A special report from our Chennai correspondent Innamburan
“Sometimes it’s not enough to know what things mean, sometimes you have to know what things don’t mean.”
– Nobel laureate Bob Dylan
Writing for a discerning overseas audience about the confusion in one’s homeland is an onerous task. As the public domain does not censor, cobbled versions are already in circulation. I plough through the landmines in Tamil Nadu politics for presenting the situation in a balanced and neutral manner.
Chief Minister J.Jayalalithaa is receiving treatment for diabetes, respiratory problems and some infection in the Apollo Hospitals, Chennai from September 22, 2016. It was an emergency admission and she was put on intensive care. The first medical bulletin spoke of a fever and dehydration, promising an early discharge; it was naive and none believed it. Later ones, more forthcoming and hinting at a longer stay (October 6th) were also taken with a pinch of salt, as a result. It is thus that her health became a fertile ground for gossip-mongers, pathological liars, implacable political foes and the average argumentative Indian for spreading ugly rumours – worrisome ventilator support/multi-organ failure/sent abroad/coma/dead and so on. About fifty rumours are under cyber-crime scrutiny; six arrests have been reported.
Apollo Hospitals, Chennai became the camping ground for hundreds of party members, hangers-on, vendors and hawk-eyed media, though none could reach even the remotest outskirts of her regal suite. Poojas, and severe penances are everyday occurrences. The people appeal to major gods and minor gods; the ‘To’ address is Amma.
At the time of writing (18 hours IST: October 15,2016), she is officially said to be recovering on expected lines. Professor Richard Beale from London and a few experts from Delhi are in the medical team. Two physiotherapists from Singapore are, the media says, on their way. The star among the VIP visitors was Rajathi Ammal, the third wife of Karunanidhi.
Her goodwill visit on the 13th has overcome a longstanding feud. Sashikala, Amma’s constant companion,despite a recent family bereavement, received her with warmth and shared good tidings of Amma’s recovery.
The interim governance arrangements are welcomed by the Opposition leader. The consensus among legal experts is that precedents, Rules of Business under Article 166 (3) of the Constitution of India and the S.R.Bommai judgement by a nine-member Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court support the Governor’s role in this regard. It deserves a fair trial.
A flashback about her political ascendancy, the paroxysms of Tamil Nadu politics, her imperious ways and the controversies around her, may justify the Bob Dylan quote.
A stunning beauty of yesteryears, J.Jayalalithaa (68) came into prominence as a film star, co-starring 28 times with the legendary thespian, M.G.Ramachandran (MGR)and transiting to political life in his footsteps in 1982. Her enemies within her All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIDMK) party and among the opposition like Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) swore to get rid of her; they were afraid of her charm, stern ‘holier than thou’ front. Even MGR was intimidated by her stubborn streak as a stormy petrel. She was mauled in MGR’s funeral procession by the MCPs, but stood her ground. I saw it ‘live’ on the TV. She was manhandled by the ruling DMK members in the Legislative Assembly on March 25, 1989. Enraged, she confronted the media in her torn sari and dishevelled hair and vowed that she would return as the Chief Minister. Two years later, she did exactly that. Indira Gandhi, as her father’s hostess and Jayalalithaa, as MGR’s acolyte, had seen off rival politicians. That facilitated their despotic grip on the body politic.
The Indian National Congress lost out after two decades of good governance. DMK won the elections in 1967. Annadurai, its mature founder, unfortunately died within two years and Karunanidhi grabbed power with MGR’s help. MGR formed his splinter group AIDMK in 1972, won the elections in 1977 and held the fort for ten years. Since then either AIADMK or DMK formed the governments in Tamil Nadu. The clique against Jayalalithaa stage managed MGR’s widow Janaki becoming the Chief Minister, only to be outsmarted by Rajiv Gandhi.
The electorate opted for Jayalalithaa decisively. Commoners flocked to her and have been her mainstay ever since. The magazine, ’Frontline’ from The Hindu stable, which she once hounded out, acknowledges that a major section of the people of Tamil Nadu revere her as their “Amma” (Mother). The full version is: Manbumigu Makkalin Mudhalvar Puratchi Thalaivi Dr. J.Jayalalithaa Amma (The Right Honourable People’s Chief Minister, the Revolutionary Leader, Dr.J.Jayalalithaa,the Matriarch.) Academia to slumlords, all take to it like fish to water.
Adept in turning crises, setbacks and crushing defeats to her advantage and in prolonging legal battles, she may turn the table on the likes of Sashikala Pushpa and their storms in the teacup. Imperious in governance, adamant in her ways, tenacious in her fights and revelling in conflicts of interest, controversial in whatever she does, Amma is the Darling of the Masses and the puzzle of the tiny minority of liberal democrats like me.
She runs a tight ship of governance, holds the second rung of politicians and the civil service with a tight leash, her freebies having ensnared the populace. Her ministers are not paragons of virtue; nor were the DMK ministers. The electorate having made mincemeat of all other parties, DMK in opposition, can play a democratic role. One fervently hopes for it, given the new camaraderie on recent display.
The disproportionate assets case against Amma is likely to come before the Supreme Court on October 24, 2016. Even though that court held that Chief Ministers are public servants in M.Karunanidhi vs Union of India in 1979, section 21(12)(a) of the Indian Penal Code 1860 and Prevention of Corruption Act lending support, that precedent may also be reviewed along with,a petition seeking such a review. If that petition succeeds, the outcome of the case may be impacted. A tantalizing prospect!