Saturday 27 February 2021 ,
Saturday 27 February 2021 ,
Breaking News
9 December, 2016 00:00 00 AM
Print

Rajiv Gandhi, Jayalalithaa and I

Mani Shankar Aiyar
Rajiv Gandhi, Jayalalithaa and I

Jayalalithaa has not left behind a void. She has left behind a legacy. It is the legacy left for her by her mentor, MGR, honed and polished by JJ to meet the challenges of the 21st century. Any expectation, therefore, of an imminent collapse of the AIADMK because it is now without a charismatic leader would, in my considered view, be misplaced.

When MGR broke from the DMK in the early ‘70s, it did indeed seem unlikely that this top-notch film star turned rookie politician would be able to establish a political rival to the all-powerful DMK. But succeed he did - and spectacularly. Over the 15 years or so of his leadership, the AIADMK fought the DMK in every panchayat, in every village, in every hamlet. Win or no, it established a political presence at the grassroots strong enough to take on its principal opponent, the DMK. This strong state-wide grassroots organization is what MGR bequeathed to his successor.
But who was to be his successor? His wife, Janaki, or a political upstart called Jayalalitha (without the additional ‘a’ that superstition bequeathed her when she was in the political wilderness after being routed in 1996). The entire second rung of the AIADMK leadership lined up behind Janaki, confident they could control Janaki, whereas Jayalalitha was perceived as a prickly unguided missile. Jayalalithaa held her ground. Firmly affixing herself beside MGR’s dead body, she fought off all attempts by MGR’s family to remove her. But when she clambered onto the gun-carriage carrying MGR to his funeral, Janaki and her team pushed her off the vehicle. That would have signaled the end of anyone’s political ambitions but Jayalalitha. 
The key to the immediate future lay not in any aspiring AIADMK leader’s hands but in Rajiv Gandhi’s. For whomever Rajiv threw in his lot with would be able to form the post-MGR government. Rajiv backed Janaki. But Janaki shot herself in the foot when she tried to buy the support of Congress MLAs instead of leaving it to Rajiv to issue the necessary High Command directive. That dished her. For, Rajiv was not willing to trust someone who would not trust him.
Tamil Nadu was brought under Governor’s rule and Janaki exiled herself to the United States. The field was clear for a J Jayalalitha takeover - but not before persuading the cadres to look to her over the ramparts of the second-line leadership. Janaki’s departure facilitated that. What made the difference was the state assembly elections declared to bring Governor’s Rule to an end. Karunanidhi stormed his way to Fort St. George, while the Congress, badly advised by veteran leader GK Moopanar to go it alone, languished a poor third despite Rajiv making 13 campaign tours of the state. 
The real winner was Jayalalitha, who, by January 1989, when the assembly election results were declared, had emerged as the unchallenged leader of her party, her former opponents in the party’s leadership (many of whom had condemned her in the most vulgar language) either vanquished or shamefacedly aligning themselves behind her.
She quickly established a rapport with Rajiv recognizing that the Congress might need the support of the AIADMK in Delhi in exchange for Congress support to the AIADMK in Chennai. His past support to Janaki against Jayalalitha was binned. It was when Rajiv landed in Chennai to kick off the election campaign for the November 1989 elections that I first met Jayalalitha. She smiled warmly, exuding charm, and exclaimed, “I was looking forward to campaigning for you.” I had just resigned from the IFS and was not quite ready to take on an electoral challenge. Rajiv lost the elections badly but Jayalalitha helped the Congress steer its way to victory in most seats in Tamil Nadu.  
The next joint central/state elections came soon enough. The Congress once again lined up with the AIADMK for the May 1991 elections. The alliance was clearly on its way to victory. Then Rajiv arrived at Sriperumbudur on the night of 21 May. The rest is history. A human bomb took him away. That in itself ensured that the alliance would win every Lok Sabha seat and all but two of the assembly seats. Jayalalitha, of course, became Chief Minister. And I became a first-time MP.
Early in the campaign, she fetched up in my constituency of Mayiladuturai. That was my initiation into the hold she had on the love of the people, mesmerized by her charisma. She made as many as six stops by road, one for each assembly segment, and at each of the stops, and all along the way, the crowds went wild with joy and excitement. Jayalalitha charmed them all.
But the charm did not last long once she was sworn in. She grew imperious, arrogant, self-centered, concentrating  all power in her person, and acquiring a damaging reputation for graft and nepotism. I remember a cartoon in a Tamil magazine showing a temple in the background and one villager reassuring the other that she was not coming to buy the temple but only for its kumbhabishekam! So I took to criticizing her ways in my weekly columns for the now-defunct Sunday magazine. She was furious. We grew distant, then very distant, and although I stayed with the Congress when Moopanar set up his breakaway Tamil Maanila Congress and allied with the DMK, Jayalalitha sent word that while her local workers would not oppose me, she had instructed them to keep away from my election campaign. That suited me fine as I had begun to look on her as a liability. Of course, I lost - by the same massive margin I had won the first time round. But she lost too - every seat in the assembly but one. Moreover, she was trounced in her own assembly segment.
