In 1981, she joined the AIADMK and was nominated to the Rajya Sabha in 1984, marking her entry into the Parliament of India. Her association with politics grew from her relationship with M. G. Ramachandran (popularly known as M.G.R), movie star and then Chief Minister. On M.G R’s death, she was alienated by a faction of the party who chose to support M.G R’s wife Janaki Ramachandran. Drawing on her massive popularity and her image as the “wronged woman”, in 1989, she won the elections to the Tamil Nadu legislative assembly—incidentally, she became the first woman to be elected Leader of the Opposition.
In 1991, following the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, just days before the elections, her alliance with Indian National Congress paid off as a sympathy wave propelled the coalition to a massive victory. She was re-elected to the legislative assembly and became the first elected woman chief minister of Tamil Nadu (Janaki Ramachandran technically became the first woman chief minister following her husband’s death, but she was unelected and presided over a transitional ‘caretaker’ government) serving the full tenure (June 24, 1991 - May 12, 1996).
However, due to an anti-incumbency wave, and several allegations of corruption and malfeasance against her and her ministers, she lost power to the DMK in 1996, in a landslide defeat.
During the years out of power, she had to face a number of criminal lawsuits related to her first term rule, mostly dealing with embezzlement and monetary fraud. In 2001, a specially designated court convicted her of criminal breach of trust and of illegally acquiring governmental property belonging to TANSI, a state-run agency, and sentenced her to five years’ imprisonment. She appealed against the sentence to the Supreme Court of India. While the appeal was under judicial consideration, the conviction disqualified her from contesting the 2001 elections. However, having led her party to victory, she controversially became the Chief Minister as a non-elected member of the assembly.
On September 21, 2001, a five-judge constitutional bench of the Supreme Court of India ruled that “a person who is convicted of a criminal offence and sentenced to imprisonment for a period of not less than two years cannot be appointed the Chief Minister of a State under Article 164 (1) read with (4) and cannot continue to function as such”. Thereby, the bench decided that “in the appointment of Ms. Jayalalithaa as Chief Minister there has been a clear infringement of a Constitutional provision and that a writ of quo warranto must issue”.
In effect, her appointment as Chief Minister was declared null and invalid. Therefore, technically, she was not the Chief Minister in the period between May 14, 2001 and September 21, 2001. O. Panneerselvam, a minister, was subsequently installed as the Chief Minister. However, his government was widely believed to have been puppeted and micro-managed by Jayalalithaa. In 2003, the Supreme Court acquitted her in the specific case, for lack of conclusive evidence to convict her.
This cleared the way for her to contest a mid-term poll to the Andipatti constituency, after the elected representative for the seat, gave up his membership. Winning the election by a handsome margin, Jayalalithaa took over the Chief Ministership again. She is still a party to a few criminal litigations from her first term rule in the courts in the neighbouring Karnataka state..
After the 2006 assembly elections, O. Panneerselvam was elected the AIADMK legislature party leader and hence the Leader of the Opposition in the assembly, after she decided not to attend the assembly except if “absolutely necessary”. However she, by virtue of her strong control over her party, was considered to be the de-facto leader of the opposition in the state. Later that month when all the attending AIADMK MLAs were suspended, she started attending the assembly. She was elected the legislature party leader and led the opposition in the assembly.
Thereafter in the 2011 general elections to the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly, the AIADMK led alliance trounced the DMK led front by winning 203 Assembly Constituencies out of 234 Assembly Constituencies. The AIADMK alone had captured 150 seats and formed the Government on its own. She was elected from Srirangam Assembly Constituency by a huge margin. She was sworn in as the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu for the third time on 16.5.2011.
Jayalalitha-led ruling AIADMK has clearly swept the Tamil Nadu Lok Sabha elections 2014 winning 37 out of 39 seats, decimating its chief rival DMK. The impact of ‘Amma’ was such that Karunanidhi-led DMK failed to secure even a single seat in the state. The Modi wave was countered by the ‘Amma wave’ as the saffron party secured just two seats.