Chances are you’ve recently heard of that very tepid storm in a coffee mug – the arrest of the Kanchi Seer. The woman behind it all, “The Enlightened Leader” of the southern Indian State of Tamil Nadu, Jayaraman Jayalalithaa, is one of those rare specimens – an interesting politician. Much like a car crash, she merits a brief dekko.
A figure dearer to a Tamilian’s heart than his politician, is his film star. For example, the fans of one actress (a north-Indian Muslim) built her a temple, while the fan following of another hugely successful and semi-retired actor ensured his being hailed as a kingmaker by the state’s political parties. But the original star who inspired mass hysteria, which then translated to the all-important political vote, was Jayalalithaa’s one time co-star and mentor – the non-Tamilian MG Ramachandran a.k.a. MGR.
MGR and his comrade turned political rival and leader of the DMK, M Karunanidhi of the Stevie Wonder glasses, both members of the film fraternity (Karunanidhi was a very successful scriptwriter) understood early on that what succeeded on reel translated extremely well to the real world. Lyrical speeches exhorting Tamil pride were gold at the polling booths. The audience being always in admiration of a revolution, both men were, and indeed Karunanidhi is still, careful to keep the embers of a cultural revolt aflame.
Upon the death of MGR, his political heir Jayalalithaa (soon Amma to her followers) was widely regarded as an easily manipulated political cipher rather like Indira Gandhi once upon a time. But like Mrs. Gandhi, her still waters concealed dizzying currents. Today, as politician after politician flings himself at her feet to seek her blessings, the lady preserves a Sphinx-like exterior, that waxy complexion seldom betraying any emotion as she calmly accepts “the expression of their love and respect towards me”.
Outsiders may well blink at such hubris but they fail to realize the process that lies behind such statements. Her apprenticeship under MGR may have presented her with the rudimentary skills necessary to grab power but once faced with arch nemesis Karunanidhi as well as her own failure to keep the overwhelming systematic corruption of her first government discreetly under wraps, she had to learn on her own how best to counter the twin challenges of insubordination within party ranks and the hard-line opposition of rival political outfits like the DMK.
Eventually ousted from office, but proving she was no mere dabbler in power games, she patiently awaited her next innings, which soon arrived – the DMK government proving to be no better than her own AIADMK. During her exile, she alternated raising up a stink about the misdeeds of the DMK government with loud protestations of her innocence in the truckload of cases they registered against her. However, those cases proved to have deeper implications on her psyche – when her bail application ran into trouble, she was remanded to police custody. Amma neither forgot nor forgave.
Once back in power, one saw a meaner (but not leaner) Amma. Proof positive was presented when one Congressman was foolish enough to criticize her from a shared dais, no doubt under the assumption that he was safe in the public glare. He was speedily set to rights by her fervent supporters who pulled him off the stage, tore his clothes off and beat him up.
Shortly thereafter, the nation was edified by TV images of a disheveled Karunanidhi being arrested in a midnight raid on his house. Also caught in the crossfire and roughed up were two Union Cabinet Ministers, one a nephew of Karunanidhi and the other a member of the DMK.
Unabashed by the ensuing political and media frenzy, she then stymied the DMK-supported Union government by arresting a member of their coalition on charges of sympathizing with a terrorist outfit – the LTTE. Hardly had the dust settled on that affair when the collective jaws of the nation hit the floor as she fired all government employees on strike. The all-powerful employees’ unions capitulated almost overnight and were soon begging Amma to rethink her decision.
Even as she magnanimously allowed them to return to work, she was busy plotting her next political move. With parliamentary elections around the corner, she forged an alliance with the invincible-looking, once politically untouchable, Brahmin-Hindi BJP. With this move she also pulled the rug out from under the DMK’s feet – it hitherto being a prominent member of the BJP-led coalition central government.
Unfortunately for her, the AIADMK-BJP combine was thoroughly wiped out. Amma ruminated in silence before launching her bigger, newer, updated version on the expectant public.
First came the press statements – beautifully written pieces of laudatory verbosity that gave the reader a fascinating glimpse of the mind behind it all. Hardly had one recovered from these when the full-page adverts appeared – congratulating her upon being awarded a prize for “the protection of human rights” by the “world famous”…er, Thingummy Organization. But the icing on the cake was an interview to the BBC’s ‘Hardtalk’.
She began by proceeding to read out prepared statements attacking her Opposition in answer to every question put to her. When gently reminded that the interviewer preferred something a bit more natural, a miffed Amma accused him of being a part of the media plot against her government. She then furnished him with her opinion on him, his show, the media in general, certain politicians in particular and then shut the whole thing down by refusing to shake his hand and frigidly informing him, “I’m sorry I ever agreed to appear on your show.”
Next, transcripts of a call placed by the Union Home Minister informing her of the removal of the state’s Governor surfaced to embarrass the Central Government. They cried foul and charged that such privileged conversations were not meant to be recorded. When vague demands for her removal were floated, however, she revealed that the call had in fact not been recorded, but was the verbatim recollection of her astoundingly photographic memory.
Then came the arrest of her former father confessor, Swami Jayendra Saraswati alias the Kanchi Seer. The politically inclined Swami had previously enjoyed considerable access to a superstitiously religious Jayalalithaa and had even promoted the ill-fated AIADMK-BJP alliance. After that debacle, however, he apparently foresaw the end of his influence and was quoted saying, “her arrogance will be her downfall.” Soon thereafter, Amma jettisoned her political albatross, a gobsmacked BJP, in inimitable style – she had the Seer arrested for conspiracy to commit murder.
Such actions might be attributed to courage of conviction. In the case of J Jayalalithaa, however, she steams full speed ahead in a fashion guaranteed to drive any other politician into an early grave thanks to the exigencies of her career, which has repeatedly brought it home to her that the only way to gain and maintain respect in her testosterone driven field is to play hardball. With each outrageous gamble, this Brahmin, convent-educated, non-Tamil, spinster actress with the po-face and nerves of steel, sends all rivals scurrying for cover even as she gains political mileage of the kind that every politician would gladly sell his grandmother for.
They keep squawking; she keeps going. They’ve got grievances; she’s got power.
originally published at Chowk.com 2004