Heavens have conspired yet again to cast Jayalalithaa as the comeback queen, but this time she can rewrite the script to break out of character and turn a true leader
Charukesi | May 19, 2016
At 63, Jayalalithaa doesn’t qualify to be referred to as a ‘child’.
But if the events of the last three-odd months in Tamil Nadu are anything to go by the appellation ‘destiny’s favourite child’ would seem to be an improbably precise description of her.
Today, on the back of a spectacular victory in the just-concluded assembly elections, she is firmly in the saddle as the 16th chief minister of Tamil Nadu. And looking at the shattered and scattered political field of Tamil Nadu, there is no force that looks capable of unseating her from the pedestal she has been catapulted to.
Her enemy, the DMK, is down and out for the count. It is not even the second largest party in the assembly. Politically it is rudderless. The leadership is fighting to save its skin in the 2G scam. Its patriarch Karunanidhi is in frenzied firefighting mode, hardly in the frame of mind to even notice what Jayalalithaa is up to. Worse, many sordid scandals are ready to spill out of the closets that may send many DMK bigwigs to the cleaners. Jayalalithaa’s allies too have no scope. They have to just play along and hope for a share of the spoils, if you get the drift.
Yet, just six months back, the same Jayalalithaa was desperately clutching at the straws.
Last November, her party, the AIADMK, was looking to come apart at the seams with many of the second-rung leaders crossing over to the DMK. Jayalalithaa herself was sending out clumsy, comical feelers to the Congress. But nothing looked like working. The DMK, with the improvident freebies providing it the image of a welfare-oriented government, was seen to be infallible. Its alliance with the Congress was seemingly cast in steel. Even in the run up to the polls, Jaya’s alliances were cobbled up just through happenstance.
Today, however, everything is upside down.
So how did this turnaround, that seems to defy both conventional wisdom and convoluted politics, happen?
As ever, with Jayalalithaa, many of the answers lie in the propitiousness of providence.
And to understand this jolting journey, plenty of flashback is required, which in a sense is understandable, considering that much of it pertains to films.
Nothing in her life, right from her strange childhood to her enigmatic film career to her tempestuous political odyssey, has been an event of proper planning or prior design. It is not as if Jayalalithaa does not think ahead – in fact, she has a ticking mind that calculates and cogitates sharply. Otherwise she couldn’t have survived in this forest of feral foxes that is Tamil Nadu politics. But it is just that nature has had more surprises for her. Sometimes for good. And sometimes, ineluctably, for bad.
As a school-going kid, with a passion for English literature and a keen eye for world events, Jayalalithaa, despite her unwillingness, was yanked out of the studied simplicity of scholastic existence and thrown into the wondrous whirligig of the big, bad and bizarre world of Tamil cinema. Her mother, Sandhya, an actor in her own right, perhaps felt that she could secure young ‘Ammu’ a better future through the riches of Kodambakkam (Chennai’s tinsel town).
But even as the spotlight was switched on her, some part of her persona went dark. And it has remained so till date.
“When she was happy to be in the company of books, she was forced to cavort around trees with men, some of whom were old enough to be her father. As she was brought up by her mother (the details of her dad are fuzzed by a strange mist of mystery) she had no option but to be obedient. But it left a traumatic psychological scar on her,” an old acquaintance from tinsel town recollects on conditions of anonymity. (The thing to note is those who discuss Jayalalithaa in Tamil Nadu will do so only through the comfort that the cloak of anonymity provides).
“Much of Jayalalithaa’s famed mood swings and much of her inexplicable drifts into high-handed haughtiness could be traced to her youth that was anything but normal,” she adds.
Jayalalithaa was a capable actress, who in the voluptuousness of her early teens, was unsurprisingly saddled with glamour roles. She was the first one to appear in a short skirt on screen in the south. Jayalalithaa could have as well travelled through the route of glamour actress, matron-middle-age characters and feel-good grandma eventually embracing the obscurity that comes with age for most screen divas.
But, for her, fate blinked yet again. Right in her first year in filmdom, M G Ramachandran’s gaze fell on her. The rest, as they say, is a cliché.
A total of 25 films on screen and plenty much off it, this was what the duo famously shared in the 22 years till MGR passed away as the chief minister in the winter of 1987. “It was a strange relationship,” says a director who had seen both at the peak of their careers. “There was respect and love in that. But believe me, there was also the opposite of those things in that,” he adds. A lot of guarded euphemistic terms are generally thrown in to describe what exactly was cooking between the two.
