Mother of All Am­bi­tions

Jay­alalithaa wants to win her state to stake claim on Delhi.

India Today - - INSIDE - By Jayant Sri­ram

It’s an over­cast af­ter­noon on Fe­bru­ary 24 in Chen­nai. On the city’s busy ar­te­rial roads, loud­speak­ers play pop­u­lar film songs of J. Jay­alalithaa on the oc­ca­sion of the Tamil Nadu Chief Min­is­ter’s 66th birth­day. As a crowd of loyal party work­ers cel­e­brates out­side her of­fice at Fort St. Ge­orge, the sym­bol­ism kicks in across the state. Sewing ma­chines, house­hold uten­sils and clothes for the poor are dis­trib­uted to 6,600 ben­e­fi­cia­ries in districts from Puducherry to Dharma­puri; 6,600 saplings are planted across high­ways and a 66-hour-long mu­sic fes­ti­val is flagged off at the Tamil Nadu Mu­sic and Fine Arts Univer­sity. As she en­ters the

AIADMK head­quar­ters at Roy­apet­tah at noon, Jay­alalithaa is con­fronted with the num­bers game that is now top of her agenda—a 66-kg cake built in­tri­cately in the shape of Par­lia­ment. Over it, the leg­end ‘Amma’ is em­bossed in Tamil.

Chen­nai’s streets are now tes­ta­ment to Jay­alalithaa’s na­tional am­bi­tion, with thou­sands

of posters declar­ing her the prime min­is­ter-in-wait­ing. In turn, she has backed these im­ages with a se­ries of bold de­ci­sions. On Fe­bru­ary 19, she de­fied the first fam­ily of Congress by or­der­ing the re­lease of Ra­jiv Gandhi’s as­sas­sins af­ter a Supreme Court or­der com­muted their death sen­tence to life im­pris­on­ment. Next, she took aim at BJP’s prime min­is­te­rial can­di­date Naren­dra Modi, declar­ing in a speech made to in­dus­try lead­ers on Fe­bru­ary 22 that Tamil Nadu has re­ceived a higher rate of in­vest­ment than Gu­jarat. “I have a vi­sion for In­dia in which Tamil Nadu will play a key role, a vi­sion for a resurgent In­dia,” she said. Two days later, she re­leased a state elec­tion man­i­festo that read more like a na­tional plan—promis­ing the link­ing of na­tional rivers, bring­ing back black money, and reser­va­tion for women in leg­is­la­tures. As Gen­eral Elec­tions get closer, there is a grow­ing con­vic­tion that she could hold the key to what hap­pens in Delhi.

While other ma­jor play­ers in the state, like DMK, dither over pre-poll al­liances, Jay­alalithaa used the oc­ca­sion of her birth­day to an­nounce can­di­dates for all 39 Lok Sabha seats in Tamil Nadu and one in Puducherry. She will with­draw can­di­dates for four seats once talks with her al­lies, CPI and CPI(M), are fi­nalised. Jay­alalithaa’s rep-


re­sen­ta­tive M. Tham­bidu­rai at­tended an 11-party meet­ing on Fe­bru­ary 25 in Delhi to firm up a Third Front and she is con­sid­ered a strong PM con­tender along with Sa­ma­jwadi Party’s Mu­layam Singh Ya­dav. “It’s sim­ple. Be­tween Mu­layam and Jay­alalithaa, the one who gets the largest num­ber in Lok Sabha will be our PM nom­i­nee,” a Left leader told IN­DIA TO­DAY.


The AIADMK chief’s tar­get, party in­sid­ers say, is an un­prece­dented 36 seats in the com­ing polls. The first step to­wards that goal is to en­sure that the po­lit­i­cal arith­metic in Tamil Nadu is firmly in her favour. To that end, says Chen­naibased so­cial his­to­rian A.N. Venkatachalapathy, the move to re­lease Ra­jiv’s killers was a mas­ter­stroke. “It cap­tured a pop­u­lar Tamil mood and also en­sured that the Congress will not find any al­lies in Tamil Nadu. The other

Dra­vid­ian par­ties, whether it’s DMK, DMDK or PMK, are all pro- LTTE and have been forced to sup­port the re­lease of the pris­on­ers,” he ex­plains.

