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ICONIC CHANGE

Having discarded the AIADMK's Dravidian roots, Jayalalithaa is out to overshadow the MGR legacy. India Today's Arun Ram traces the path of her untiring ambition.

Thirty, they say, is the right age. Not too young to be taken lightly, not too old to be written off. As the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) reached the milestone last month, it was evident that the party was projecting itself as being at its prime. Having won 134 of the 140 seats it contested in the 2001 elections. it runs a government with an unassailable majority. The Opposition is in tatters and J. Jayalalithaa, its supremo, who has a strong mass following,is determined to emerge from the shadows of her mentor MGR and prove that "legends" can be living too.

A careful look at the past shows that Jayalalithaa's efforts to rebuild the party around herself , relegating the lifesize image of MGR to a fading backdrop, began immediately after MGR's demise, or perhaps even before that. People like Panruti Ramachandran K. Rajaram and K.K. S. S. Ramachandran, who were close to MGR and who later helped Jayalalithaa to nullify the splinter group headed by Janaki Ramachandran, were dropped after their utility was over. Today, the AIADMK is a party of Jayalalithaa-loyalists. Kalimuthu, who renounced MGR and was out of the party, is today the speaker of the Assembly. C Ponnaiyan, the finance minister, had been on the fringes till he started praising Amma more than Ayya.Jayalalithaa, however, has been careful not to demolish the MGR legend in one stroke. She realises that it is the mighty combination of the three initials and the two-leaves symbol that are the mainstays besides her own cultivated charisma. So MGR images abound during election days. As late as in the the 2001 assembly elections, Jayalalithaa extensively used the MGR image, but this year, it has been different. It was conspicuously absent in the 30th anniversary celebrations of the party.A discerning look into Jayalalithaa's moulding as a politician reveals that she had her eyes set on the numero uno slot right from the beginning. Says Cholai: "Jaya was so ambitious that she wanted to become the chief minister when MGR was hospitalised." This is substantiated by a letter - frequently reproduced by the DMK organ Murasoli - she wrote to Rajiv Gandhi pleading that she be sworn in the chief minister since the ailing MGR could not discharge his duties.There are enough indications that beneath the cloak of the symbiotic relationship between MGR and Jayalalithaa, all was not well. MGR was indeed impressed by the articulation of the reel-life heroine and felt that she could contribute to his political growth. That is why he brought her into the party in 1982 and made her a member of the state high-level committee on the noon meal scheme and later a Rajya Sabha member and the propaganda secretary of the party. "But, at one point of time, when MGR came to know that she was getting too ambitious, he did not project her further," says Panruti Ramachandran. "There were times when MGR did not even speak to her for long days," he adds. Cholai remembers an earlier incident, which put off MGR. "In one of the media interviews, Jayalalithaa went to the extent of saying that MGR owes his popularity to her. It upset MGR so much that he dropped her from the movie Ulagam Suttrum Valiban, and paired himself with Manjula."

Journalist and political commentator Cho Ramaswamy agrees that there were differences of opinion between MGR and Jayalalithaa but adds that "it happens at the higher level in all the parties. "Panruti Ramachandran, a member of the MGR cabinet, reminisces vividly the differences between MGR and Jayalalithaa. "When MGR was in Brooklyn (1984) to take treatment, Jayalalitha was sent for electioneering throughout the state. Jayalalithaa thought the huge crowds that gathered to express their sympathies with MGR had actually come to see her. She insisted that she be made the chief minister. This upset MGR. He told me we could use her for the party, but should not allow her to rule. A meeting was arranged between MGR and Jaya at the CMO. She came and fought with MGR asking for deputy chief ministership and left in a huff. " Panruti says that after MGR's death, he, with the consent of Navalar Nedunchezhiyan, announced Jayalalithaa as the general secretary of the party. MGR's widow Janaki Ramachandran wanted to take over. The party split into Janaki and Jaya factions and the Janaki faction took over two weeks after MGR passed away, but the government was dismissed on January 30, 1988. Two days later, Sasikala moved into Poes Garden. Jayalalithaa realised the power of the two-leaves symbol, when it was frozen by the Election Commission in the assembly elections on January 21, 1989. While the Janaki faction bit the dust, Jayalalithaa's AIADMK garnered just 27 seats under the "cock" symbol. She patched up with an already disheartened Janaki and got back the two-leaves symbol. Jayalalithaa got the right break on March 25, 1989, when she was allegedly ill-treated by the ruling DMK in the Assembly. The image of Jayalalithaa coming out of the Assembly with her hair disheveled, Kannaki-like, and vowing to return to the House "only as the chief minister" gave her the image of a woman scorned by a male chauvinistic majority. That paid off. She did return to the Assembly, as promised, as the chief minister in 1991. The AIADMK, under the powerful lady leader looked all set to scale new heights. That could have been a reality if Jayalalithaa had not mistaken the people's mandate for a license to unleash a reign of abrasive power. Her five-year tenure was steeped so much in questionable deeds and deals that the AIADMK was wiped out in the 1996 assembly elections, with Jayalalithaa herself losing the election. Moopanar's decision to walk out of the Congress to form the Tamil Maanila Congress and Rajnikanth's clarion call to "defeat the evil forces" helped the DMK to come back to power. "Jaya is a leader with mass appeal," says Cho, "but it is also because of the misgovernance of the DMK that the AIADMK became powerful enough to storm back to power in the 2001 elections." Jayalalithaa could claim the credit for the AIADMK's landslide victories in the 1991 and 2001 elections, but she cannot compare it with MGR's victory in 1977. It remains a fact that Jayalalithaa has won both the times as the leader of grand alliances. In 1991, the AIADMK was in the company of the Congress and the elections happened just 25 days after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi on May 21. As the sympathy wave took Jayalalithaa to chief ministership, the Congress was the loser. In the 2001 polls too, the Congress was part of the AIADMK combine. So were the PMK, TMC, CPI, CPI (M) and the Muslim League. In other words, the Jayalalithaa-led AIADMK has never proved its strength on its own. One of Jayalalithaa's bold steps away from the basic Dravidian thinking is her affinity towards the Hindutva forces. After her courtship with the BJP in 1998 and the subsequent snapping of ties, Jayalalithaa appears to be playing to the Sangh Parivar galleries, if not the BJP. "This," points out "Chinnakuthoosi "is against MGR's policy to pretend as an atheist, though he was a believer." Jayalalitha, who spoke in support of the Kar Seva at Ayodhya, has endeared herself to sections of the Hindutva brigade through a series of actions like the introduction of the Anti-Conversion Act and the Annadanam in Hindu temples. "This is going to cost her dearly," warns Cholai. But Jayalalithaa has her own scheme of things. She would not tolerate a second rung, nay second person, in the leadership. Party leaders are kept in a state of perpetual fear of loss. Jayaranjan, director, Institute of Development Alternatives (IDA) and a political commentator, feels that the AIADMK has been kept loosely structured everywhere and omnipotent at the top. "No district party leader is allowed to emerge strong in the AIADMK," he says.

Having discarded the AIADMK's Dravidian roots and now trying to overshadow the MGR legacy, Jayalalithaa proves that she is untiringly ambitious. And the logical result of this is that nobody can think of AIADMK beyond Jayalalithaa. "Without her," says Cho, "the AIADMK may degenerate." For a leader, who weaves on a party, systematically replacing the old yarns, and a following that just cannot say "no", such a scenario is unthinkable. Many, in fact, don't think at all.

 

 

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