How Jaya turned sleepy Madras into vibrant Chennai


A flex board of the late Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalitha in Chennai. Pic: J Pullokaran (via Wikimedia)

“I want to make Chennai the Detroit of Asia.” That is what the late Jayalalithaa told me during an interview in the 1990s during her first term as the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu.

Chennai (or Madras as it was then) had already had a history of automobile industry, with the presence of Standard Motors in the suburb of Perungalathur and Hindustan Motors in nearby Thiruvallur. Of course, at the time that she made her assertion, Standard Motors was already dead, but Hindustan Motors, the makers of the old warhorse Ambassador cars, was still alive and kicking. So were Ashok Leyland, the bus and truck manufacturers, and TAFE, the tractor manufacturer.

Chennai already had a very well established auto ancillary industry, with the likes of the TVS group, the Amalgamations group, and India Pistons.

To Jayalalithaa, that signalled just the right environment to make the city the auto hub of the country.

The opening up of the Indian economy and the beginnings of liberalization offered a huge opportunity that she did grab with both hands. And soon enough she achieved the breakthrough that put Chennai firmly on the road to the realization of her dream—the entry of Ford, the first international car maker to set up its manufacturing unit in India.

Others followed over the years. The beginning made then has now grown into the Singaperumalkoil-Oragadam-Sriperumpudur belt that houses seven of the top ten names in international automobile industry. And to cap it, Chennai has also become an export hub for automobiles. The creation of an investor friendly climate, sector specific policies and, of course, the huge push that she gave to the IT sector, have forever changed the face of Chennai that was Madras.

The growth of the automotive and IT sectors in and around the city has changed its very demography. Gone are the days when Chennai used to be a sleepy conservative city rich in culture. Oh yes, it is still conservative in some sense, and continues to be a cultural hub. But the changing demography has ensured that the city is far more cosmopolitan than it used to be.

If Madras was an easy paced centre of South Indian culture, Chennai is a throbbing multicultural entity, centred on its South Indian tradition.

Beyond economics

There is one more thing that Jayalalithaa did to keep the city on the international map, which sadly does not get enough attention. Madras has always had a sporting tradition, and has been considered the cradle of Indian tennis. It was but natural that the Indian leg of ATP’s tennis tournament, which debuted in Delhi, was eventually shifted to Chennai.

But after four editions of the same, when there was a threat of the Chennai open tennis being shifted not only out of the city, but out of the country itself following a worldwide ban on sponsorship of sports events by tobacco companies, Jayalalithaa stepped in with a sizeable contribution from the state government. This helped the All India Tennis Association and the Tamil Nadu Tennis Association to put together a consortium of sponsors to ensure that the ATP’s year opener was retained in Chennai.

The list of positive influences can go on.

Not to say that there were no negatives, especially during her first term, which was riddled with corruption and extraordinary sycophancy. Politics in Tamil Nadu has been known for its culture of sycophancy, but Jayalalithaa and her party cadres took it to an entirely different level.

The culture of larger than life cut-outs, outlandish praise, posters and billboards comparing her to a goddess and even Mother Mary dotted the city, often blocking the footpaths and denying pedestrians walking space. So much so, that the city itself came to be derogatively referred to as the City of Amma Cut-outs. That culture, though somewhat diminished during her subsequent terms, still defines the city. The city’s skyline has changed forever.

For better as well as for worse therefore, Jayalalithaa changed the face of the city in which she grew up, leaving an unmistakable imprint on it, just as she had done in the film world and later in the wider world of politics and governance. Chennai will not forget her anytime soon.

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About Kalyan N Arun 1 Article
K N Arun is a Professor at the Asian College of Journalism in Chennai.