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Indian politics' 'Iron Lady' is dead

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Tamil Nadu's 'Iron Lady' Chief Minister dies

CHENNAI She was a former film star who went on to become one of India's most powerful and controversial politicians, famed for her vast sari collection that earned her comparisons with Mrs Imelda Marcos.

In her native southern state of Tamil Nadu, where she was known simply as Amma, or mother, Ms Jayalalithaa Jayaram inspired a devotion that verged on the religious.

But the five-time Chief Minister, who died yesterday, aged 68, was also seen as autocratic and secretive. She was dubbed the Iron Lady and battled allegations of corruption on a vast scale.

She was jailed briefly on two occasions, most recently in 2014, when prison officers reportedly allowed her staff to bring her usual breakfast - a privilege not extended to other inmates.

A 1997 police raid on her properties netted 10,500 saris, 750 pairs of shoes and a 1.5kg diamond-studded gold belt. The accusations did little to dent her popularity in Tamil Nadu, which under her rule became one of India's most prosperous states.

Ministers would prostrate themselves before her, while followers showed their devotion by tattooing her face on their skin to mark her birthday When she fell ill in September, one supporter set himself on fire.


Their devotion was partly thanks to vast election-time giveaways that ranged from laptops to bicycles and kitchen appliances and helped her win three terms as chief minister.

Her Amma canteens, offering lunch for three rupees (S$0.06), were also a huge hit, and she managed to retain the reverence she had enjoyed as a movie star throughout her political career.

The career change was not as unusual as it might seem - cinema and politics have long been intertwined in Tamil Nadu.

Ms Jayalalithaa's AIADMK (All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) party was founded by her fellow actor and on-screen love interest, M.G. Ramachandran, who became her political mentor. The pair remained close until his death in 1987, when his wife and family denied Ms Jayalalithaa permission to see his body.

"One-third of my life was dominated by my mother, the other part - a major one - was dominated by MGR," she once said in an interview.

The allegations of corruption were first made by a rival politician in the state in 1996, and Ms Jayalalithaa always dismissed them as politically motivated.

Prosecutors in the latest trial said her assets, which reportedly included two 405ha estates, were vastly disproportionate to her earnings. Despite a string of court battles, she was elected for a second time before winning her third stint in 2016.- AFP