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THE IRON LADY OF INDIA.

GLAMOUR queen turned grisly politician! She is the new 'Iron Lady of India'. The 53-year-old Jayalalitha was once a screen star. Though only a provincial leader, she is, in the words of a political commentator, 'a colossus who dominates national politics'. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi loved to be known as the only man in her cabinet. Jayalalitha goes a step further. As chief minister of Tamil Nadu, a southern State, she loves to be known as the only man in the 100 million strong political party she heads. This is surprising because Tamil Nadu, though small, is respected for the intellectual strength, political sagacity, legal acumen and moral rectitude of its people. Indira Gandhi's power was not resisted because of her Nehru bloodlines. But Jayalalitha has no pedigree to flaunt. Whatever she has achieved -- what has she not achieved? -- she owes it wholly to herself. She models herself on Margaret Thatcher and Indira Gandhi.

Born in poverty in another State, Mysore, with her father dead in her second year, she and her mother found themselves cast away in a heartless man's world. In sheer despair, they moved to the neighbouring Madras (since renamed Tamil Nadu) State. Forced to fend for themselves, they developed a crushing sense of insecurity. Happily, soon enough, with her youth and good looks on her side, the mother had no difficulty in making a debut in films. Gradually, she managed to get her little daughter admitted to one of the best Convent schools in town, Church Park. Jayalalitha, a once shy, timid, tiny introvert, was so outstanding in her studies that her portrait hangs in her school as a star alumnus with academic excellence as her only passion.

After her matriculation she was very keen on doing law. But her mother, compelled by circumstances, had other ideas. The decision was made. She put her teenage daughter through her paces for a screen career. But Jayalalitha's heart was not in it. She wished to continue her academic career. Finally, out of necessity, she launched herself on a film career with a bang and soon reached the top. Her academic pursuits continued privately and informally. She took a special interest in Law. Though she had no opportunity of studying the subject at a Law College, through her own efforts she acquired greater legal expertise than any professional lawyer. No wonder, she became a headache to the best of jurists in the country, when, driven to the wall by a spate of corruption cases, she had to fight her own legal battles with only notional support from her counsel.

This is her second five-year term in office. Earlier, from 1991 to 1996, as chief minister, she allegedly committed every conceivable indiscretion and impropriety. But in her party nobody had the courage to question her. There were reports of enormous wealth acquired by her through corrupt means. There was severe criticism in the media of her obscenely flamboyant and extravagant lifestyle as well as her fascist political culture permitting no dissent. She was also accused of having abetted the vulgar excesses indulged in by a favoured upstart family closest to her. But she wouldn't bother. She believed that she could do anything and get away with it, because God was on her side.

Then came the 1996 poll which resulted in the humiliating debacle of her party. But personally she behaved as though nothing had happened: the same swagger, the same superciliousness, the same stiffness. She wouldn't accept her defeat gracefully and extend cooperation to the next government. On the contrary, she mounted a strong hate campaign against the winner, Dr M. Karunanidhi, the leader of a rival Dravidian party, alleging that he was behind the more than 40 corruption cases filed against her. Actually she has been convicted in three, though the sentences have been stayed, pending the disposal of her appeals. She strutted about protesting her innocence. Despite her electoral rout, the masses, seduced by her silken eloquence into believing that Dr Karunanidhi and his men had been witch hunting her, stood solidly behind her. In their eyes, she was the Mother Goddess desecrated by political vandals. Angered by Dr Karunanidhi and his party's clumsy anti-Jayalalitha campaign voters decided to bring her back t o power.

Now, after the May 10, 2001 poll, she is the ruler of Tamil Nadu once again. Her own party has won 132 seats out of the 140 contested. Her faceless and voiceless affiance partners contribute another 64. Thus, with a cosy majority of 196 in a House of 234, her position remains unassailable. The parties supporting her are wholly dependent on her nod for their survival.

She herself had to stay out of the contest, because her nomination papers from four constituencies had been rejected by the Returning Officers for the valid reason that, having been recently convicted in a corruption case, she was not eligible under the law. But, on May 14, 2001, she made history when the Governor, Fathima Geevi, herself a former judge of the Supreme Court, apparently scared of the awesome popularity of Jayalalitha, as reflected in the massive vote favouring her, invited her to form the new Government. Jayalalitha, already unanimously elected leader of her party's legislators, lost no time in accepting the Governor's offer.

