Mother of All Ambitions
Jayalalithaa wants to win her state to stake claim on Delhi.
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-
A HAGIOGRAPHIC POSTER OF JAYALALITHAA FLANKED BY WORLD LEADERS
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.
A POLITICAL MASTERSTROKE
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.
BRANDING ON BASICS
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.
THE ONE-WOMAN SHOW
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
DURING THE DRAW OF LOTS FOR THE WORLD CHESS CHAMPIONSHIP IN CHENNAI IN NOVEMBER LASTYEAR
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.
ALLTHE PM’S MIEN
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.
AIADMK MEMBERS CUTA 66-KG CAKE DEPICTING PARLIAMENT ON JAYALALITHAA’S BIRTHDAY