Secretive Politician Broke Gender Barriers

Jayalalitha Jayaram, a former film actress who became the powerful four-term leader of one of India’s largest states, died Dec. 5, apparently of a heart attack. She was 68.

Her political party, All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, announced her death in a tweet, saying that “our beloved leader, the Iron lady of India . . . Amma, is no more.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi also tweeted his condolences.

“I will always cherish the innumerable occasions when I had the opportunity to interact with Jayalalithaa ji,” the prime minister said, using the honorific.

Jayalalitha was a revered public figure in her home state of Tamil Nadu and was known as “Amma,” or “mother,” an image she bolstered with a range of popular low-cost public programs, which she branded as Amma canteens, Amma pharmacies and Amma water.

Thousands gathered Monday around Apollo Hospital in the southern India city of Chennai to await news and then mourn her death, which had been rumored for weeks.

She had governed the state four times, working through a proxy even after she was convicted on corruption charges in September 2014. A judge overturned the conviction, and she was reelected to her fourth term as chief minister in May of this year.

She was known as a secretive, somewhat imperious politician who rose to power despite India’s deeply patriarchal political system and was credited with developing her state and helping the rural poor.

“At any given point in time, I did what had to be done,” she once said in a television interview. “I never stopped to think whether I’m a man or a woman. . . . I felt I had to do this, I did it, I did whatever I felt was right.”

Her state has low infant and maternal mortality rates, among other positive health markers, but is struggling with debt because of social programs such as Amma canteens.

Jayalalitha inspired a cultlike devotion among party elites as well as ordinary citizens, and she had her own television station, Jaya TV. Her corruption conviction had sparked days of riots in the streets, with some of her followers setting themselves on fire. In 1992, when she did a ritual bath as part of the Kumbh Mela religious festival, so many people crowded to see her that nearly 50 were killed in a stampede.

Jayalalitha, who was born in 1948 in the village of Melukote, had made her name at a young age, pushed by her mother to become an actress in the Tamil-language film industry. She eventually starred in more than 140 films.

In several of those movies she was paired with a revered older film star, M.G. Ramachandran, who later became chief minister of Tamil Nadu and brought her into politics.

She was elected to her first term in 1991, a few years after her mentor’s death. In September 1995, she threw a wedding for her foster son that was so grandiose that it was listed by Guinness World Records as the largest wedding banquet. More than 150,000 guests celebrated on 50-acre grounds at an estimated cost of $23 million, according to Guinness.

Her extravagant display of wealth attracted notice, and she was charged with corruption and misuse of office in a “disproportionate assets case,” meaning she had allegedly accumulated far more wealth and property than her stated income – nearly $11 million more, the court eventually found. A police raid on her home uncovered more than 10,000 saris, bags of gold and more than 400 pairs of shoes.

She was sentenced to four years in prison in connection with the case but continued to run her state – one of India’s biggest economies – from behind the scenes as her close aide, O. Panneerselvam, served as temporary chief minister.

A weeping Panneerselvam, who carries a photo of the leader in his shirt pocket, was sworn in again to succeed her early Tuesday.

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