CHENNAI, India — Her chair in the state assembly room has been kept open, her office left undisturbed like a shrine.
It’s been more than four months since Jayalalitha Jayaram, a former film star and three-term chief minister in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, was convicted on corruption charges, briefly imprisoned and forced to step down, an event that caused statewide protests and shuttered shops and schools. A few of her most fervent supporters even lighted themselves on fire.
Since then Jayalalitha — as she is known here — has simply continued doing her job from behind the police barricades in the palatial home where she has been cloistered, awaiting an appeal on her corruption case likely to be concluded in April.
Technically, the state has a new chief minister, Jayalalitha adviser O. Panneerselvam, who wept when he was sworn in to replace her. But Jayalalitha remains “the people’s chief minister,” her supporters say, and that effectively means she is still running one of India’s biggest economies despite her legal distractions.
“Her proxy won’t enter her room. When he holds a meeting with foreign dignitaries, he makes sure to place her picture on the table before him, facing out, so photographers will get a shot of her face before his,” said a senior journalist who did not want to give his name because Jayalalitha’s political party buys advertisements in his newspaper.
There was a special election to fill her open seat in the state assembly last week, and although there was a nominal candidate from Jayalalitha’s party — a local party official named S. Valarmathi — everybody knew who they were voting for.
Jayalalitha sent out a press note.
“This [special election] is the result of political conspiracy which I shall eventually overcome,” she said. “Meanwhile every vote for Valarmathi will be a vote for me.”
The votes were counted Monday, and she won by a landslide.
Just a year ago, Jayalalitha was riding high on a wave of popularity and was even mentioned as a possible alternative prime ministerial candidate to Narendra Modi. (Her supporters had a 145-pound cake made for her birthday, in the shape of India’s circular Parliament building.)
People in the sunbaked southern state adore her as “Amma,” the word in the local Tamil language for mother. In recent years, she bolstered her popularity by starting a range of low-cost public programs, which she branded as Amma canteens, Amma pharmacies and Amma water. She is also the queen of giveaways, including bags of rice, bicycles for schoolchildren and electric fans.
India may be a country of 1.2 billion people, but it is also an assemblage of 29 states with diverse languages and cultures , some of which, such as Tamil Nadu, have populations the size of countries. The state is one of the most developed in India and boasts one of the country’s biggest economies.
Jayalalitha is an outsize example of the kind of regional politician Modi needs to get some of his key economic reforms — such as a nationwide goods and services tax — passed in Parliament, observers say. Last month, his finance minister, Arun Jaitley, came to Tamil Nadu and met with the mysterious, mercurial leader, seeking her support.
Jayalalitha, 66, made her name at a young age, when her mother pushed her to become an actress in the Tamil-language film industry, called “Kollywood.” In several movies she was paired with a revered older film star who later became chief minister and brought her into politics.
It was her first tumultuous tenure as chief minister — from 1991 to 1996 — that would bring her downfall decades later.
In September 1995 she threw a wedding for her foster son that was so grandiose it remains the largest wedding banquet in Guinness World Records. More than 150,000 guests celebrated on 50-acre grounds at an estimated cost of $23 million, according to Guinness . A fortress was built by state workers, and the roads to the venue were strewn with rose petals and lined with Greek columns.
“The whole city was converted into a marriage hall,” said K. Chandru, a retired judge from the Madras High Court in Chennai. “Everything was televised. It was a big festival. The invitations were sent out on silver plates.”
After that public spectacle, the judge said, it was only a matter of time before the chief minister was charged in what was called a “disproportionate assets case,” meaning she had 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.
The case progressed at a crawl through the Indian court system — at one point moved to the neighboring state of Karnataka — before a judge finally issued a 1,000-plus page guilty verdict in September. It had taken 18 years. She was sentenced to four years in prison and was forced to step down from her post, barred from politics for the next decade. Her lawyers are appealing.
“This case was filed as a political vendetta,” said Avadi Kumar, a spokesman for her party, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. “There was no witness to say somebody gave Jayalalitha money or she took it. The only problem is the assets.”
Meanwhile, many of her supporters at home also think she will be exonerated and officially return to her job. Her image remains everywhere — on billboards, in graffiti, on the municipal fencing placed around trees. One engaged couple put up a billboard on the highway announcing their forthcoming wedding that included a likeness of Jayalalitha giving a blessing.
“She is a mother to us, and we love her,” said D. Saraswathi, 61, who runs a small food stall near Jayalalitha’s home. “She will contest as chief minister again, and she will win.”
Pramila Krishnan contributed to this report.