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Is the Enigmatic Jayalalithaa India’s Eva Peron?

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There is a curious sense of déjà vu that we experience when we recapitulate Jayalalithaa’s remarkable life and career. There was another woman who strode like a colossus in a country almost as large as India and commanded the same devotion and loyalty, who died 64 years ago. Her name was Maria Eva Duarte de Peron and she lived in Argentina.  A remarkable lady by any standards, she was also rendered fatherless by circumstances and her mother moved to Buenos Aires to seek a career in acting, which ensured a livelihood for Eva and her siblings. From then on until her untimely death, in 1952, at the age of 33, she was not only the most loved and powerful person in Argentina but the whole of the South American continent. There are obvious differences! Eva never won any election on her own. While Jayalalithaa had a difficult childhood, her family background was in no way comparable to that of Eva. Unlike Eva, Jayalalithaa had a sound academic background as long as she was able to undertake studies. And unlike Eva, Jayalalithaa did not marry her mentor MGR, who already had a wife. Ashoka profiles Jayalalithaa’s life and times, aptly comparing her with Eva, in the weekly column, exclusively for Different Truths.

I must confess that I was never a fan of Jayalalithaa. It was perhaps made easier by the fact that I have only watched one of her more than 100 movies. And even there I had failed to notice her as my attention was firmly focussed on the legendary Balraj Sahni and the ravishingly pretty Tanuja. In fact, I had not even remembered her name until decades later, much after I had ceased to visit the cinema houses, Rajeshwar Krishnan, my bosom buddy from my boarding schooldays in Lucknow reminded me that we had watched the movie Izzat together and the up and coming political star Jayalalithaa had been a part of it. It was he who educated me by advising that she happened to be a superstar in South India.

I did harbour many misgivings about her being catapulted to the very top of the political landscape, as I did not believe that being a part of the tinsel industry was in any way an appropriate apprenticeship for a political career specially in the electoral arena. Much is made of the fact that her mentor M.G. Ramachandran also had a similar background but my own belief is that MGR had cemented his stature through philanthropy rather than his acting prowess. To the best of my knowledge and belief, Jayalalithaa was not particularly known for her philanthropic work, when she made the switch to politics.mgr jayalalithaa_0

I did not think much of her open imperiousness as it appeared in the press. And I certainly had strong reservations about the brazen manner in which she put on a display of opulence during her adopted son’s wedding, without explaining where the money came from. I found the servility that she demanded from her party deeply demeaning and dehumanising. It could justifiably be argued that she was not alone in this regard. Obsequiousness is an essential staple of Indian polity and she was just being consonant with her political peers. But somehow it seemed more blatant when it came from her as she was always unapologetically arrogant.

Her vindictiveness was in full display when she had her opponents arrested in the middle of the night. Again it could be argued that her adversaries were just as mired in corruption and their arrogance quotient was just as high but they somehow did not appear as irritating to an objective observer than her. We have all accepted that there is no ideological distinction between the Dravidian parties. Their antagonism towards each other is just a matter of power play which over the years had acquired a crude dimension.

But despite my misgivings, I could not but identify a sense of grudging admiration when I noticed the sea of emotions that surrounded her at the time of her passing away. It was quite patently genuine and not entirely a function of servility that I had always believed she had reduced her party folk to. It was in a large measure related to the huge subsidies she had initiated and unlike her other political peers made efforts to see that the benefits percolated down to the people who needed it. For that alone, one would have to give her a lot of credit. And I would be first to admit that she has entered the Tamilian folklore – a rare achievement for any human being!

It may be apposite to look back at the life and times of this remarkable lady. She was rendered fatherless during her infancy forcing her mother to seek means of survival for her family. She relocated to Madras (as it was in those days) and commenced working as an actress. Very soon Jayalalithaa and her brother joined her. It was through her mother’s contacts she was noticed by the film folk and given a few breaks after which there was no looking back.

MGR by that time had already established himself as a top figure in the Madras film industry. Jayalalithaa was presented an opportunity to act with him and when the initial films succeeded, she began to be recognised as a name to be reckoned with. MGR’s death lead to a succession battle, which she won and proceeded to make sure that she was completely identified with her party. Her party folks extended to her loyalty of messianic proportions and she clearly revelled in that. And that is the way it remained right to the very end! Winning two elections in succession made her seem almost invincible and she was perhaps the first leader of a Dravidian party, who openly played an active role in national politics.

There is a curious sense of déjà vu I experience when I recapitulate her remarkable life and career. There was another woman who strode like a colossus in a country almost as large as India and commanded the same devotion and loyalty, who died 64 years ago. Her name was Maria Eva Duarte de Peron and she lived in Argentina.

