Halo slips from the Walking Goddess: The antics of an Indian state leader are under fire, writes Tim McGirk in Madras

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A TATTOO. It was the sort of birthday present that the woman known to her party followers as Revolutionary Leader, Walking Goddess, or Primordial Power, might appreciate.

When Jayalalitha, chief minister of the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, turned 45 last month, thousands of her adoring supporters queued outside the Madras headquarters of her regional party to have her portrait engraved on their forearms. Jay alalitha is rather plump, and each tattoo required a painful amount of ink.

As another birthday gift, many fans erected monstrous 150ft cut-outs of the Primordial Power. Even a month later, every town and city in Tamil Nadu is dominated by these pictures of Jayalalitha, displaying her bland smile and the trademark, high-collared cape that some say conceals a bullet-proof vest.

The antics of Jayalalitha, a former screen star with an ego and insecurity complexes as big as their pasteboard colossus, are of concern not only to Tamil Nadu's 54 million citizens but also to the Indian Prime Minister, Narasimha Rao in New Delhi. He has counted on her regional Tamil party - the all-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam - to shore up his minority Congress government. But last night Jayalalitha said her party is ending its support for the Congress party, leaving Mr Rao and his allies with a paper-thin majority in the lower house. She is now expected to back the right-wing Hindu politicians who are trying to knock Mr Rao down.

This goes against the staunchly anti-Brahmin line of her party. But she is worried because New Delhi, at last, is registering some alarm over charges of widespread state corruption and queenly excesses during her 21-month reign in Tamil Nadu.

Cho Ramaswamy, a former Jayalalitha supporter and editor of a Tamil weekly said: 'The state administration has become totally corrupt and ineffective. Her party men just see government as a way to collect money. On top of that, the woman now has a vulgar and obscene desire for publicity.'

So far, the most formidable opponent to emerge is a woman, a former friend and senior civil servant named V Chandralekha, who accuses Jayalalitha of having ordered a thug to throw a jam jar loaded with acid in her face. Ms Chandralekha had challenged Jayalalitha's decision to release shares in a state oil company at below-market prices to a firm closely linked to Jayalal itha's party.

For her protest, Ms Chandra lekha was banished to a menial job in state archives. Then she was attacked. 'I was stuck in traffic. It was summer and the car window was down. Suddenly, a young man walked towards me. I thought he was giving handbills but instead he splashed acid in my face . . . I ordered my driver to catch the man - which he did - and I went to a private clinic by rickshaw. I did not dare go to a government hospital because she controls everything,' said Ms Chandralekha, whose face is pitted and burnt by the acid. 'I made up my mind to fight - to get this woman out.'

She teamed up with the Harvard-educated former commerce minister, Subramaniam Swamy, and is trying to pin a variety of corruption charges on the powerful chief minister. One of the four thugs involved in the acid attack also implicated several of Jayal alitha's cabinet ministers in it. But the gang, represented by lawyers from Jayalalitha's party, all jumped bail and have since vanished. Mr Swamy's life was also threatened several times after launching his salvoes against Jayalalitha.

Like many Tamil leaders, Jay alalitha entered politics through a film career. As a 17-year-old starlet, she began a relationship with a swashbuckling film hero, M G Ramachandran, then aged 50. MGR, as he was known, never left his wife to marry Jayalalitha. Instead, when he entered politics in the 1960s, MGR made Jayal alitha propaganda minister, at which she excelled.

During his funeral procession through Madras in 1987, Jayalal itha, ever the actress, fought her way up to MGR's coffin and vowed she would hurl herself on to his funeral pyre. She was dragged away, but that dramatic stunt led to her seizing power over MGR's party.

She allied herself to Rajiv Gandhi's Congress party, and when Gandhi was assassinated during the 1991 election campaign, Jayalalitha was swept in on a wave of sympathy. To her credit, she rooted out the network of Sri Lankan Tamil terrorists from her state which was responsible for Gandhi's killing.

Illiteracy is high in Tamil Nadu and her flamboyant populism goes down well among the poor. She improved education, medical care and set up creches where poor families can anonymously dump unwanted female babies instead of killing them to spare the exorbitant cost years later of their dowry.

'She's not a normal person,' said Ms Chandralekha of Jayal alitha. 'She's given to wild fluctuations, from angry and vengeful to suicidal.' Jayalalitha is also insecure about her lack of education. When Madras University awarded her an honorary doctorate for 'sublime sensibilities and ontological explorations to free the human psyche from bondage', she gave her supporters the nod to display thousands of life-size, celebratory cut-outs, showing her in a frumpy graduation hat and gown.

(Photograph omitted)