(Published in DailyO, on June 26, 2015, retrieved from http://www.dailyo.in/politics/jayalalithaa-tamil-nadu-aiadmk-sasikala-natarajan-tasmac-dmk-da-case-karnataka-karunanidhi/story/1/4598.html)
Picture Courtesy: Nakkheeran.in
Picture Courtesy: Nakkheeran.in
Less than a week after the Karnataka government moved the Supreme Court against her acquittal in the disproportionate assets case, an unruffled Jayalalithaa, who has already resumed her duties as Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, will contest the Assembly by-poll from the constituency of R K Nagar on June 27. A resounding win is so certain that no party is fielding a candidate – they have unanimously claimed that the election is rigged, but the truth is more likely to be that the parties want to spare themselves the ignominy of a drubbing. Several independent candidates have thrown their hats in the ring, but there is no serious contender against Jayalalithaa.
Stringent precautionary measures are in place ahead of the polling. The Chief Electoral Officer has announced that 987 police personnel from Tamil Nadu, 720 from the paramilitary, 1150 election officials and 230 additional employees will be on duty on polling day. TASMAC shops are to remain closed for 48 hours starting from 5:00 PM on June 25, in both Chennai and Tiruvallur districts.
For many decades now, the seat of power in Tamil Nadu has been won by a game of musical chairs. The DMK and AIADMK governments have successively dethroned each other, mostly due to anti-incumbency rather than faith in either party. However, Jayalalithaa’s current term – her third as Chief Minister, a possibility that seemed far-fetched during her first five-year reign – is particularly popular.
Even sceptics reluctantly concede that she may be Tamil Nadu’s best option for Chief Minister, despite the plethora of cases against her. When she was convicted in the disproportionate assets case last September, and subsequently arrested, the state was dismayed. When she was acquitted by the Karnataka High Court on May 11, most people were relieved. And when, on June 23, the Karnataka government carried through with its long-delayed decision and filed an appeal in the Supreme Court, the reaction has been mixed.
Our judiciary has a poor track record against people in power – businessmen, politicians, and actors – but the public is unanimously resentful, barring the acolytes of the subject. This does not seem to be the case where Jayalalithaa is concerned. Her return to power in May, following her acquittal, saw traffic jams across Madras as people crowded the streets in celebration. Several sessions of the State Assembly were devoted to paeans by her subordinates. Even among the intelligentsia, most people are hopeful that Jayalalithaa will find a way out of her legal troubles, at least for now, “for the sake of stability”. But it is not just anxiety about the pandemonium that would follow a conviction and sentence. Most of Tamil Nadu is in love with Jayalalithaa’s efficiency.
It makes no sense for Jayalalithaa to have public support.
In the first place, the case was moved from Tamil Nadu to Karnataka, because the prosecution felt it would be impossible to conduct an unbiased and fair trial in Jayalalithaa’s home state. Yet, the trial was fraught with issues, including that the Special Public Prosecutor was replaced multiple times. B V Acharya, who was appointed SPP because his predecessor’s appointment was deemed ‘bad in law’ by the Supreme Court, had only one day to file a written submission, and was not allowed to make oral arguments. Further, Jayalalithaa was acquitted on a technicality – the High Court went by a 1976 Supreme Court ruling that unexplained assets to the tune of 10 per cent of known income should not be questioned, despite subsequent amendments to the anti-corruption law that could be interpreted to make disclosure mandatory. Acharya has also stated that there were “glaring mathematical errors” in the computation of ten percent.
The highlight of Jayalalithaa’s first term (1991-96) was an extravagant wedding for her foster son, for which 12,000 guests were reported to have received invitations engraved in silver. The event itself saw a gigantic marquee erected over several arterial roads in the city centre, with tumbling acrobats and hundreds of folk dancers called in for entertainment, lorry-loads of flowers ferried to the venue, and 20,000 policemen put on duty. All this after Jayalalithaa’s much-publicised announcement that she would forego her allotted salary of Rs 11,000, and draw only Re 1 a month.
It is rumoured that her superstitions, ranging from the numerological empowerment of her name to her insistence on signing agreements and taking office at auspicious times, has often got in the way of her pragmatism, prompting transfers of government servants who are not heedful of her whims in this regard.
So, why does Jayalalithaa remain popular?
Part of her appeal may be explained by the fact that she was a film star before she entered politics. The story goes that Jayalalithaa was forced into cinema by her mother when she was a teenager, despite having topped the state matriculation examinations, and aspiring to study medicine. She was mentored by her famous co-star, M G Ramachandran (MGR), who would go on to serve three consecutive terms as the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, and eventually facilitate Jayalalithaa’s entry into politics. Following MGR’s death, Jayalalithaa took over the leadership of the AIADMK, winning a tug-of-war against his widow Janaki.
Aside from her glamorous past, Jayalalithaa’s public image is bolstered by her reputation as a shrewd administrator, suave and efficient, articulate and well-read, fluent in several languages including English, Tamil, and Hindi.
Her profile stands in stark contrast to those of her main opponents – DMK patriarch Karunanidhi, and DMDK leader and Tamil actor Vijayakanth.
