As calibrated attempts to project Narendra Modi as the BJP’s Prime Ministerial mascot are in full swing, the ‘national’ media is yet to wake up to the possibility of a powerful leader down South being a contender for the crown. In the last few months, talk of a ‘dhoti clad’ PM from the South had been mooted at a literary function attended by politicians and film stars in Chennai; and later picked up and flogged in newspaper columns and on the social media. How about a ‘sari clad’ PM, South of the Vindhyas? Jayalalithaa has already made it clear that she would not have any trucks with either the Congress or the BJP. In the context of a third front, as an alternative to the Congress and BJP led alliances, the possibility of Modi’s good friend and the most powerful lady in Tamil Nadu – Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, emerging not just as a king maker but the queen herself in 2014 cannot be ruled out in India’s ever fluid political scenario. After HD Deve Gowda, who had a short stint as PM in the late nineties, and the late veteran Tamil Nadu Congress leader GK Moopanar who missed the bus with the United Front government, if Amma’s stars shine as they did in 2011, who knows, she may no longer have to send the State’s periodic ‘To Do’ lists to 7 Race Course Road but be able to address them herself!
A fractured mandate next year, or earlier, will make every small party and every seat count. If Jayalalithaa can solve her inherited power shortage to make her free mixies and grinders and laptops run in the next few months, a predicted score card of 30 seats may not be out of reach for the AIADMK. That will give her a huge bargaining chip and the gravitas to cobble together a coalition of like minded parties for a serious shot at Delhi’s corridors of power. Having supported political alliances in the past and even pulling down one of them, the lady from Poes Garden has ‘been there, done that’. Now it’s just a question of taking her clout at the Centre to the next level. I was among the first few journalists in the country to directly broach the subject of a Prime Ministerial inclination with Amma, a few years ago. Her repartee: “No comments. But thank you for the compliment” was interesting. Here’s why I think she will make a good PM.
1. Jayalalithaa’s leadership qualities and acceptance among possible constituents of a third front is her biggest plus point. We’ve seen many leaders – from Chandrababu Naidu to Left bigwigs descend at her residence to announce Dr Abdul Kalam as their nominee for a second innings at Rashtrapati Bhavan in the previous election. Last year, she was first off the block in mooting the name of former Lok Sabha Speaker and tribal leader PA Sangma as the NDA backed Presidential nominee, with even BJP patriarch LK Advani holding discussions with her at Fort St.George.
2. With friends across the political divide, forming a durable coalition and keeping the flock together may not be a tall order. With her excellent rapport with Samajwadi Party leader and UP CM Akhilesh Yadav and Left leaders like Prakash Karat, coupled with the TINA factor for other parties, perhaps even the Trinamool supremo – Mamata Didi may well accept Amma at the helm. A proven capacity to unite non Congress Chief Ministers over common grievances with the Centre is indicative of her hold over ruling parties in other States.
3. Much as she is called an ‘Iron Lady’, Jayalalithaa is known to have an amazing ability to convert her staunch critics and foes into lasting friends. I can never forget MDMK Chief Vaiko who was jailed by her under POTA (Prevention of Terrorism Act) for 18 months thundering outside the Vellore Prison on his release that he would fight the “fascist regime”. A few months later, he joined hands with Amma and remarked, “This is the finest moment in Tamil Nadu’s political history!” Even after boycotting the 2011 assembly poll because he felt short changed in seat allocation, Vaiko still regards Jayalalithaa as his sister.
4. By Indian political standards, 65 year old Jayalalithaa is relatively young. As a powerful regional leader with a brute majority in the Tamil Nadu assembly and her unassailable sway over her own party, she does not have to worry about internal squabbles that have haunted many Prime Ministers.
5. A tough and no nonsense approach to governance is what anyone who knows the State well will vouch for. Not afraid of cracking the whip – be it the elimination of the long pending Veerappan menace or the sacking of over a lakh government employees in her previous tenure or the recent handling of the anti Koodankulam protestors, soft pedalling is not an expression in Amma’s lexicon.
6. The ‘iron hand’ can also come with a velvet glove. Jayalalithaa seems to have mastered the art of populism (a term she doesn’t quite like, preferring to call it ‘welfare’ instead). Despite a debt of one lakh crore, she adroitly managed to start fulfilling her 2011 freebie election manifesto. In her third innings, she has demonstrated a willingness to reach out to various sections – minorities, caste groups and most importantly the poor. The ‘Amma Canteens’ that serve wholesome food at one rupee and\or a few rupees are a super hit, bigger than a Rajini blockbuster! With the same formula, placating States and allies when in the saddle, should be child’s play.
7. An unbiased observer will not fail to notice Jayalalithaa’s national outlook – whether it’s her firm stand against terror and on maintaining law and order or her environmental policy or the pro nuclear energy stance, after doing her due diligence. Championing the cause of Tamils in Sri Lanka and her strong views on tackling terror, even in a possible Pakistan context, may augur well for a firm foreign policy.
8. ‘Tell me who your key officers are and I will tell you if you are a good leader’ can be the new age dictum in governance. Jayalalithaa’s choice of officers has always been spot on. Ask any retired bureaucrat who has served under her (if you think the serving ones will be biased in her favour) and they will fill you in with instances and concrete examples of her administrative acumen and her grasp over complex issues. Choosing a balanced Cabinet is crucial. Amma will pass that test.
9. The convent educated heroine turned political leader is suave, articulate and charming enough to even floor international dignitaries like Bill Gates and Hillary Clinton. Coming from the film industry, her communication skills are among the best in India’s political landscape. This was evident even during her Rajya Sabha years.
10. You can judge a leader’s intellectual prowess by her or his press statements and conferences. Jayalalithaa’s knowledge of national and international affairs, economics and even law (her lawyers tell me that she is so clued in with even all the latest Supreme Court judgments) is impressive. A leader in the hot seat needs to understand the nitty gritty of a wide range of subjects. Not wanting in this department either.
I’ve been a neutral political commentator all my life and will remain that way. But I don’t believe in denying anyone their due, even if it comes across as slanted. Jayalalithaa has it in her to aspire for the top job. She will, however, need to focus on the challenging task of suffering fools gladly and taking criticism, even if it’s not the constructive variety, in her stride. And yes, the outcome of the wealth case in a Bangalore Court will be crucial for the Chennai Super Queen to strike gold in national politics.
(Sanjay Pinto is a lawyer, columnist and former Resident Editor of NDTV)