ON MAY 27, the AIADMK executive committee gathered at Chennai to take stock of the party’s performance in the recent Lok Sabha polls. Among those present were state-level office bearers of the party, former ministers, MLAs, MPs and district secretaries. All of them were eagerly awaiting party supremo J Jayalalithaa’s analysis of the polls. The AIADMK alliance had won just 12 of the 39 seats in Tamil Nadu, far below Jayalalithaa’s expectations. Everyone was anxious; how would Amma — as the AIADMK supremo is reverently known in the party — react to the verdict?
Had the AIADMK won, they would have been at ease. Things would have been more predictable. Paeans to Amma would have been sung for leading the party to victory. Amma would have been singled out for praise.
The loss meant that they would wait for Amma to tell them where things went wrong, and who was to be blamed for the defeat. The party supremo would be absolved of any role in the defeat. But is Jayalalithaa infallible, and are her strategies beyond reproof?
Her supporters would like to believe so. Few among them want to talk about the common perception that Jayalalithaa cost the party valuable votes by skipping road campaigning. She addressed only two or three large rallies a day, all of which were held in the daytime, in extremely hot weather.
ASCENT AND DECLINE
1981: Joined AIADMK; 1991: Elected Chief Minister, routing the DMK
1996: Loses heavily to DMK-led alliance
2001: Elected back to power
2004: Wiped out in Lok Sabha polls. DMK-Congress alliance romps home
2006: Loses state polls heavily to DMK-led mega alliance
2009: Suffers third consecutive massive defeat to DMK alliance
Jayalalithaa covered 40 constituencies in Tamil Nadu and Puducherry, flying from one town to another. From a special aircraft, she would hop into a helicopter that would take her to the venue of the rally. Though security reasons were cited for Jayalalithaa skipping the road show and avoiding campaigning during the night, these factors were not discussed at the AIADMK’s election postmortem meeting.
Political analyst Raveendran Duraiswamy says, “Jayalalithaa addressed mobilised crowds at her rallies. Only committed voters turn up at such rallies. By refusing to go on a road campaign, she missed an opportunity to woo noncommitted voters.” In sharp contrast, her opponents such as DMK leader MK Stalin and actor Vijaykanth addressed hundreds of wayside meetings, even tiny gatherings of a hundred people. “Such campaigning also encourages party cadres,” says Duraiswamy.
Jayalalithaa attributes other reasons to her party’s disappointing performance. At the party’s May 27 closed-door meeting, she pounced on party functionaries — something she does each time the party fares poorly in an election. “A bullock is hauling an overloaded cart. It’s struggling to pull the cart. Beaten and bruised, with blood dripping all over its body, it’s unable to bear the pain. I am like that bullock, shouldering the entire burden of the party,” she said.
She was upset that party candidates depended on her for their poll expenses and wondered how many actually spent the money they promised to spend when they applied for the ticket. More distressing, she said, was the manner in which the party’s booth agents had disappeared from the booths post-noon. Later, in a resolution, the AIADMK alleged that the Electronic Voting Machines had been rigged and accused the DMK government of deleting the names of thousands of AIADMK supporters from the electoral rolls.
Credit for the party’s victories goes to Amma. The cadre is blamed for all defeats
Two days later, Jayalalithaa was off to her favourite hill station — Kodanadu on the Nilgiris. Last year, she stayed there for nearly three months, even as some important political events were unfolding across the country. This behaviour of hers has baffled her wellwishers. Though a public figure, Jayalalithaa cherishes her privacy and longs for solitude. In the past, this has led to charges that she is inaccessible to her allies and party cadres.
However, Jayalalithaa has continued to remain the maverick politician that she is, withdrawing into a shell whenever she feels like it, totally cut off from the outside world. “For days together she would remain at home, just doing her poojas, reading books, watching television or movies on the home theatre,” says N Jothi, a former close associate of Jayalalithaa. As legal advisor of the AIADMK, Jothi handled about 138 cases for the party, including the corruption cases filed by the DMK regime (1996- 2001) against Jayalalithaa. He is one of those few people Jayalalithaa trusted and held in good regard. Jothi quit the party last year because of differences with Jayalalithaa’s close friend, Sasikala, and some of her family members.