Karunanidhi, who speaks a single language and has rarely put into effect public welfare schemes, is also – unlike Jayalalithaa – head of a large family, with six children from two wives and a live-in partner. He is also related by marriage to the Marans, who control the Sun media empire. Most members of the family are fighting corruption cases, ranging from buying votes to the 2G spectrum scam. Karunanidhi, during his last term, became notorious for holding extravagant felicitation functions for himself, during which large parts of the city were decorated with posters, cut-outs, and temporary lights, despite the state going through a power supply crisis. His sons, Stalin and Azhagiri, are constantly at war for the post of second-in-command of the party. It is considered unlikely that the party can propel itself back to power.
Vijayakanth, who is relatively new to politics, is currently most famous for ‘Captain’ memes. ‘Captain’ is his self-endowed soubriquet, in honour of his 1991 hit film Captain Prabhakaran. The actor-turned-politician, now paunchy and with a crop of hennaed hair, is the subject of ridicule in these memes for his lack of awareness on current affairs, his poor grasp of English, his regular state of inebriation, and – as his latest viral video from International Yoga Day demonstrates – his lack of coordination.
So, there is no convenient alternative to Jayalalithaa, who, this term, has launched a spate of ‘Amma’ schemes to subsidise essential goods. These include Amma canteens, Amma cement, Amma mini-buses, Amma mineral water, and even a plan to build Amma cinema theatres, where ticket prices will be capped at Rs 25. She launched a scheme for remote villagers to access key government officials, titled ‘Assured Maximum Service to Marginal People in All Villages’, and unsubtly shortened to A.M.M.A, an acronym that derives mostly from the redundant words in that title. She also set up mobile toilets across the state, though she didn’t quite endow them with her epithet, choosing ‘Namma Toilet’ (which translates into ‘Our Toilet’) instead.
But perhaps the most important reason for continued public sympathy for Jayalalithaa is that her sins are largely blamed on Sasikala Natarajan, her close aide, best friend, co-accused in several court cases (including the disproportionate assets case), and alleged puppet-master.
The two met in 1982, when Jayalalithaa, who was Propaganda Secretary in MGR’s AIADMK, visited Cuddalore, where Sasikala’s husband Natarajan was the party’s Public Relations Officer. Sasikala would often travel to Madras, where she ran a video rental store. The women became friends over time, and inseparable after MGR’s death. Sasikala even moved into Jayalalithaa’s home, and continued to reside there.
During Jayalalithaa’s first term, Sasikala was seen as her deputy, with party members referring to her ironically as ‘CM 2’ and ‘Chinna Amma’ (Junior Amma). Her family – dubbed the ‘Mannargudi Mafia’ – secured key positions in Jayalalithaa’s party. In fact, the opulent wedding was for Sasikala’s nephew, whom Jayalalithaa had ‘adopted’. Jayalalithaa and Sasikala were photographed wearing identical sarees and expensive jewellery. This event – which took place in 1995 – is considered a crucial factor in Jayalalithaa’s 1996 electoral defeat. Following this, Jayalalithaa announced that she would be distancing herself from Sasikala, in line with “the sentiments of the general public and party men”. However, the two had an emotional reunion following Sasikala’s hospitalisation later that year.
After the DMK’s five-year rule, Jayalalithaa returned to power in 2001. Sasikala kept a low profile through this rather turbulent period, during which the duo had to continuously fight cases in court. Jayalalithaa, who was convicted in a corruption case, temporarily resigned. The DMK came back to power in 2006, a term that was riddled with scams at both the state and central level for its party members.
When Jayalalithaa won a third term in office in 2011, Sasikala remained in the background, but remained a crucial party member. It was reported that even ministerial berths were assigned at Sasikala’s instance. A few months into Jayalalithaa’s term, there were rumours of trouble in paradise. Many of the appointees who were believed to be Sasikala’s nominees, began to resign, or were dismissed or transferred. Without warning, Sasikala and eleven of her relatives – including her husband, siblings, nieces, and nephews – were unceremoniously expelled from the AIADMK, and from Jayalalithaa’s residence. No reason was given for the quarrel, which led to the conjuring up of conspiracy theories – some said Sasikala was planning to stage a coup, some said the family had been secretly drugging Jayalalithaa, some said the family had been raiding the coffers of the Jaya TV bouquet of channels – while some maintained that Jayalalithaa’s advisers had told her to ‘get rid of’ Sasikala, who was likely to be convicted in the corruption cases.
After nearly a fortnight of silence, Jayalalithaa addressed the party’s General Council and the Executive, and clarified that the Mannargudi clan had been permanently exiled, and that there would be no renewal of friendship. But, predictably, Sasikala was back, a few months later.
When Jayalalithaa took oath as Chief Minister again, on May 23, 2015, Sasikala was spotted watching the swearing-in ceremony from the front row.
Yet, Tamil Nadu clings to the notion that Jayalalithaa will be an excellent administrator, straightforward and just, without Sasikala’s interference.
The tragedy of this notion is that it is unlikely to ever be put to the test, as Sasikala is never out of the picture for long.