But the world now understands what they were.
Then again, how Jayalalithaa, from being MGR’s legendary leading lady on reel, ended up as the loyal legatee of his political empire is the stuff of eventful drama that is possible only in real life.
According to those privy to the developments in the AIADMK of the 1980s, MGR, after floating the party in the 1970s and successfully challenging the DMK and its honcho M Karunanidhi, was looking to consolidate his party’s position. MGR had made up his mind to appoint a marketable, winning face as the propaganda secretary of the party. True to his thinking, and the mores that had been established in the state, an actress was thought to fit the bill. Jayalalithaa, with her winsome personality and brilliant command over language (both Tamil and English, and also Hindi), must have been the inevitable choice.
But, apparently, that was not the case.
MGR knew her mood swings. He was aware of her famous tantrums. After all, he himself was at the receiving end of some, says a source who had seen it all.
Here again, just as MGR was all set to announce the name of another famous actress, something happened. Nobody knows for sure what. Probably Buddha smiled. It was Jayalalithaa who got that post. And a famous political journey had begun.
From then on, it has been a bewildering ride, an intriguing ebb and flow, the highs and lows unfailingly alternating, but strangely, never predictably.
Her early days of politics were confined to insignificant party meetings and typical backroom politics. But when she was made a Rajya Sabha member, Jayalalithaa began to win her political spurs. The orator in her, with the yen for demagoguery and rhetoric that would be hard currency with the masses, came of age. It was also her stint in the Rajya Sabha that brought her in contact with Rajiv Gandhi, a relationship that was to become supremely pivotal in later years.
After MGR’s demise, the AIADMK party set-up logically must have gravitated towards his legal wife Janaki, who was the chief minister for an ill-starred six months. In those chaotic and plot-ridden days of the late ’80s, after Janaki was voted out and Karunanidhi became the chief minister in 1989, a cursed cul-de-sac stared Jayalalithaa in the face. She could have thrown the towel and walked into a comfortable oblivion.
It was here her pragmatism as a politician and phlegmatism as a person came to the fore. Janaki was exposed for what she was – a person of straw. The party did not have any other who could provide decisive leadership. Jayalalithaa was the one who could show the way.
But fortune needed to blink. It did.
In early 1991 (in an era of pre-Bommai state government dismissals), Article 356 was used to ease out the Karunanidhi government (not even two years in its running) for its proximity to the LTTE. When elections were announced, Jayalalithaa, now with the reigns of the AIADMK firmly in her hand, chose to ally with the Congress. But the results were expected to be a close run thing, as the DMK had managed to convey the image that it was more sinned against.
But, in the run-up to the elections, the LTTE bumped off Rajiv Gandhi. The ensuing sympathy wave swept Jayalalithaa to the top, leaving the DMK with its worst drubbing ever.
Once again, destiny had played a part.
High and Haughty
In June 1991 Jayalalithaa became the chief minister for the first time. By the time the tenure ended many were hoping that it better be her last. For, she presided over a regime that was mired in murk and coated in corruption. From chappals to sheds in crematoriums, her ministers were accused of being on the take on every conceivable thing.
Jayalalithaa did not cover herself with glory either. Her less than respectable relationship with Sasikala was the stuff that kept the rag sheets busy. Variously described her as soulmate, udan pirava sagothari (nominal sister), confidante and much worse, Sasikala ran a parallel empire (described as ‘Mannargudi Mafia’) and emerged to be the Rasputin to the haughty, high-handed Czarina. The odiously ostentatious marriage of her son Sudagaram proved to be the final undoing.
“It was easily the most corrupt government India had seen at that point,” says V Chitrangan, a political analyst, and a fellow of a think tank on governance. Horrors like mighty cut-outs, the culture of falling at the feet, jamborees just to tickle her ego were all deplorable legacies of her government. “Jayalalithaa herself came out as arrogant, adamant and, admittedly, obtuse,” he adds. These are also the qualities that many still relate Jayalalithaa to.
No surprises, she was routed in the 1996 elections. Worse, she had worked up such a huge past that it will continue to catch up well into the future. The cases were too many and too miasmic. One of those days, she was also arrested.