The move to re­lease all seven con­victs points to a larger po­lit­i­cal strat­egy that has char­ac­terised the AIADMK chief’s third term in govern­ment. A vet­eran po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst ex­plains that the po­lit­i­cal nar­ra­tive in Tamil Nadu has changed over the past 10 years and it has not es­caped Jay­alalithaa’s at­ten­tion. “There is no uni­fy­ing point of dis­cus­sion for pol­i­tics in Tamil Nadu like the anti-Brah­min is­sue was two decades ago. To­day, that space is oc­cu­pied by sev­eral smaller groups who protest for causes like war crimes in Sri Lanka, the shoot­ing of Tamil fish­er­men by the Lankan navy as well as other protest groups such as those against the Ku­danku­lam nu­clear plant and the Kochi-Ben­galuru GAIL nat­u­ral gas pipe­line project that cuts through farm­land in seven districts.”

One by one, at dif­fer­ent points of time, Jay­alalithaa has made each of these is­sues her own. On March 25 last year, for in­stance, she asked GAIL to re­move pipe­lines from farm­land and filed a case on the farm­ers’ be­half. On De­cem­ber 31 and Fe­bru­ary 5, she wrote to the Prime Min­is­ter to take a strong stand on the “un­war­ranted” at­tacks on Tamil fish­er­men. “She is now the face for all these is­sues pop­u­lar with a huge lower-mid­dle-class vote bank. The fact that she is not tied down to any ide­ol­ogy or iden­ti­fied with any com­mu­nity al­lows her to do this,” the an­a­lyst ex­plains.

Jay­alalithaa’s own po­lit­i­cal his­tory seems to sup­port this view. In her first term in 1991, she was crici­tised for anti- LTTE mea­sures and even ar­rested known sym­pa­this­ers like MDMK leader Vaiko un­der the Preven­tion of Ter­ror- ism Act—acts that were among the rea­sons she was voted out. In her sec­ond term from 2001 to 2006, she passed laws to ban an­i­mal sac­ri­fice and re­li­gious con­ver­sion which gave her an anti-mi­nor­ity tag. Both those laws have since been re­pealed and the anti- LTTE tag now buried.


It is this de­sire to rein­vent her­self and find a win­ning for­mula that draws par­al­lels with Naren­dra Modi. While the na­tional brand­ing of Modi is an im­age-build­ing ex­er­cise built on the prin­ci­ple of good, clean lead­er­ship, Jay­alalithaa’s strat­egy in Tamil Nadu is re­duced to the ba­sics—an all-en­com­pass­ing aura that pro­vides ev­ery­thing for ev­ery­body. It con­nects wel­fare schemes with a vi­sion for eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment that was re­cently out­lined as part of the sec­ond phase of the Tamil Nadu Vi­sion 2023, re­leased in Chen­nai on Fe­bru­ary 22.

Though it has al­ways per­formed well on so­cial in­di­ca­tors, the Tamil Nadu growth story has stut­tered some­what in re­cent years as the state bat­tles a power cri­sis. The Vi­sion 2023 plan show­cases part­ner­ships with 16 businesses in a bid to draw in­vest­ment worth Rs 15 lakh crore.

The con­tours of her pol­i­tics may have changed but Jay­alalithaa’s style of lead­er­ship re­mains the same. “While DMK rule had 34 power cen­tres, with Jay­alalithaa there is only one source of author­ity,” says R. Nataraj, who served as the state’s po­lice com­mis­sioner from 2003 to 2006. As an ad­min­is­tra­tor, she is de­scribed as de­ci­sive, hands-on and en­cour­ag­ing of com­pe­ti­tion among her of­fi­cers. Many who have worked with her speak of her sharp mem­ory and her knack of ask­ing pierc­ing ques­tions af­ter study­ing ev­ery doc­u­ment that comes her way.


