My first memory of Jayalalithaa goes back to when I was 14. One of her close cousins (Vimla) married my father’s cousin. She lived in Bombay and frequently showed me her pictures and albums. I knew who Jayalalithaa was from the late 1960s.
The first time I saw her in political action was when she created a big drama and sat on a hunger strike over the Cauvery issue.
Narasimha Rao was the Prime Minister. I remember one day I entered his room and saw he had his hand on his head and said, “What am I going to do with her?” Incidentally, they spoke to each other in Telugu.
When I was in the Planning Commission, she (then the Tamil Nadu CM) used to come to discuss annual plans during 1992-1994. By far, she was the most impressive CM.
Pranab Mukherjee, the then deputy chairman of the Planning Commission, praised her as a “master of facts”. She had all facts and figures at her finger tips and had phenomenal memory. Unlike many other CMs, she didn’t require any official to brief her. She knew her state extremely well and stuck to her demands, which were often met.
At the famous tea party (where Sonia Gandhi and Jayalalitha sat together) in the Ashoka Hotel in Delhi, I finally got a chance to introduce myself to her, “Madam, my name is Jairam Ramesh.” She retorted, “I believe we are related.” I was taken aback. I never thought she would know me. She told me, “We must be in touch.”
She became CM again in 2001, and appointed P Shankar as her chief secretary. When I called Shankar to congratulate him, his reaction was: “I think you are offering condolences. I don’t know what I am getting into.”
She had her quirks. Chief secretaries would talk to her only through intercom. She was imperious. People were scared of her.
Three days later, he called me and said, “The CM will set up a state planning board and wants you to be its member”. I was an office bearer of the Congress but still she wanted me to be in her panel!
In the 1990s, renowned American professor Myron Weiner wrote a book “The child and the state in India.” It was about why primary education should be compulsory. The book was sent to all CMs. And the only chief minister to reply to him, that too, with a 6-page letter, was none other than Jayalalithaa.
Rao saw her as a tantrum thrower but Dr Manmohan Singh frequently praised her for administrative skills, mid-day meal schemes and gender empowerment. She introduced all-woman police stations, in her state more women worked under the rural job scheme, she started women self-help groups. Her achievements were often discussed by Dr Singh and Pranab babu. Both of them liked her a lot. She was an administrator with a strong social conscience. She was also very tough on LTTE. Many people in the Congress appreciated that aspect of her rule. She is a true mass leader and enjoyed tremendous support from people of Tamil Nadu.
As union rural development minister, I wrote many letters to her. She did some fabulous work. But I must add that during my entire tenure, I could not meet two chief ministers: Jayalalithaa and Mayawati.
( as told to Saubhadra Chatterji )