JAYALALITHAA HAS apparently not changed her style of functioning even after losing three successive elections. The decline began in the 2004 Lok Sabha polls when the AIADMK-BJP alliance was routed in all 40 seats in Tamil Nadu and Puducherry. Two years later, the party was voted out of power in the State assembly polls. In the recent Lok Sabha polls, it won just nine of the 23 seats it contested. This poor showing was despite the AIADMK’s mega alliance with the CPI, the CPM, the MDMK and the PMK.
Jayalalithaa is the antithesis of her archrival and DMK chief M Karunanidhi, who visits his party office daily even though he is Chief Minister. This is when he interacts with cadres and party functionaries. Jayalalithaa rarely visits the party office — something party workers always look forward to, but never had the courage to tell her. A few, like Badar Sayeed, a party MLA, who was Jayalalithaa’s schoolmate and friend, are willing to go on record with their feelings. “I don’t think you should compare Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa. Both have their own style of functioning. Jayalalithaa, for instance, does not waver from her stand once she takes a decision. Karunanidhi vacillates. However, [I agree that] it would be better for the party if Jayalalithaa interacts more frequently with the cadres,” says Badar.
Amma rarely visits the party office, leading to charges that she’s inaccessible to cadres
Badar remembers that Jayalalithaa, who was her junior at Churchpark Convent in Chennai, was an all-rounder who performed well both in academics and sports. A voracious reader, Jayalalithaa had a flair for writing and wanted to become an author. But family circumstances pushed her into cinema. Her association with her co-star and AIADMK founder MG Ramachandran laid the foundation for her political entry.
In 1991, she led the Congress-AIADMK alliance to a massive victory in the assembly polls, riding on a sympathy wave that followed the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi at an election rally near Chennai.
Her first term in power was marked by uninhibited shows of sycophancy from her supporters. She used to be hailed as niranthara muthalvar (permanent chief minister). Such obeisance still continues. Leaders still fall at her feet, and seek her blessings. But resentment is also brewing within the party because of the Sasikala factor.
This factor has caused much friction. In the past few years, several mid-level leaders have quit the party. Two senior leaders, former minister TM Selvaganapathy and legal advisor Jothi quit last year, citing the domination of Sasikala’s family in party affairs. Jothi got into trouble with TTV Dinakaran, Sasikala’s nephew. “One night, he called me on the phone and started hurling filthy abuses at me. I informed Jayalalithaa about this and said I wanted to quit the party. She pleaded with me to stay on, for her sake. She said, ‘I will protect you. Don’t worry about Sasikala or anyone else’.” Jayalalithaa sacked Dinakaran from the post party treasurer, showing that she valued Jothi more. However, in the weeks that followed, Jothi’s access to Jayalalithaa was gradually curtailed.
Jothi’s office in Poes Garden — Jayalalithaa’s Chennai residence — was taken away from him. “Sasikala began insulting me. She would ask me to come to Poes Garden to meet her. She would make me wait for hours before seeing me. I decided to quit the party when it became clear that Jayalalithaa could not help me even if she wanted to.”
Sasikala’s control over the AIADMK has led several mid-level leaders to quit the party
He delivered the case files — carried in four vehicles and weighing of about 10,000 kg — he was handling for the AIADMK to Poes Garden and left, never to return. “I warned Jayalalithaa that no king can win a war if he goes on losing his generals. I don’t think she paid any heed to my advice,” says Jothi, who has since joined the DMK.
Former minister Selvaganapathy, who is also now with the DMK, says that Sasikala’s family members control the AIADMK, dividing the state unit into several zones. “Each member controls two or three districts. As district secretary for Salem East, I had to route all communications to Poes Garden through one of Sasikala’s relatives in Trichy. There would be no response if I communicated directly,” he says.
