Jayalalithaa: An unparalleled phenomenon

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Dr Jayaram Jayalalithaa (born 24 February 1948) breathed her last at Apollo Hospital, Chennai on Monday night at 11.30 p.m., after suffering a sudden cardiac arrest on the evening of December 4, 2016, the climax of a prolonged illness. She leaves behind a difficult-to-fill vacuum in the State as well as the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) of which she was general secretary and unquestioned leader.

Known as Amma (mother) and Puratchi Thalaivar (revolutionary leader) to millions of fans, Jayalalithaa enjoyed popularity unknown to any leader in modern India, with thousands of followers keeping vigil outside her hospital and others organising round-the-clock prayers for her recovery. Her devotees ensured strict police crackdown on persons allegedly spreading rumours about the state of her health.

So steadfast have they been in their loyalty to Amma, that barely had news flashed that she had suffered a heart attack – just one day after Apollo’s Dr Prathap Reddy had pronounced her almost fit to be discharged – that the streets outside the hospital quickly filled up with devotees, making it difficult for Governor, C. Vidyasagar Rao, to reach the venue. The State administration quickly deployed all its police and available para-military forces all over Chennai and other districts to maintain law and order and restrain emotional admirers from harming themselves, or others, or damaging public property. These have been augmented by forces from other States as well.

Jayalalithaa, in her fifth term as Chief Minister, towered so much above the rank and file of the party that she inherited from her mentor, MG Ramachandran, that there was no one of near-equal status to whom she could entrust the Government and party when the inevitable happened. While MGR ensured a fairly smooth political succession – barring the brief glitch with his wife, Janaki amma – Jayalalithaa did not groom a second line of leadership in the AIADMK.

However, her loyalist and three-time proxy Chief Minister, the Finance Minister O Panneerselvam, is now most likely to lead the Government in the interests of continuity and keeping the party united by avoiding a succession dispute. Officially, all party MPs and MLAs have been asked to sign a declaration stating that they will abide by the decision of the high command.

Jayalalithaa’s hospitalization plunged the Government and the party into deep internal turmoil, despite the outward calm; the Centre has been keeping a close watch on events since September 22, 2016. After the DMK patriarch and leader of opposition, M Karunanidhi, publicly asked questions about her health and the governance of the State, Governor C. Vidyasagar Rao visited the hospital and later handed charge of her portfolios to Finance Minister Panneerselvam, though he was not sworn-in as Acting Chief Minister. Rao said the decision was taken in consultation with the ailing Chief Minister, though few believed it.

The stability of the Government in which the AIADMK has a majority of 133 out of 234 seats, and the fate of the now-orphaned party, is a matter of anxiety to the people of the State. The term of the current Assembly, elected in May 2015, is up to May 2021, and it is doubtful if any successor could hold party and government together till then. The Narendra Modi-led NDA would be sharing this concern because the party’s 37 Lok Sabha and 11 Rajya Sabha MPs are crucial for the passage of many important legislations.

Jayalalithaa was committed to the development of Tamil Nadu, and had prepared a vision document 2023. In five stints as Chief Minister, she was always adamant that the State receive its fair share of Cauvery waters from the upper riparian State of Karnataka, and addressed her last letter to Prime Minister Modi on this subject. She stood her ground on issues she believed in, and opposed the Goods and Services Tax (GST) on grounds that it would affect Tamil Nadu adversely. However, she helped the NDA government by staging a walkout rather than voting against the GST Bill; its fate, however, still hangs in the balance.

Her departure may affect efforts to deal with the spreading Islamic terrorist network in the State, as well as economic and infrastructure development projects. Jayalalithaa dealt with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) with a firm hand and ensured that its cadres left the State. But many felt that there was police laxity in dealing with Islamic fundamentalists as also the conversion industry. There are growing concerns over the rise and spread of the extremely rabid Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in the districts of Tamil Nadu.

