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Lessons from Jayalalithaa, in absentia

She broke the jinx of Tamil Nadu’s electoral flipflops this summer. Sadly, she did not survive the winter, her grip on her party broken only by death

mumbai Updated: Dec 06, 2016 09:09 IST
Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalitha Jayaram passed away at the Apollo Hospitals at 11.30pm on Monday after waging a grim battle for life since her hospitalisation on September 22. (AFP Photo)

Ultimately, I never did get to meet J. Jayalalithaa. But I was left in no doubt about her sophisticated control over her supporters and the fear she ran in her workers – which I found strange, hailing as I did from the land of Bal Thackeray who was both rude and rustic in keeping his own supporters in check. At the previous election (in 1999), Thackeray and Karunanidhi had been profusely abusing two women leaders who had briefly come together -- Jayalalithaa and Congress president Sonia Gandhi. The choicest words of abuse were used for both and my colleague in Chennai and I were hard put to put together the story from our respective state capitals, wishing to maintain some decorum in English but not knowing how to water down those abuses and still convey the sense to our readers.

So when Jaya won the 2001 state elections some retaliation against Karunanidhi was expected. Both had been playing ‘chor-police’ with each other every term for years and my then editor-in-chief, Vir Sanghvi, asked me to head to Madras and wait for the fireworks. Jaya did drag Karunanidhi to jail – how he squatted on the road in his lungi and resisted the police who dragged him through the street in front of his house to the waiting police van at nearly midnight still paints a memorable picture in my mind. But that was to come later.

When I landed in Chennai, I discovered some hard truths about Tamil Nadu politics. Jaya was away in New Delhi to meet then Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee but even in her absence her supporters were scared to death to meet with reporters. In addition, there was the barrier of language. I had only a smattering of Tamil, good to impress North Indian societies of Bombay and Delhi but hardly anything to write (or, should I say, speak?) home about in Tamil Nadu. But the handicap affected me more in the headquarters of the AIADMK than in the DMK offices. For a leader who spoke such sophisticated English, Jayalalithaa’s supporters, who could also speak better English than many of Karunanidhi’s, absolutely did not appreciate the fact that a South Indian had trouble speaking Tamil. So I sat up that night carefully scratching out the last two letters of my surname from my visiting cards and turned myself into a Punjabi who, of course, could not know Tamil. I had no such problem with the DMK leaders who answered every question put to them in English with the aid of interpreters.

But it was another factor that struck me more strongly while I tried to communicate with AIADMK leaders – even the spokespersons needed `Amma’s’ permission to answer even a banal question like ``When is she returning from Delhi?’’ It was like giving away a state secret.

One of her top leaders flatly told me, ``Look, you are an outsider. At least if you were a Chennai reporter, I could make the excuse that I ran into you in the corridors of the secretariat and we had a casual chat. Now if I tell you anything, she would know it was an organised meeting and I would be of no consequence. So please stop coming to our party office.’’

I was startled because not even Bal Thackeray’s supporters then were that scared of him. Until then, my experience of breach of party protocol was more simplistic and obvious in the typical Sena style of physical retribution. But from this man I learnt that getting on the wrong side of Jayalalitha coud invite more sophisticated penance – social and political ostracism -- and that he could ill afford.

So I stayed away and spent more time instead at the headquarters of the defeated party and the Sun TV offices, attending Karunanidhi’s birthday bash – which was still quite grand in its subdued celebrations -- and waiting for the proverbial knock on his door from the government of the day.

But running comparisons with Maharashtra, I earnt that Jayalalithaa had one thing in common with Balasaheb - people voted for her and her alone. So, like Thackeray, nothing mattered to her- no caste combinations, no religious dogmas and no political equations were greater than her charm and her charisma. But as one relative in Chennai told me, between her and Karunanidhi, people thought she did more for them with her heart and that is what kept her afloat.

She broke the jinx of Tamil Nadu’s electoral flipflops this summer. Sadly, she did not survive the winter, her grip on her party broken only by death.


Tamil Nadu CM Jayalalithaa dies at 68, to be cremated at MGR’s memorial site

Jayalalithaa third Tamil Nadu CM to die while in power

First Published: Dec 06, 2016 09:07 IST