Madras Check

J Jayalalithaa prepares to re-enter the national arena

Hoardings and posters across Tamil Nadu proclaim Jayalalithaa as India’s future prime minister. R Balu Mahendran
01 April, 2014

ON 19 FEBRUARY, Tamil Nadu’s chief minister J Jayalalithaa ordered the release of seven people convicted of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, after a Supreme Court order commuted the death sentences of three of these convicts to life imprisonment. It was a stunning statement, and made national headlines. Her admirers called it a master stroke—but it was prompted by her arch rival, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader M Karunanidhi, who had written just the day before in his paper Murasoli, calling for the plotters’ release. Jayalalithaa, who has always been a severe critic of the LTTE, decided to capture the popular mood on the issue, and ended up taking over a discourse mainly generated by the media (and feebly propped up by Karunanidhi to remind people off and on that he is the “Tamilina thalaivar,” leader of the Tamil community). The objective was to gain political mileage, ensure that the Congress would have no allies in Tamil Nadu in the months to come, and leave little to no space for the other Dravidian and pro-Tamil parties to oppose her decision.

For months now, hoardings all over Tamil Nadu have declared Jayalalithaa as prime-minister-in-waiting. She behaves like one already, making audacious decisions even as she remains fully aware that they will not go unchallenged. The woman on the posters, smiling serenely as morphed images of world leaders crowd the edges, apparently paying obeisance to her, has been chief minister of Tamil Nadu thrice in the past twenty years. With her greatest rivals, the DMK, routed in the 2011 assembly polls and embroiled in the power struggle between the sons of the patriarch Karunanidhi, she is eyeing the moon—all forty parliamentary seats (thirty-nine in Tamil Nadu and one in Puducherry) in 2014. That is an awesome number, and an unlikely target given the five-pronged contest under way in the state. But were she to gain something close to it, she might well be the kingmaker—or the ruler herself.

Tamil Nadu has the unique distinction of having been ruled for nearly fifty years by a screenwriter and two actors, all masters of their craft. Here, the real and the reel have a symbiotic relationship that can make the unthinkable happen. So a Brahmin came to lead the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, a party that had its roots in a movement that denounced Brahminism. People who puffed their chests out to chant “Tamil is our breath”—one of the Dravidian movement’s historic slogans—saw no difficulty in accepting as their leaders both the non-Tamil MG Ramachandran, and Jayalalithaa, a woman who was born in Mysore to Mandyam Iyengar parents and once spoke Kannada with better ease than Tamil. To accept leaders as gods is a party compulsion, and god can speak any language.

For Jayalalithaa, the political baggage came attached to her gender, an added challenge to her gaining acceptance. Today, she is a mystery both within and without the AIADMK, and this suits her. She continues to challenge the male-dominated, sexist politics of Tamil Nadu that once sought to block her at every step of the way, as she rose to be the charismatic leader of the party, left rudderless in 1987 after the death of its founder, MGR. Her actions ahead of this year’s general election may be interpreted in light of this tumultuous history in state and national politics—and the key to it is her obsessive rivalry with Karunanidhi, which has long been her greatest motivation.

Her prime ministerial ambition is itself an appropriation of Karunanidhi’s old strategy to leverage Chennai’s power in Delhi, bettered by her aim to capture power at the national level. In February this year, her brief flirtation with the Communist Party of India and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) made them believe that she would be a serious partner in their proposed third front following this year’s general election. When the alliance was announced on 2 February, AB Bardhan of the CPI went out of his way to say, “If the alliance succeeds in the elections, prospects would open up for her.”

After her magnificent victory in the 2011 assembly polls, Jayalalithaa often said that the DMK was a finished story, but she is no fool to take them for granted. Over the last year, MK Stalin, the rising star and the heir apparent to the DMK, has been mobilising the party with unprecedented energy. Its cadre is enthused. Earlier this year, Stalin proclaimed that in the forthcoming election, the DMK would go neither with the Congress—unpopular due to its handling of the issue of Tamils in Sri Lanka—nor with the Bharatiya Janata Party, which is viewed as communal. It was evident that its best option for an alliance with a national party lay with the Left, with which the DMK has always had a cordial ideological relationship.