The Constitution permits a person to be appointed minister, chief minister or even prime minister provided he or she contests an election and wins it within six months. Questions have been raised by constitutional pundits about the morality if not the legality of the Governor's decision to appoint an electorally disqualified and juridically convicted person chief minister. The Hindu, a highly respected, Chennai (Madras) based national paper, comments: 'Ms Jayalalitha has notched up two unedifying firsts in the act of becoming Tamil Nadu's Chief Minister for a second time. She is the first person to become Chief Minister despite being expressly prohibited from contesting an Assembly election. She is also the first person who has been convicted in a court of law to hold such office. On both counts her ascension violates the very spirit of the Constitution and raises worrying questions of both legal and moral import'. The Governor possibly will argue that within six months anything can happen. Who knows, all cas es against her may be withdrawn, dismissed or weakly pressed and judgments already delivered by lower courts reversed!

It would have been graceful, if Jayalalitha, bowing humbly to the demands of democratic legitimacy and moral propriety, had nominated one of her party legislators as a contender for chief ministership. continued to fight her cases in the courts, and, when cleared, contested an election at the earliest opportunity available, and after winning it, offered herself for chief ministership to take the place of the incumbent who would have stepped down to accommodate her. But she is not known to give up power, even for a moment, once she acquires it. She is so much in love with her own image and has such a strong sense of self-righteousness that no one in the world is competent to advise her what to do and what not to do. Taking a sympathetic view of her authoritarian streak, her friends seem to think that, driven by her own sense of insecurity and also by the feminist in her, she bends or breaks the law to discredit a system which she believes has been designed only to favour male chauvinists!

The fact is that she is totally insensitive to the inbuilt constraints of democratic principles and practices. She never hesitates to exploit fully the inherent weaknesses of the Indian democracy, such as the political immaturity of voters, personal loyalties taking precedence over policy perceptions, emotional upsurges, caste equations, group pressures, money and muscle power, misuse of official machinery and executive power, focus on electoral arithmetic rather than on ideologies and issues, violation of the electoral code of conduct, etc. But why fault only Jayalalitha? Other leaders, whatever their party affiliations, are equally guilty. The difference is only of degree and not kind.

Tamil Nadu is a State where politicians survive only on casteism and Dravidian rhetoric which appeals to those who claim descent from the original inhabitants. The two major parties are: Dr Karunanidhi's DMK (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, which translated means Dravidian Progressive party) and Jayalalitha's AIADMK or All India Anna Dravidian Progressive party named after Annadurai, one of the founding fathers of the Dravidian movement. Both parties are personality-oriented and, in terms of issues, they are only Tweedledum and Tweedledee. The latest poll exposes the relative strengths and weaknesses of the two parties, the tired and ageing Karunanidhi-led DMK losing very badly to the bright and ruthlessly energetic Jayalalitha-led AIADMK. She says that she owes her spectacular comeback to the overwhelming electoral mandate she has received. Announcing publicly his retirement from electoral politics, Dr Karunanidhi, after 63 years of public life, with egg on his face, goes unsung. All other political parties inclu ding the 116-year-old Indian National Congress, now under the leadership of Rajiv Gandhi's Italian widow, Sonia Gandhi, have no presence except as appendages to one or the other of the two Dravidian organisations.

Jayalalitha is the only provincial leader who can dictate terms to the Central Government, as she did, when, though out of power, as the supremo of her party, which participated in the Vajpayee-led coalition of the 1990s, she made the Prime Minister and his colleagues dance a jig around her all the time. What distinguishes her is her iron will to meet head-on whatever challenges she has to face. She says: 'Nowadays most men are terrified of me. I don't take nonsense from anyone nowadays. I am not the one who goes looking for a fight. Generally I am reserved. But if a fight comes my way, I will not run away. If someone gives me one blow, I will give 30'. Reminded of the softness, shyness and timidity of her childhood, she says: 'That Jayalalitha has gone, dead for ever'. No one in India today enjoys the sort of authority without accountability she does. I say without accountability because she considers herself above criticism -- in the media, legislature, judiciary or in political forums. She claims to have t he divine right to say the last word on any subject under the sun. She has no patience with the snail's pace of democratic discourse.

There are actually two Jayalalithas: (1) The fierce and formidable political Jayalalitha and (2) the genial and gracious nonpolitical Jayalalitha. Unfortunately very little is known about the culturally refined and enlightened Jayalalitha. She owns one of the largest and best private libraries in the country. She not only buys the best, latest and most expensive books but reads them. Being a trained and highly accomplished classical musician and dancer, she has an expert's knowledge of and an insider's insight into a wide range of performing arts. She has the reputation of being absolutely brilliant as a performer of classical Indian dances, apart from her stunning proficiency in classical Carnatac music, for which Tamil Nadu is famous. As a public speaker, she has few equals in any field: politics, literature, the arts, education, metaphysics, sports, games, sciences and of course films. She can speak on any subject with such charm, clarity, crispness and conviction that her audiences are just hypnotised by her erudition and elegant eloquence. Her speeches are solid because deep research and extensive reading go into them.