Yet while she is ad­mired for the ef­fi­cient con­trol over govern­ment, an im­pres­sion re­mains—right from her first term—that she brooks no op­po­si­tion and that her word on any sub­ject is law. Over the past two years she has re­moved 17 Cab­i­net min­is­ters and ob­servers say there is no co­terie or a close group of ad­vis­ers that she con­sults. Her per­sonal friend Sasikala stays with her though there was brief break in their friend­ship be­tween De­cem­ber 2011 and April 2012. Three IAS of­fi­cers serve as Jay­alalithaa’s per­sonal sec­re­taries—P. Rama Mo­hana Rao, 57, K.N. Venkatara­manan, 55, and A. Ra­ma­lingam, 55—though it is doubt­ful they in­flu­ence her de­ci­sion-mak­ing. Be­fore any ma­jor de­ci­sion, Jay­alalithaa al­ways con­sults an astrologer. The man in ques­tion, Parap­panan­gadi Un­nikr­ishna Pan­icker, lives in Malap­pu­ram in Ker­ala and has been ad­vis­ing her for over two decades.

Un­like her past two tenures as chief min­is­ter, Jay­alalithaa comes more of­ten to the sec­re­tariat at Fort St. Ge­orge though she mostly re­turns in the af­ter­noon to work from home. Over time, her ap­pear­ances at pub­lic func­tions have be­come min­i­mal and


of­fi­cers say she rarely leaves home.

Her de­mand for ex­treme loy­alty has also man­i­fested it­self in a cul­ture of syco­phancy in AIADMK that is un­ri­valled in any In­dian po­lit­i­cal party. “Min­is­ters and IAS of­fi­cers are of­ten seen bow­ing def­er­en­tially to her and in group pho­tos they have to main­tain a two-step dis­tance. In the As­sem­bly, Jay­alalithaa sits alone on a grand two-seater sofa while the next chair is placed two feet away,” says po­lit­i­cal com­men­ta­tor Gnani Sankaran.

Away from pol­i­tics, she has grown in­creas­ingly aloof over the years . She now seems to have stopped press con­fer­ences al­to­gether, save for pub­lic func­tions. Nei­ther her party nor govern­ment has an of­fi­cial spokesper­son. She is deeply pro­tec­tive of her im­age—news­pa­pers are only al­lowed to carry pic­tures of her from a file preap­proved by the state com­mu­ni­ca­tion depart­ment. Those who know her say she is a vo­ra­cious reader with a spe­cial in­ter­est in the clas­sics—es­pe­cially the works of Charles Dick­ens. For two months ev­ery sum­mer, Jay­alalithaa goes on hol­i­day to her hill­side home in Ko­danad near Ooty, run­ning the state on re­mote con­trol.


It is these com­plex­i­ties in per­son­al­ity that may ul­ti­mately af­fect Jay­alalithaa’s chances of emerg­ing as an ac­cept­able na­tional can­di­date, at least with her po­ten­tial coali­tion part­ners. Says Cho Ra­maswamy, the vet­eran edi­tor of Thuglak mag­a­zine and one of the few people with ac­cess to Jay­alalithaa, “Her pos­i­tives as a po­ten­tial na­tional leader are that she has enor­mous self-con­fi­dence, de­ter­mi­na­tion, un­der­stands is­sues thor­oughly and com­mu­ni­cates clearly with of­fi­cials.” The downside is that run­ning a coali­tion needs flex­i­bil­ity, which she may have to cul­ti­vate.

Two years ago, at a meet­ing in Chen­nai, it was Cho who pro­posed the idea that BJP should sup­port Jay­alalithaa as a prime min­is­te­rial can­di­date if they were not able to get a full ma­jor­ity in the House. “But a lot de­pends on how she per­forms in Tamil Nadu,” he says. Jay­alalithaa’s pre-poll al­liance with the Left, how­ever, has sent BJP a strong mes­sage that the onus is on them to woo her if the num­bers don’t stack up. “Jay­alalithaa re­mains a ma­jor pri­or­ity,” says a se­nior BJP leader from the south.

For over two decades, state gov­ern­ments in Tamil Nadu have played a key role in na­tional pol­i­tics. Though the seat of power changed fre­quently through the 1990s, DMK man­aged to be part of the al­liance at the Cen­tre for 16 years, form­ing key parts of the UPA and NDA regimes. It is this legacy that Jay­alalithaa seeks to take for­ward by seiz­ing power her­self. She may not be able to con­trol all the vari­ables but her iron lock on Tamil Nadu may prove to be the key.


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