As talk of the third front came up, Jayalalithaa decided it would be prudent on her part to enter into an alliance with the Left parties. It is easy to imagine that she enjoyed the discomfiture her decision caused to the DMK, now left with just a few small local outfits to go with, as its desperate efforts to tie up with Vijaykanth’s Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam failed (the DMDK ended up joining hands with the BJP in March). For their part, the Left parties may have forgotten that they were dealing with a consummate actor, and that Jayalalithaa’s own ambition would prevent any possibility of her allotting the communists the six seats that they demanded, since she would require all forty seats to make her mark.

Jayalalithaa also knew that Stalin, less politically shrewd than his father was, remained strongly opposed to a tie-up with the BJP. However, reports emerged in February this year of Karunanidhi praising Modi and calling him a friend, clearly signalling to the BJP that the DMK was not averse to an alliance. A BJP–DMK combination would have deprived the AIADMK of the maximum number that Jayalalithaa wants so badly. This realisation caused a change of tone in her campaign speeches. The Left, already aghast when she went ahead and nominated AIADMK candidates for all thirty-nine Tamil Nadu seats just ten days after they announced the alliance, noticed that she avoided mentioning the BJP or Modi, even as she raised the volume of her anti-Congress rhetoric. The writing was on the wall.

Sure enough, Jayalalithaa refused to negotiate, and the alliance quickly ended. But cutting off the Left does not mean that Jayalalithaa’s chances of commanding a federal front have dissolved. When she broke with the communists, the West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee openly offered to support her as prime minister when the eventuality arose. Meanwhile, if the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance comes away with inadequate numbers from the general election, it will have to circle back to her for support. Either way, it is presumed, victory will be Jayalalithaa’s.

Her party men, none of them close to her, nod their heads in confusion at all this back and forth. Within the AIADMK, no one knows what her strategy will be, and no one dares ask. After she won the assembly elections in 2011, observers were led to believe that she was close to the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, when she invited him to attend her swearing-in ceremony in Chennai. When Modi became the BJP’s campaign committee chief last year, she publicly congratulated him. But she chose to keep her distance when he was declared prime ministerial candidate, and ignored him during his subsequent visits to Tamil Nadu. She knew full well that she would lose minority votes if she was seen as close to Modi. It would erode the confidence of her people in a state where the BJP has no presence whatsoever.

Her projection of herself as a potential future prime minister may well be a tactic to enthuse party-men and cadres to work harder, simply to obtain enough numbers to emerge as a major bargaining power during the formation of a new government in Delhi. But she and her party may also feel that she is in no way behind Modi in matters of governance. Development indicators in Tamil Nadu have consistently outdone those in Gujarat. Since she came to power, Jayalalithaa’s strategy of governance has radiated an aura of inclusiveness that provides everything for everybody. A “Vision 2023” plan, which the state government released this February, claimed that it would hit impressive targets to achieve “economic prosperity,” while ensuring that “no one is ‘left behind’ in the progress under Vision 2023.” Tamil Nadu has also always had the good fortune of a bureaucracy that has given little trouble to whoever comes to power, and executed ambitious administrative schemes with unparalleled efficiency. Jayalalithaa governs a state that, even by Modi’s standards and ideas of progress and development, ranks above Gujarat.

MINE IS AN OPEN BOOK, she once said, but in truth, Jayalalithaa remains unapproachable. Her arrogance and fits of rage are legendary. So are the stories of her troubled childhood; her brilliant school record in Church Park Convent; her impeccable English; her relationship with MGR and her sense of loss after his death; her relationship with her aide, Sasikala, which Tamil men are not able to understand; her deep hatred towards Karunanidhi, which invariably colours all her political reactions. The past, which shapes her present, is marked by her loneliness, as well as her anger at having been battered by various court cases; having her wealth frozen, properties sealed and jewels seized; and being sent to legal custody, the memory of which must continue to haunt her.

In 1996, Jayalalithaa was imprisoned for twenty-eight days following the Madras High Court’s rejection of her anticipatory bail application in the case known as the “colour television scam.” The imprisonment had come on the heels of a massive electoral defeat in the state elections of 1996, which ended her first term as chief minister. Upon her release, she went into self-imposed exile.

When she returned after a long silence, in October 1997, she told her party-men that she was still in politics because she “did not want it to be written in history that AIADMK, a party that MGR founded in opposition to Karunanidhi, was wiped out by Karunanidhi.” It was even more important that Karunanidhi should not wipe her out: the AIADMK knew it could not exist without her. Her party members were deeply moved to hear her say, “Any other woman in my place would have committed suicide [for the kind of suffering I have gone through] or would have become insane.”