(Her stab at central politics, AIADMK’s fleeting presence in the union cabinet, the infamous pullout, the vainglorious tea party with Sonia Gandhi were all seamy sideshows of the late ’90s.)
By the time the 2000s dawned, Jayalalithaa was bitter. She was friendless. Worse, she had also been convicted, which meant she could not become the chief minister again.
Surely, her political obituary should have been out.
Instead in the last week of May 2001, she was sitting in Fort St George as the chief minister of Tamil Nadu for a second time.
Even fate would have tired of smiling indulgently at her.
What happened during her second innings as the chief minister (the maladroit arrest of Karunanidhi in a late-night shenanigan, the ramrod inflexibility approach in dealing with striking government employees, the vendetta on Kanchi mutt seer and his arrest, some ill-advised ham-fisted action on journos) are too recent to deserve an elaborate recount.
But interestingly, her 2001-06 show was remarkable for lack of corruption scandals. It became known for firm administration and for keeping the criminals in check (forest brigand Veerappan was killed in 2004).
When she lost the 2006 polls, the DMK had become a powerful player, thanks to its continued prominence at the centre. It had also become a past master at polls, knowing what will deliver the votes. In short, Jayalalithaa had no chance. Or so it seemed. And then chance gave her another chance.
Present as a present
This lengthy detour through the portals of history is needed to place in context the latest triumph of the AIADMK. It will be tempting to extrapolate many meaning out of the sensational victory, but truth be told, it was one handed to her by her enemy.
Poll arithmetic or alliance magic may sound plausible. The fact of the matter is people wanted to see the back of the DMK. And the AIADMK was the only alternative.
Chance for Change
But if this is the unlikeliest (from the standpoint of six months ago) among her three triumphs, she is strangely in the best position now to deliver the best possible government.
Firstly, there is no room for the vindictiveness Jayalalithaa showed on the DMK in 2001. The DMK itself seems imploding, thanks in the main to the 2G scam. Kanimozhi is in jail. Stalin is silent but uninspiring. Alagiri is sulking and is never the political force that he is made out to be. The Marans are two-timing and may end up as clever by half. The old man is torn between the squabbling family and the splintering party. His health is also failing rapidly.
When a couple of DMK MLAs called on Karunanidhi recently, he dryly told them: “Safeguard the party after me.”
So with the DMK box ticked already, Jayalalithaa can focus all her energies on administration.
But will she?
Hmm… difficult to tell. She has shown little grace in refusing to move into the Rs 1,200 crore worth new secretariat egregiously built by the DMK regime. She has revealed no imagination in overturning the samaseer kalvi (equitable education) plan of Karunanidhi. A few other vaunted schemes of the previous incumbent are likely to be scrapped.
But Jayalalithaa has also shown that she means business. On the day of her ministry being sworn in, senior minister O Panneerselvam was seen telling every noob not to fall at Jayalalithaa’s feet (ministers used to do that). Jayalalithaa herself looked at her charming best, deigning to make eye contact with them and even speaking to them (again, something she never did in the past).
And on the day of being inducted as MLAs, when one of her ministers perished in an accident, Jayalalithaa after the formalities of the assembly were over, flew to commiserate with his family (again, she might not have done this in her previous avatar).
“The promise of clean and efficient governance is already in the air,” says R Senkundran, a journalist from the language press.
Talking of press, Jayalalithaa, who has never got a fair deal from the fourth estate, seems set to win them over this time at least. She has promised to meet them every week, and when she indeed met them she was easy, disarming and answered queries with typical forthrightness. The air of arrogance was nowhere to be noticed.
But it takes a lot to convince the media. Just a day after the election victory, reporters were gathered outside her Poes Garden residence for information on government formation. One of the journos tweeted impatiently, “standing outside the house… back to roadside journalism”. But the same journalists were seen waiting patiently outside Karunanidhi’s house on the night of Kanimozhi’s arrest.
Such is the imbalance of life. In the situation that she is now, Jayalalithaa will hardly notice it.
Just as well. For, she needs to focus all her energies on reviving the moribund economy of the state and infuse a new life into an otherwise decrepit system. Much of her plans would be known in the customary governor’s address to the state assembly slated for June 3. On that day, many of Karunanidhi’s pet schemes will be given a formal burial.
June 3, as it happens, is the birthday of Karunanidhi.
Destiny, as ever, is at work for Jayalalithaa.
(This article was published in the June 01-15, 2011 issue)
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