for the women in Tamil Nadu.
Subsidies make up more than 37% of Tamil Nadu’s revenue spending (Photo Courtesy: The News Minute)

A mind-boggling list of Amma products and a bandwagon of popular Amma schemes are the biggest contributors to her consistent re-elections. Cheap food canteens, marriage halls, packaged water, pharmacies, salt packets, laptop computers, baby care kits, even disaster relief material – her face adorns almost everything in the southern state.

The Amma cult in Tamil Nadu is based on a transactional political culture, in which the leader asks for support in exchange for grandiose individual acts of benevolence. 
Political analyst Siddharth Varadarajan as quoted by BBC
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The fascinating story of Jayalalithaa who emerged as a political brand and an icon for the women in Tamil Nadu.
Jayalalithaa paying floral tribute to former chief minister and AIADMK founder MGR. (Photo: PTI)

Jayalalithaa is the lone woman icon of Tamil Nadu politics. 'Adhiparashakti' (omnipotent female power), ‘Ammaiyar’ (mother) and ‘iron-butterfly’ are how her voters and supporters have long known her. Woman voters constituted her largest base as Jaya's 'go-solo' and 'stand-alone spirit' fascinated them.

From a young actor to the mighty 'mother' of Indian politics, Jayalalithaa survived many setbacks. In the most crucial battle of her life that continued for 72 days, her followers believed that she would emerge hale and hearty from the corridors of Apollo Hospitals in Chennai as well.

But destiny had something else in store for her this time. With Jayalalithaa gone forever, it remains to be seen if the AIADMK overcomes the loss and is able to emerge more powerful with the love and faith of Amma's supporters.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Topics:  Politics   Jayalalithaa   Amma 

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