A remarkable lady by any standards, she was also rendered fatherless by circumstances and her mother \moved to Buenos Aires to seek a career in acting, which ensured a livelihood for Eva and her siblings. Eva soon took up acting herself and it was through her vocation she came in contact with Juan Peron an up and coming military man and after a whirlwind romance married him. It was largely through her efforts that Peron’s political star rose and he became the President of the Argentinian nation, in 1946.

From then on until her untimely death, in 1952, at the age of 33, she was not only the most loved and powerful person in Argentina but the whole of the South American continent. Peron and his First Lady went on regular foreign jaunts and were reported to have amassed a fortune. But on the social front, she made sure that the indigent and the poor were fully catered to and her popularity began to acquire stratospheric dimensions. She earned the very flattering sobriquet of ‘Spiritual leader of the Argentinians!’ In the process, she did make quite a few enemies in the military, who successfully thwarted an attempt to make her the Vice President. But her popularity remained undiminished. After a mysterious illness the details of which are still disputed, she died only after six years as the First Lady. Such was her popularity that her burial place remained a closely guarded secret for decades.

There are obvious differences! Eva never won any election on her own (although it is believed that she could have easily done so!). While Jayalalithaa had a difficult childhood, her family background was in no way comparable to that of Eva. Unlike Eva, Jayalalithaa had a sound academic background as long as she was able to undertake studies. Jayalalitha did not play an active role in the iconification of her mentor who was already at the top.In Eva’s case it is popularly believed that although Juan Peron was a rising star , Eva’s charisma was responsible in a large measure for his ascent to presidential position.  And unlike Eva, Jayalalithaa did not marry her mentor MGR, who already had a wife. Plus Eva was on the political scene for only six years. Besides India during Jayalalithaa’s time was a democracy unlike Eva’s Argentina!

But the similarities are striking. Here were two ladies who came from a deprived background without their fathers on the scene who were brought up and raised by their mothers, who went into their mother’s profession, encountered their mentors and carved out an ecological niche for themselves in a manner that is extraordinary by any standards. While Eva’s concern for the deprived and the downtrodden was genuine and legendary, she was also known to be imperious and intolerant of her opponents. She was also known to harbour arrogant instincts as became very obvious during her state visit to Europe. And many people still believe that she was deeply corrupt and her state trips to Europe were meant to slash her ill-gotten gains in the Swiss banks. She carried the entire Peronist party with her in the same way that Jayalalithaa carried the AIADMK! Most Tamilians today would not object to her being appellated ‘Spiritual Leader’ in the same way as Eva. And coincidentally Jayalalithaa’s illness is also shrouded in mystery. As a medical man, I have problems accepting that it was just dehydration in a 68-year- old woman hospitalised for 75 days that lead to her death; most physicians would have problems accepting the official explanation.

But both have entered the folklore! The reason why this analogy has not yet been picked up is that Eva Peron is not as widely known in India-despite Andrew Lloyd Weber’s immortal fictional musical.

I recall reading about Eva in the 60’s when the popular Hindi weekly Dharmayug did a story on her. Fascinated, I yearned to visit Buenos Aires at the earliest opportunity.

And it came in the mid 80’s! I did come across some of her friends who worked in the Hotel Lancaster where I stayed. The visit enabled to retrace the life of one of the most remarkable women that lived in this century. I have been to Buenos Aires twice after that and it remains one of my favourite jaunts. Later on, I watched the Andrew Lloyd Weber musical Evita which although fictionalised did serve the purpose of familiarizing the people with this figure. Perhaps some innovate and respectful musical genius may even think of producing/directing a musical on Jayalalithaa!


On a footnote, I think it would be appropriate to point out what happened to the Peronists after Eva. A party which was driven solely by personality rather than ideology, it experienced wild political swings! At times it adopted a leftist stance only to swing to extreme right and then swing back to the left of the political spectrum. Argentinians became tired with Juan Peron and he was militarily deposed in 1955. He came back to power in the mid 70’s but only as a military dictator; Argentina was firmly in throes of a military dictatorship! Peron, although almost 80 during his second term had married another actress Isobel whom he made Vice President. She became the President after his expected death, but was clearly not upto the job and deposed. Peronist party became comprehensively discredited because of its wild swings -so much so that when the time to get rid of the military junta came in 1985 and elections were held, its candidate, the widely respected Italo Luder did not stand a chance and lost.

Personality driven political formations always run that risk and we must make effort to avoid that – not just in Tamil Nadu but the entire country!

©Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad

Photos from the internet.

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