Corruption had been her downfall in her first chief ministerial term, between 1991 and 1996. In her second term (2001–2006), she baffled the state with her autocratic measures, unhindered and unquestioned except in the media, with whom relations had soured at the time. First, her assumption of power raised constitutional debate, since she had been unable to run for election as MLA, and had been rejected by the electoral offices of four constituencies because of her corruption charges. But more dramatically, her first act as chief minister was to arrest the seventy-seven-year-old Karunanidhi in the middle of the night, shocking the nation. A spate of unilateral decisions followed. There was her proposal in the assembly, ruling out all discussion, to demolish the nearly hundred-year-old Queen Mary’s College to make way for a new secretariat; the ordinance against forced conversion; and the ban imposed on animal sacrifice. In 2002, Vaiko, leader of the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, then an ally of the ruling BJP, was arrested under POTA (since repealed) for speaking in favour of the LTTE, a banned outfit.

All this has shaped her third term as chief minister, during which she appears to have understood the art of wielding power. Her massive mandate in the 2011 Tamil Nadu elections, which proved every poll prediction wrong, was definitive in this respect—a victory that released her from fear of the future. Her previous term had been consumed by her desire to avenge the wrongs she felt she had suffered because of Karunanidhi, but in 2011, no need for that remained. The DMK was comprehensively routed, with the patriarch’s family spiraling into destruction. Karunanidhi’s daughter, the Rajya Sabha MP Kanimozhi, was in jail, charged with fraud and corruption. The Tamil press, always soft on Karunanidhi, had turned on him because his allies in the UPA had made a mess of dealing with the genocide of Sri Lankan Tamils during the civil war in Jaffna.

This time, Tamil Nadu’s mood, and its priorities, have discernibly changed. People are concerned with issues of the environment, as evinced by the Koodankulam protests; they are angry with human rights violations of fellow Tamils beyond their own shores. Tamil fellow feeling is resurgent. Jayalalithaa, once a severe critic of the LTTE, has changed her own tactics in response. With her order to free the seven convicted in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case, the state’s press, largely pro-Tamil, was completely won over. The media today bends over backwards to praise her.

Her third term has been relatively tranquil. She remains unforgiving in many respects: over the past two years she has reshuffled seventeen cabinet ministers from their positions. Within the administration, she brooks no opposition, and her word on any subject is considered law. But she has survived three years without scandal, or allegations of corruption. She now maneuvers public support with her array of populist welfare schemes, thanks to which it seems as though the man in the street gets everything he needs in the name of “Amma”—Jayalalithaa as universal mother. Any public discontent is offset by her largesse. Twenty kilograms of rice free every month for each BPL family, mixie-grinders and fans—never mind that Jayalalithaa’s grand promises to end Tamil Nadu’s power shortages have come to nothing so far—and bicycles for school children, have all been distributed as Amma’s gifts. Amma canteens run by municipal corporations in cities sell idlis for one rupee each, and curd rice for three rupees. All this has an impact on the Tamil psyche, among people who believe in the old adage—“‘Be grateful as long as you live to the person who fed you.”

IN 2010, all hell broke loose in parliament as the CAG report on the 2G spectrum scam implicated the UPA’s then telecom minister, Andimuthu Raja of the DMK. As the melee gained volume, Jayalalithaa unexpectedly gave an interview to the news channel Times Now, in which she indicated her willingness to offer support to the Congress with eighteen MPs, nine from the AIADMK and nine mustered with the help of like-minded parties—presuming that the Congress hesitated to sack Raja, fearing the withdrawal of the DMK’s eighteen MPs.

It was a stunning announcement. She, supporting the Congress? After all that happened between her and Sonia Gandhi? She smiled benignly at the interviewer. “My party is thirty-eight years old. My political career is twenty-eight years old. There are bound to be ups and downs. If you keep harping on the past, you cannot move forward.” Her only concern, she insisted, was to create a nationwide awakening to bring the corrupt to book.

