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In poll theatre, Amma plays to full house

It’s noon, but the large crowd, of at least a thousand, waited patiently under the scorching sun outside the low-rise Sangam Hotel in Madurai for a glimpse of their leader. Suddenly, there’s a roar. MR Venkatesh reports.

india Updated: Apr 27, 2009 00:38 IST
MR Venkatesh

It’s noon, but the large crowd, of at least a thousand, waited patiently under the scorching sun outside the low-rise Sangam Hotel in Madurai for a glimpse of their leader. Suddenly, there’s a roar.

Cries of “Puratchi Thalavi” (revolutionary leader) rent the air as AIADMK supremo J. Jayalalithaa, 61, dressed in her signature green saree, and Sassikala, her close friend and constant companion, emerged from the main entrance of the hotel, surrounded by Black Cat commandos. She had just finished a meeting with the top leadership of the state CPI(M) and CPI on campaign strategy.

Profile
Born: February 24, 1948

Education: Matriculate, University of Madras — Rank Holder; then continued her higher
studies with Mysore University through
distance education for some time.

Political career: Inducted into the AIADMK by the party’s founder and her political mentor, M.G. Ramachandran, as Propaganda Secretary in the early 1980s.

Film career
: Acted in over 100 films, winning several awards. Was number one Tamil film heroine between mid-1960s and mid 1970s.
She turned towards the crowd, about 20 metres away, waved at them, held up her party’s two-leaves symbol and entered a bullet-proof Mitsubishi Pajero. Her convoy of eight cars — three pilot vehicles, two Ambassadors carrying the Black Cats, two identical Pajeros and one media van of Jaya TV crew — then zoomed out of the hotel.

Jayalalithaa headed for the Police Lines a kilometre away, to board a helicopter. Once in the air, the pilot turned his machine east and headed towards Paramakudi, 75 km away, in the arid coastal district of Ramanathapuram.

Paramakudi, a small town of about one lakh people, is predominantly a handloom weaving centre. The afternoon sun was beating down. But thousands lined the streets to greet their leader; many others had taken up vantage positions on rooftops and balconies to catch a glimpse of her motorcade.

Jayalalithaa’s caravan moved slowly from the makeshift helipad on the outskirts of the town to its main intersection, known locally as the Five Lights Junction because of the five powerful sodium vapour lamps mounted on the high mast at the centre of the island at the four-point crossing.

There were thousands gathered to hear her speak. At a distance, one could see the buses, trucks and other vehicles that had ferried the crowd to this spot parked in a disorderly manner. There were large posters and cutouts of the AIADMK leader everywhere. And hit songs from old MGR-Jayalalithaa films (she was his heroine in several blockbuster films) blared through the public address system.

There was a roar as Jayalalithaa alighted from her SUV, again waving the AIADMK’s two-leaves symbol, and walked towards the modest podium on which some aides were busy stuffing ice-cubes into the air-cooler in the hope that they would cool things faster.

The music fell silent. As the Black Cats threw a ring around her, a group of middle-aged women sitting behind the fence constructed about 10 feet from the podium began to protest. “We are all seated here, unmindful of the heat, just to catch a glimpse of Amma (mother; that’s how many of her followers refer to her),” they screamed.

There are many more young men in the crowd than women — a sign, perhaps, that AIADMK is winning back its traditional youth constituency.

She delivered a fairly long speech, lambasting Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi for doing nothing for the Tamils of Sri Lanka.

“He indulges in one drama after another — including calling bandhs — but does nothing on the ground for the Tamils of Sri Lanka,” she thundered. Then, she trained her guns on the Congress and the UPA.

“Why are Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress leader Sonia Gandhi silent on Karunanidhi’s latest flip-flop — his shockingly contradictory statements on LTTE and its chief Prabhakaran?” she asked. The crowd lapped this up.

The ice-cubes didn’t seem to have made difference. Jayalalithaa was sweating profusely, and interrupted her 45 minute-speech to drink water.

Refreshed, she then vowed to retrieve the Katchatheevu island, ceded to Sri Lanka in 1974, to ensure the livelihoods of fishermen in Tamil Nadu and also assured the people that a “new dispensation in Delhi will set the economy right”. The crowd nodded in acknowledgement.

She then pointed to her party candidate, local veteran V. Sathiyamurthy, and told the crowd to vote for him.

Jayalalithaa beamed a winsome smile as a local admirer presented her with a sword to symbolise her “chivalrous fight”. Two farmers in their sixties, Muniyasamy and Irulaiyah, had no doubts. “Amma will come back this time,” they said in Tamil.

The meeting ended. Back in her Pajero, she accepted more cold water and some refreshments from her friend, as her motorcade made its way back to the helipad, to chants of “Puratchi Thalavi”.

Her next destination: Sivaganga, from where Home Minister P. Chidambaram is contesting on a Congress ticket. It’s more of the same there.

Then, it’s time to fly back to Madurai — for a well-earned respite from the heat and dust of politics, confabulations with party leaders and some sleep. Amma usually addresses no more than two rallies a day. She will have many more miles to go on the morrow.

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