Jayalalitha is a politician with a difference. She is a provincial leader who can, and she did, not long ago, control Delhi. National heavy-weights seek her grace and goodwill. They kowtow to her in awe and reverence and wait for her smile. She is undoubtedly Prime Minister material. But she would rather make Prime Ministers than be one.

With everything going against her, only her ambition, will-power and ruthless pursuit of realpolitik have put her where she is: right on top of the world of her own making. Her un-Dravidian Brahmin birth, her outsider stigma, her strong belief in God and orthodox Hindu practices, alien to the atheistic Dravidian sentiment, her sex in the male-dominated politics of Tamil Nadu, her stiff, swanky upperclass brashness out of tune with the pro-poor, egalitarian social philosophy of the Dravidian movement, her cultural liberalism and her suavely accented, pro-English linguistic preference which counters the raucous, high-pitched fanaticism of the Tamil-speaking Dravidian leaders -- are all against her. Overcoming these and other hurdles, she finds herself riding the tiger, unstopped and unstoppable. She says: 'There is a strong spiritual streak in me. I spend a great deal of time in prayer and meditation. I am a deeply religious person. I draw my inner strength from my belief in God. No matter what the difficulties , obstacles and suffering I may have to undergo, I firmly believe that in the end good will triumph over evil. I draw my main inner strength from that. I feel that there must be some purpose in life, some mission in life, for which God has kept me alive'.

It is a safe bet that AIADMK's Jayalalitha will remain in office for life, with DMK's Dr Karunanidhi, her only challenger, out of her way. Where do the other parties stand? Having reduced themselves to disposable non-entities, they are out of sight. Fears are expressed in political circles that her arrogant and arbitrary style of governance and her insensitivity to the checks and balances inherent in parliamentary democracy may cost her dear in the long run. But she is confident that she can take care of herself. She says: 'In politics men think a woman is dispensable. They try to destroy her existence. But today no one can wish me away'. Since she has to contest an election and win it within six months she may lie low for the present restraining herself from reverting to her fascist practices. Or she may turn over a new leaf. Her track record in politics however suggests that there is an authoritarian streak in her. So it is not unlikely that, once she consolidates her chief ministership, she is bound to pr actise her own personalised style of governance, baring her fangs wherever necessary. With her vision, will, drive, resultoriented, policy-making skills, deep concern and compassion for the down-trodden and publicly stated commitment to excellence in whatever she does, Jayalalitha is capable of giving first-rate governance to the Tamil people, provided she treats politics as a test of statesmanship and not as an opportunity for eliminating one's enemies or enriching oneself.

Not much is known about this enigmatic, very private woman. Having failed to meet her 'Prince Charming', she has chosen to remain unmarried. Extremely suspicious and cynical, she keeps everyone at a distance. The only woman she trusts is Sasikala, a video saleswoman by profession, who is said to be Jayalalitha's soul mate and emotional anchor. No other two women can be closer together than Jayalalitha and Sasikala who have stood by each other loyally in the best of times and the worst. Sasikala, being co-accused in many criminal cases involving Jayalalitha, even went to jail with her inseparable companion. It is whispered that Sasikala and her relatives are obscenely rich because of the wealth they accumulated while Jayalalitha, then in power, looked the other way.

Sasikala is Jayalalitha's Achilles' heel. But is the chief minister aware of this? No. She does not seem to realise that she had to suffer an inglorious setback in 1996 because of the Sasikala factor. But Jayalalitha wouldn't agree. So Sasikala is back in her powerful role as the de facto chief minister. It can, however, be expected that Jayalalitha will caution her companion to be more discreet and responsible in whatever she does while she lives in the chief minister's house.

That gracious look, that gentle voice, that genial smile: oh, appearances are so deceptive. Behind Jayalalitha's smooth exterior can be seen an unforgiving enemy, an untrusting friend and a back-stabbing colleague who lets you carry on only on her terms.
COPYRIGHT 2001 Contemporary Review Company Ltd.
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Copyright 2001 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Jayalalitha, chief minister of Tamil Nadu
Author:Raman, A. S.
Publication:Contemporary Review
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Sep 1, 2001
Words:2669
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