Overall, however, Jayalalithaa’s advantage was her combined charisma as the chosen heir of MGR, her attractive personality as a popular actress, her powerful oratory in Tamil, her cogent articulation of issues when she spoke in English or Hindi to non-Tamil audiences, and an unblemished pro-poor image. As Chief Minister, she launched several effective social schemes, most notably the Amma canteen, where tasty and nutritious food is sold at highly subsidised rates. Besides being a boon to the poor, the canteens have been availed of by the middle class working population and found to maintain standards. No Tamil leader has been able to match her programmes to provide succour to the poor.

Jayalalithaa has left a huge void on the political firmament. Her departure could signal the meltdown of Dravidian politics in the State – the DMK patriarch M Karunanidhi is also old and ailing – and see a slow resurgence of nationalist parties like the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party, though the small caste-based parties could make immediate gains.

Perhaps this is why both parties conducted themselves with utmost decorum, refusing the join the heckling by the DMK. While Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi visited the hospital to inquire about her health, the BJP sent Union Minister M. Venkaiah Naidu to visit her. Surprisingly, DMK heir-apparent, MK Stalin, also called upon the Chief Minister. Thereafter, Karunanidhi’s wife, Rajathi Ammal, visited the hospital and met close aide Sasikala Natarajan. Towards the end of October-early November, the Modi government asked Maharashtra Governor C. Vidyasagar Rao, who holds additional charge of Tamil Nadu, to stay put in Chennai for a few days, but the danger passed. The Prime Minister has had a cordial relationship with Jayalalithaa, who had attended his last swearing-in ceremony as Chief Minister of Gujarat.

The main opposition party, the DMK, is in crisis due to the failing health of Karunanidhi, 93; though he has designated his younger son, MK Stalin, as his successor. This was resented by his elder son, MK Azhagiri, who walked out of the party. Karunanidhi’s daughter, Kanimozhi, a Rajya Sabha MP, is a political lightweight who may fade away under the weight of the 2G scam in which she is embroiled. But MK Stalin, too, is not in good health and has to travel to London every six months for a medical check-up, the details of which are not known.

While it is Advantage Panneerselvam in the immediate aftermath of Jayalalithaa’s departure, the last word on the subject has yet to be said. Her close aide, Sasikala, may not accept this in the long run; she commands the party’s powerful Thevar caste base, but may not be acceptable to the Nadar and Gounder communities that together comprise the AIADMK votebank. Jayalalithaa, scion of a Mysore Brahmin family (her grandfather was royal surgeon), transcended all castes and communities. Her departure could trigger an outburst of casteism and fragment the State’s polity, with smaller caste-dominated parties asserting political muscle.

Observers foresee an era of political instability, like that of the short-lived Choudhary Charan Singh, Chandrasekhar, and Deve Gowda-Inder Gujral regimes at the Centre. It is too soon to predict either a united AIADMK or a split in the party. However, currently neither the DMK (98) nor the Congress (8) can form a government.

Jayalalithaa has been a loner, and little is known about her immediate family, barring one brother, Jayakumar (d. 1990), and at least one niece. The person closest to her for the longest period is Sasikala Natarajan, who has been functioning as gatekeeper and not permitting the known close relations of the Chief Minister to visit her in hospital. Previously also, Jayalalithaa’s close relatives were not admitted to Poes Garden, Chennai, where Jayalalithaa has lived for the past 25 years. Even VIPs were reportedly not allowed to personally see the ailing leader.

The episode in which three party candidates fighting Assembly by-elections on November 19, visited the hospital to take Jayalalithaa’s thumb impression on relevant documents, is said to have been necessitated by the need to prevent unauthorised persons from signing on behalf of the Chief Minister. The AIADMK won all three seats.

Nationally, Jayalalithaa had her most famous moment when she attended Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s tea party in 1998 and brought down the Atal Bihar Vajpayee government. It is said that on that day, she spoke to PV Narasimha Rao in Telugu, HD Deve Gowda in Kannada, AK Antony in Malayalam and Sharad Pawar in chaste Hindi.

