Jayalalithaa Jayaram passes into history

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Geopolitical Notes From India

M D Nalapat

THIS columnist knew
Jayalalithaa Jayaram, easily
the most popular politician in Tamil Nadu, from the 1980s. Despite the absence of a surfeit of formal education, and in contrast to several public perceptions about her, Jayalalithaa was very well read, devouring up to six books each week. Speaking in flawless Tamil or in equally good English (depending on her audience), the former movie star would express her views clearly and confidently. While imperious to those in high position, she was respectful of writers, spending hours discussing literary works with them. Family circumstances led to Jayalalithaa having to work in an unforgiving industry from a young age, but had she her own way in the matter of a career, there is no doubt that she would have preferred to be a professor at a university, teaching history or literature, subjects which fascinated her.
It was in the 1980s that Jayalalithaa came into public life, mentored by Marudur Gopalan Ramachandran, commonly known as MGR, who was Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. MGR was a unique personality, who had genuine concern for the poor. He would often hold durbars, allowing petitioners to meet him with their problems. On many occasions, he would on the spot either take a decision or hand over some money to a petitioner, especially those who were obviously in economic and other distress. Whether it was money to hold the marriage of a daughter or provide for the higher education of a son, party workers knew that if they went to MGR, there was a good chance that he would assist them. Such empathy for the poor ensured that Ramachandran became hugely popular among voters, even in an age when social media platforms were non-existent.
The Chief Minister took a liking for the young lady from Mysore State, and ensured that she starred in several of his films as his romantic partner. The popularity of such films ensured the identification of Jayalalithaa with Ramachandran in the minds of the people of Tamil Nadu, which is why it was his “ reel” partner in 28 films rather than the real partner ( MGR’s wife Janaki) who was accepted as his political heir after the Chief Minister passed away in 1987. Prior to that,on several of his tours of the state,MGR used to take along the vivacious Propaganda Secretary of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and it was during that Jayalalithaa fashioned her public speaking skills, adopting the same pro-poor idiom as her mentor.
In a patriarchy, women are expected to follow the dictates of men, and this has been the case in some situations, such as that of Rabri Devi, a housewife who was made Chief Minister of Bihar by her husband Laloo Prasad Yadav on his disqualification because of being found guilty of corruption. Indeed, men expect to do “back seat driving” where women are concerned. This was the expectation of Congress President Kumaraswamy Kamaraj in 1966,when he himself declined the office of Prime Minister on the death of Lal Bahadur Shastri (who together with P V Narasimha Rao was the best PM India had). Instead, Kamaraj chose the (relatively) youthful only child of Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Priyadarshini Gandhi as Shastri’s successor.
The Congress boss (who incidentally had been a former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu) was confident that Indira Gandhi would do his bidding, a delusion that was removed on her first day in office, when she could not find the time to have the extended conversation with the Congress President that he wanted, so as to brief her on the policies he expected her to follow. Later, by 1969, Indira Gandhi veered totally away from the policies favoured by Lal Bahadur Shastri, setting the country back on the Soviet model first imposed on it by 1957 by Jawaharlal Nehru, and which resulted in Pakistan growing at double the speed of India during the first decades of its existence.
To this day, the role of government in India is far more onerous than is the case in any country that has experienced a satisfactory rate of growth, with only Lal Bahadur Shastri moving towards a more suitable system before his demise at Tashkent in 1965 and being emulated by Narasimha Rao, who succeeded in the few modest reforms that ensured a faster rate of annual growth than the 3 per cent or less that was the norm during the Nehru years, and this despite the very low base of the Indian economy during that period. During the 1998 Vajpayee government, Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister Brajesh Mishra developed an aversion to Jayalalithaa after she made an office assistant respond to a letter from him to her. The Chief Minister’s rationale was that she was the elected head of the state, and hence merited a missive from Prime Minister Vajpayee rather than a bureaucrat.
Unfortunately for her, the bureaucrat in question was way more powerful than any minister, and he subsequently ensured that her requests were, in effect, denied. Every move by an AIADMK minister in the government was held up without explanation, By August 1998 Jayalalithaa had had enough and was contemplating withdrawal of support. Vijay Goel and Manohar Sondhi requested this columnist to make a personal visit to Chennai to convince the Chief Minister to continue support, a mission that was successful as backing was continued. It was the 50th year of the declaration of the Republic of India and this columnist argued to the CM that she should not be responsible for bringing down a national government in such a year, an argument that worked.
However, despite the continued support, the Mishra bureaucratic blockade of AIADMK decisions continued, until finally Jayalalithaa withdrew support in early 1999,precipitating an election that Vajpayee won on the basis of events on the border that took place around that time. Jayalalithaa Jayaram was courageous in holding on to her friends and views. She was sincere in her beliefs. MGR chose wisely in anointing his partner in films as his political heir. Her friends will miss the sensitive lover of books who fought as fiercely for the girl child as any lioness would for her cubs.
—The writer is Vice-Chair, Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair & Professor of Geopolitics, Manipal University, Haryana State, India.
Email: mgnalapat@gmail.com