But with dogged determination, she persisted. Such was her self-confidence that she easily persuaded her cadres that all was not lost and not just recovery but absolute victory was just around the corner. Within two years, by 1998, her votes in the Lok Sabha were what made Vajpayee Prime Minister; within a year, it was her votes that pulled him down. She had proved herself both King-maker and King-breaker. She was back in business.
Those years in Opposition were my halcyon years with her. She knew she was in the right on the Cauvery water dispute - but did not quite know why. I was arguing the Tamil Nadu case in my Indian Express columns. We talked - and the next thing I knew was that two of my columns were re-issued without a comma changed as her official statements on the subject. It made my day. We moved into the 1999 elections in tandem and I found myself back in parliament. By 2001, she had overwhelmingly won back her Chief Ministerial seat. 
Alas, Jayalalithaa (by then, a second ‘a’ had been added to her name for astrological reasons) seemed, as was said of the Bourbons, to have learned nothing and forgotten nothing. Her predecessor Chief Minister, M Karunanidhi, was carted off to jail in the middle of the night, causing alarums to sound everywhere in the political firmament. Then in 2002, alarmed that after GK Moopanar’s passing, the TMC had merged itself into the Congress, she trained her guns on the Congress President, opening up with vicious salvo against her in the immediate aftermath of the merger and notwithstanding our continued alliance, now fraying at the edges. I retaliated in my Telegraph column. A joke I cracked led a year later to her unleashing her goons on me. That signaled the collapse of the Congress-AIADMK alliance and our warming up to the DMK. In consequence, for Jayalalithaa, the Lok Sabha elections of 2004 were a disaster as comprehensive as her defeat in 1996. The AIADMK failed to win a single seat.
But nothing fazed, she fought her way back with her usual resilience. By 2011, she was again Chief Minister with a huge majority that she largely retained in 2016. I am glad she died in harness, for it would have been too sad had she lost office before losing her life.
She was a fascinating personality. One TV anchor described her to me as both “charismatic” and “enigmatic”. I cannot better that. She was both. A brilliant intellect was married to wide reading, an insatiable thirst for knowledge was combined with a street savvy-ness that gave her an uncanny connect to the common man and woman. She was a crusader for women’s rights and women’s empowerment, reflected in hers being the first state to provide for two consecutive terms for reserved seats for women in the panchayats and municipalities. Many in the North derided her for her “freebies”, but these same freebies reflected a deep empathy with the pressing needs of the poor. She worked and campaigned tirelessly until her health brought her down. But, well or ill, she retained to the end and beyond the total devotion of her huge following. She never acknowledged defeat. She innately believed she was destined to win back what she had temporarily lost. And that is how she did win after every crushing defeat.
I don’t for a moment believe the AIADMK will collapse in her absence. She has paved the way for her succession in government by repeatedly appointing her trusted lieutenant, Thiru O Panneerselvam, as the officiating Chief Minister when she was forced by the courts or the hospital to temporarily surrender her office. He has demonstrated laudable administrative competence, and will continue leading the government as it stabilizes itself to cope with the post-JJ age. Her last gift to him is four and a half straight years of guaranteed office. That will help maintain discipline within the government. Within her party, her adopted sister, Sasikala Natarajan, will continue to be a dominating voice, although initially personal sorrow might overcome formal party responsibility. 
But what cannot be denied is that the party will henceforth be deprived of her charismatic leadership. How hard that hits them will be put to test when the postponed local body elections take place early next year. It is then that we will discover whether her voice continues to reverberate from her ashes, and whether the remaining party leaders are restive or accept the new equilibrium. By the next Lok Sabha elections in 2019, and even more definitively by the assembly elections in 2021, the lines will be drawn clearly. Let us wait and see. Meanwhile, let us recognize that while Jayalalithaa cannot be replaced or replicated, her political legacy will, I believe, survive her untimely demise.
(Mani Shankar Aiyar is former Congress MP, Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha.)

Comments

More Panorama stories
Putin, and Muscovites, hope Trump will be a friend to Russia Nine days before the US presidential election, Russian TV anchor Dmitry Kiselev ranted about America’s “democracy:” Millions of “dead souls” voting! Voters bused around a…

Copyright © All right reserved.

Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman

Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

Disclaimer & Privacy Policy
....................................................
About Us
....................................................
Contact Us
....................................................
Advertisement
....................................................
Subscription

Powered by : Frog Hosting