Jayalalithaa faced a number of corruption charges, which she believed were the handiwork of her rivals, DMK chief Karunanidhi and Congress leader P Chidambaram. It was alleged that during her tenure of 1991-96, she amassed properties worth Rs 66.65 crores, which were disproportionate to her known sources of income. She was forced to step down from office twice and appointed O Panneerselvam to rule the State as her proxy. After an 18-year long litigation across the High Courts and Supreme Court, she was acquitted in May 2015, and returned to power as Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu for the fifth time on 23 May 2015.

Her admirers say that because she was a single woman without a family or peer group, she was exploited by those who managed to get close to her. Many are alleged to have amassed handsome fortunes from this proximity. One controversial instance of emotionalism that extracted a heavy political cost was the lavish wedding ceremony of her foster son, VN Sudhakaran (later disowned) in 1995, which led to the electoral rout of 1996.

By far the most controversial action was the 2004 arrests of the Shankaracharya of Kanchi, Swami Jayendra Saraswati, and Bal Perivaar, Swami Vijayendra Saraswati, for abetment to murder Sankararaman, manager of the Varadharaja Perumal Temple, in the temple premises on 3 September 2004. The motive for the crime was never convincingly established, other than vague ‘leaks’ that the deceased used to malign the Acharyas. The arrests shocked the nation, but nine years later, in November 2013, the Puducherry district session court acquitted all accused for lack of evidence. The court made derisive remarks about Superintendent of Police, K Premkumar, who had arrested the Shankaracharya on Diwali eve. But despite the deep resentment among devotees of the Matham, Jayalalithaa was unscathed by the abhorrence caused by the arrests.

Jayalalithaa had a multi-faceted personality. Besides being a great orator and actor, she was a good singer and her Tamil songs remain popular with the people. In a famous interview with actor Simi Grewal, she opened up about herself and gamely sang her favourite Hindi film song, Aa ja sanam madhur chandni mein, along with Grewal. She confessed to having a childhood crush on actor Shammi Kapoor, and co-starred with Dharmendra in the film Izzat. In 1973, she received three Filmfare Awards for Best Actress for her performance in the films Pattikada Pattanama, Suryakanthi and Sri Krishna Satya.

Jayalalithaa had a rapid rise in politics. In January 1983, she was made Propaganda Secretary of the AIADMK and fought her first election as party candidate in February 1983 in the by-election from Tiruchendur Assembly constituency. As a Rajya Sabha MP from 1984-89, she would address the House in chaste Hindi.

When MGR fell ill in 1984, she played a leading role in the 1984 elections to the Lok Sabha and Assembly, in which the Congress-I and AIADMK alliance won a thumping majority. When MGR passed away in 1987, the party split.

Jayalalithaa was elected to the Assembly in 1989 from Bodinayakkanur constituency and was the first lady to become Leader of Opposition in the Tamil Nadu Assembly. The two factions of the party reunited in February 1989 and Jayalalithaa was unanimously elected as General Secretary; the frozen election symbol, Two Leaves, was restored by the Election Commission. She led the alliance with Congress-I to victory in the 1989 general elections to the Lok Sabha in Puducherry and Tamil Nadu, winning all 40 seats. She again secured a landslide victory in the Assembly elections of June 1991.

This made her the youngest-ever and second woman Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, a position she held till 12 May 1996. In the 1998 general election, the AIADMK-led alliance won 30 out of 40 seats. In the 2001 Tamil Nadu Assembly elections, the alliance won 195 seats out of 234; AIADMK alone secured 132 seats. She became Chief Minister for the second time on 14 May 2001, till 21 September 2001. In February 2002, she was elected from Andipatti and remained Chief Minister from 2 March 2002 to 12 May 2006.

In 2006, the AIADMK alliance won 69 seats in the Assembly elections and Jayalalithaa became Leader of Opposition.

In the 2011 Assembly elections, the AIADMK and its allies won 203 seats out of 234 (AIADMK 150) and Jayalalithaa became Chief Minister for the fourth time on 16 May 2011.