Karate Thiyagarajan, Chennai Corporation’s deputy mayor during the last AIADMK regime (2001-2006) also did not get along with Sasikala’s family, even though he belongs to the Thevar caste like Sasikala. He fell out with Jayalalithaa less than five years after he joined the party from the Congress.
“Jayalalithaa is so petty. She couldn’t tolerate my rising popularity after I became deputy mayor. (He functioned as the de facto mayor, since the post of mayor was vacant.) She was jealous of my growth and began to sideline me. In 2005 August, the Chennai Corporation inaugurated ten parks in the city. I was asked not to attend the function because the party didn’t want me to come into the limelight.”
Soon, the rift widened and Thiyagarajan fled the country apprehending a threat to his life. He resurfaced in Delhi after about six months and re-joined the Congress. “I was the first person who successfully defied her when she was in power and got away with it,” says Thiyagarajan. Stories also abound about a possible financial element to the Thiyagarajan- Jayalalithaa rift.
The AIADMK is now witnessing a cold war between party supremo Jayalalithaa and Mylapore MLA S Ve Shekar. The only Brahmin legislator in the party — besides Jayalalithaa — he was once Jayalalithaa’s blue-eyed boy. He would get appointments to meet Jayalalithaa as and when he wanted. But as a person who spoke his mind — even if it was something that went against the leader’s views — he soon fell out with her. He differed with the party when his family’s revered seer, the Kanchi Shankaracharya, was arrested by the Jayalalithaa government in the sensational Sankararaman murder case. “I said the Shankaracharya was innocent. This was not liked by the party,” says Shekar, a popular film and stage artiste before he turned to politics.
The rift widened after newspapers published photographs of Shekar with DMK leader Dayanidhi Maran at the inaugural function of the International Film Festival in Chennai towards the end of 2006. Shekar has since been sidelined in the party. In keeping with party conventions, he has written several letters to Jayalalithaa seeking an appointment with her. But he has received no response so far. He is not sure whether the letters reach her at all.
Many in Tamil Nadu believe Vijaykanth will soon usurp Amma’s position in the state
He suspects Sasikala’s people may have prevented the letters from reaching Jayalalithaa. “My loyalty to Jayalalithaa is total. Before I joined the party, I told her that I couldn’t work under too many bosses. Till date I have not met Sasikala — that is probably what she has against me. I have now understood that there is no place for Jayalalithaa loyalists in the AIADMK. Only those who are in the good books of Sasikala can survive,” he says.
However, it must be stated that for every Shekar, Jothi, or Selvaganapathy, there are scores of diehard Amma loyalists. Take, for instance, A Anbazhagan, the AIADMK’s firebrand legislator in Puducherry, who is always in the news, heading one agitation or another against the Congress government. He says Amma has a highly efficient channel to interact with the cadres. “I have had no problem in contacting her whenever I wanted to. I seek her guidance before organising any protest or agitation. I write a letter and fax it to Poes Garden. She places her comments on the letter and sends it back to us. If she feels some matters have to be discussed in person, she will summon us there. At the beginning of each assembly session, we would meet her and seek her advice.” Anbazhagan says that even while she is in Kodanadu, the same system works. “It doesn’t matter where she is. Wherever she is, she makes sure she is available to us.”
The emergence of DMDK founder and actor Vijaykanth, who secured over 10 percent votes in the Lok Sabha polls, has led to speculation that he would take Amma’s space in the State’s politics. However, political analysts say that it is too early to write off Amma. “She is a silent volcano; she can erupt any time. She will bide her time, waiting for the DMK to make mistakes and for the anti-incumbency sentiment to set in. She will make a comeback,” says senior journalist Sadanand Menon.
Cho Ramasamy, political columnist and Editor of the Tamil magazine, Tughlaq, says that the AIADMK will have to strengthen its alliance by roping in parties that split anti-DMK votes. It may be implicit advice to Jayalalithaa to win over Vijaykanth, but Cho is not willing to get into specifics. As for the Sasikala factor in the AIADMK, Cho is evasive: “I don’t have any information on that.”