I can’t claim to have known Jayalalithaa well and I doubt if I was her favourite journalist. However, 12 years ago I did an acrimonious interview which some of you might have seen on YouTube. It left me apprehensive of meeting her again. But when that happened around 2006 she was gracious and charming. That’s the memory I want to share with you.
However, to do so I have to go back to the beginning. In 2004, when I was anchoring HARDtalk India for the BBC, I wrote to Jayalalithaa asking for an interview. If I recall correctly, she accepted after some persuasion. A date was set and with my producer, Ashok Upadhyay, I flew to Chennai for the recording.
Unfortunately things started going wrong the moment we arrived at Fort St. George. To begin with the room chosen for the interview had been chilled to an icy 15 degrees. “That’s what Amma likes,” we were told when we asked if the temperature could be raised. Then I discovered a huge flower bowl had been placed on the round table where we were to sit opposite each other. This meant I wouldn’t see Jayalalithaa and that would make interviewing her difficult.
Once again my attempt to remove the flowers was resisted by her officials but this time I simply picked them up and moved them aside. They complained vociferously but I got away with it.
Moments later Jayalalithaa entered and the interview began. It was soon obvious she didn’t like my questions and certainly not my interruptions. I could feel the atmosphere freezing over.
If I remember correctly, the lowest point was when I asked why her ministers and party men prostrate before her. She stared at me with evident hostility. Anger and contempt were visible on her face. “It’s an Indian tradition” was her cold dismissive reply.
When the interview ended I put out my hand and said: “Chief Minister, a pleasure talking to you.” Jayalalithaa rose to her feet, ignored my outstretched hand and instead folded hers in a formal namaste. “I must say it wasn’t a pleasure speaking to you.” With that she turned and sailed out of the room.
Two years later we met at a National Integration Council meeting in Vigyan Bhawan. I was talking to Naveen Patnaik when she walked up and joined us. I assumed it was Naveen and not me she wished to meet so I stepped aside.
“Where are you going, Karan?” she said in a voice that sounded genuinely cheerful. “I came to talk to you. I meet Mr Patnaik all the time.”
I was stumped. I couldn’t believe what I’d heard. Indeed I stared back in silence, not knowing what to say. “Well,” she smiled, her eyes twinkling with mirth, “aren’t you going to say something?”
“I wasn’t sure you wanted to meet me,” I stammered. “Have you forgotten our last meeting?”
“Of course,” she laughed. “In fact, isn’t it time for another?” But before I could answer she turned to Naveen and asked how he was. I took this as my cue to leave.
That second interview never happened. I’m not sure if I ever wrote and asked for it. Quite possibly I did not. But the warm-hearted and charming way she put the first behind us left a deeper and more lasting impression than the abrasiveness of our original meeting.
It just proves great politicians ensure they leave behind the impression they want to.
The views expressed are personal