But she had to step down in September 2014 when a trial court in Karnataka held her guilty in an 18-year-old disproportionate assets and corruption case. She was acquitted on 11 May 2015, and was sworn-in as Chief Minister for the fifth time on 23 May 2015, the first chief minister since 1989 to return to power for a second consecutive term.

In 2004, she was invited by the House of Lords, London, to receive the “Woman Politician of the Decade” Award from the Asian Guild Awards. The Golden Star of Honour and Dignity Award was conferred upon her in 2004 by the International Human Rights Defence Committee in recognition of her services in protecting the weaker sections of society and in the field of gender equality in Tamil Nadu and India. In 2011, the New Jersey General Assembly passed a resolution appreciating her exemplary excellence and dedication as a leader and in service to the people of Tamil Nadu.

Given the intense secrecy and near hysteria accompanying the Chief Minister’s health, a brief history may be in order. Jayalalithaa was admitted to Apollo Hospital on September 22, 2016, for fever and dehydration, and declared stable and under observation. The next day, the hospital said her fever had gone and she was taking a normal diet. Prime Minister Narendra Modi sent her flowers and wished her a speedy recovery.

But on September 25, the hospital was forced to deny rumours on social media that she was being taken abroad for treatment. On September 27, the AIADMK tweeted that the Chief Minister had convened a meeting in the hospital to discuss the Supreme Court’s interim orders on the Cauvery river dispute with Karnataka. On September 29, the party tweeted an image of the hospital’s statement asserting that Amma was recovering well but would be kept under observation for a few more days.

In the absence of any photographic evidence of Jayalalithaa being on the way to recovery, and the strict ban on visitors, these statements were taken with a pinch of salt. On September 30, DMK president Karunanidhi demanded the state government issue an official statement on her health, with attached photographs; he pointed out that no minister had been allowed to meet the Chief Minister.

Thereafter, at a nod from the Centre, Governor Rao visited Jayalalithaa on October 1, and on October 2, the hospital issued another statement saying that an expert group of doctors treating her had opined that she was responding well to the treatment, but would have to stay under observation for a few more days. It was only on October 6 that Apollo Hospital issued an elaborate health bulletin, stating that her treatment regimen included continued respiratory support, nebulisation, drugs to decongest the lungs, antibiotics, nutrition, general nursing care and supportive therapy. On October 8, the hospital announced that she was undergoing lung decongestion and other ‘comprehensive measures’ and was under constant monitoring.

MK Stalin, Leader of Opposition in the Assembly, visited Jayalalithaa on October 9, spoke to the doctors, and suggested that an interim CM be appointed. With doctors signaling that the Chief Minister was far from recovery, Panneerselvam was assigned additional charge of eight departments on October 12.

From October 13, the AIADMK launched an online campaign to end false rumours about Amma’s health, and from time to time, statements were issued by the party and the hospital, stating that Jayalalithaa was on the road to recovery and would soon be discharged. But since there were no photographs or reports of visitors actually seeing her, these were received with scepticism.

On November 16, a statement, ostensibly by Jayalalithaa, was released, saying “I have taken rebirth because of people’s prayers”. The by-elections took place on November 19 and the party romped home in all three seats, as expected. On November 18, the Chairman of Apollo hospitals, Dr Prathap C Reddy, said she was breathing normally and would be discharged at her own wishes. But all doctors from abroad and the capital’s All India Institute of Medical Sciences continued to visit Chennai to monitor her progress, it was very clear that all was not well, despite the hospital moving her from the ICU to a private room with all facilities of an intensive care unit.

On December 4 evening, it was suddenly announced that she had suffered a cardiac arrest and put on a heart-lung machine. The long lines that had left the hospital to queue up at banks and ATMs following demonetisation on November 8, swiftly returned to keep vigil. And at 11.30 p.m. on December 5, it was all over.

A legend said goodbye.

Abplive.in/blog, 6 December 2016


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