Jayalalithaa is the sort of politician who loves to gamble and drop bombshells to test the waters. The Congress, which knows this and is unwilling to trust her, did not take up the offer. As an ally at the centre, Jayalalithaa’s track record has been dismal. When she first joined hands with the BJP in 1998 after the fall of the United Front government of IK Gujral, in which the DMK had been a partner, it was described as a natural alliance. Jayalalithaa had been consistently soft on the Ramjanmabhoomi issue, and made an unabashed show of her religiosity and visits to temples. But it soon became clear that her alliance with the BJP-led coalition had personal motivations. By offering support in the Lok Sabha, she could bargain for crucial ministerial berths, and seek help as she waded through the numerous corruption cases in which she was entangled. There was, of course, a hidden agenda. On 15 April 1998, the first executive of the AIADMK after the poll formalised the party’s demand for the removal of the DMK government in Tamil Nadu, claiming that there had been a confirmed breakdown in law and order.

As the BJP coalition began to feel the strain, having to depend on Jayalalithaa’s eighteen MPs to stay in power, she broke every rule, ruffled every feather, and defied every convention. The shenanigans of the puratchi thalaivi (revolutionary leader, as her party faithful call her) whenever she visited Delhi, given royal treatment by prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, became a national obsession. In a hurry to achieve her objectives, she marched to the capital in March 1999, meeting Sonia Gandhi at the famous “tea party” arranged by Subramaniam Swamy, which also happened to be attended by opposition leaders such as Narasimha Rao, Chandrashekar and HD Deve Gowda, among others. It was an ominous warning to the BJP that she was not averse to shaking hands with the Congress.

The inevitable happened. She made impossible demands, asking for the dismissal of George Fernandes, the then defence minister, purportedly objecting to his removal of the navy chief Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat. On the pretext of the government’s refusal to accede, she withdrew her support on 14 April 1999, and the government fell following a no-confidence motion. (Based on the impeccable logic that the enemy’s enemy is a friend, the DMK with its six MPs, in its golden jubilee year, ended up voting for a government led by its ideological opponent, the BJP). However, when the results of the 1999 general election came in, Jayalalithaa was shocked, left with just ten MPs. The DMK was now not only the NDA’s electoral ally, but also brought twenty-six seats to the BJP-led government that came to power.

Still, towards the end of its term the BJP appeared to be getting close to Jayalalithaa again, and by the end of 2003 Karunanidhi decided to pull out of the NDA government. For her part, even as she struck up an electoral alliance with the Congress in 1996, Jayalalithaa could never make friends with Sonia Gandhi, and found it difficult to bring herself even to share a platform with the latter. She insulted Gandhi during the election campaign, making her wait, and not turning up for a joint event in Tamil Nadu, because, she claimed, she had been caught in a traffic jam.

Later, Jayalalithaa clearly indicated that alliances were only for the purposes of elections and ceased to be relevant after that. Returning to power in 2001 with a brute majority, she began to attack Gandhi openly as a foreigner who could not be allowed to become the prime minister of India. By 2004, Gandhi had become a friend to Karunanidhi, whom her party had once accused of facilitating the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. It was a fateful election year; the DMK-Congress combine walked away with all forty seats from Tamil Nadu and Puducherry in the Lok Sabha elections, and the AIADMK was left with nothing.

Ten years on, the equations have changed yet again. Jayalalithaa need not offer her support to anyone; it is assumed that she will have a decisive role in the formation of the next government at the centre. Her manifesto for the coming Lok Sabha election reads more like a national policy—it includes plans to link national rivers, the return of black money parked in foreign accounts, and reservation for women in legislatures. Her body language has changed as she addresses industry leaders. On 21 February, she said at a meeting: “I have a vision for India in which Tamil Nadu will play a key role, a vision for a resurgent India”—a statement made as though she already ruled the nation. Now she says to her party-men, Obama-like: “Yes we can—the AIADMK can make it to the centre and redeem this nation to a new freedom.” Every street in Chennai carries a hoarding hailing her as “the future Prime Minister” and “permanent Tamil Nadu chief minister.” Nobody appears to think it a contradiction.

Who will trust her? Will she trust anyone? Running a coalition needs flexibility and accommodation, qualities which have been difficult for her to cultivate. There are others in the country with similar ambitions—equally strong individuals. Her path remains complicated by legal hurdles, which she will bring with her to every negotiating table. Many say it is unlikely that she will be a consensus choice to take power at the centre. However, as always, she gambles with gusto—a woman ready to believe that no matter what the results are, she will be the winner.