January 24, 2020
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The Life And Times Of Jayalalitha

"No one can get anything out of me or subdue me by threats, harsh treatment; it only makes me more stubborn, inflexible, unbending, determined. The only way anyone can get me to cooperate is to be nice to me, pamper me, cajole me, talk to me kin

The Life And Times Of Jayalalitha

MISJUDGED, misled, misinterpreted, misunderstood and mismanaged. All this, say her friends, has rendered J. Jayalalitha highly unpredictable, as the BJP found out to its dismay. Personal considerations motivate political actions. Good and bad are differentiated by a mind ridden with angst rooted in a troubled past. Even success does not seem to have healed her victim syndrome. Indeed, neither her allies nor her foes can explain why Jayalalitha projects herself as a victim even when she is cracking the whip.

Says Valampuri John, former MP: "She is a bundle of contradictions. There is a deep-rooted attitudinal problem which can be traced to her past. She perceives all men in her life—her father, MGR, her one-time live-in friend Shoban Babu—as people who failed her. Therefore she seems to have developed a deep distrust of almost everyone." John, who helped Jayalalitha in her formative political years and published a semi-autobiographical novel and two books of essays, stands discarded. He too has joined the ranks of those who once helped the AIADMK chief.

The disenchantment with practically everyone she was close to is reflected in her autobiography published in the Tamil weekly Kumudam in 1978. Her father is presented as a "squanderer and a gentleman of leisure", a man "who could not handle anything properly". MGR is a person who she said she would rather "treat as an equal rather than a superstar". A ‘betrayal’ by a school friend too left a deep impression. Jayalalitha had played postman for this friend who was in love with a neighbour. But "when the girl’s mother discovered what was going on, my friend played Brutus and painted me as a daughter of an actress and a girl of loose morals."

This overwhelming sense of being ‘used’ seems to have influenced the worldview of the otherwise precocious and sensitive girl who dreamed of "becoming a millionaire and a lawyer", collected pictures of Rock Hudson and had a crush on cricketers Nari Contractor and Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi. "I used to go for matches with binoculars just to look at Pataudi and Pataudi alone," she croons. Her dream world collapsed when her mother Sandhya—also an actress known to MGR—revealed that a "financial crisis in the family" meant that ‘Jay’ would have to give up studies and start acting. Recalls Jayal-alitha: "It was a rude shock to me. My argument with Amma was that it was she who punished me for putting on make-up and told me to stay off cinema who was now pushing me into acting."

So the 16-year-old, instead of going to Stella Maris College, went to the sets of director C.V. Sridhar’s film Vennira Aadai (Widow’s Robe). An ironic title for a woman who never married, although she confesses she never understood "the word platonic" and believed that "either there is a romantic relationship between two people or they are just friends". A loner, Jayalalitha seems to have harboured a distrust for others rather early in life. "The experiences I have been through, the suffering and pain have taught me an important lesson: in life there is one person you must rely on—yourself."

Her former friends have all been abandoned. Cho Ramaswamy, editor of Tughlaq who she fondly describes in her autobiography as a ‘valuable’ friend, was recently admonished publicly and asked "not to describe himself as a friend". Salem Kannan, two-time AIADMK MP who virtually created a political base for her in the party, is now persona non grata. Ministers in MGR’s cabinet and former Jaya loyalists S. Thirunavakkarsu and K.K.S.S.R Ramachandran have been eased out of the party. Says Kannan: "After all that I have done for her, I am deeply hurt at the manner in which she dumped me when I advised her to keep Sasikala and her family at a distance."

Kannan and Valampuri John were privy to her blow-hot-blow-cold relationship with MGR. According to John, MGR was ‘suspicious’ of Jayalalitha and monitored her every move. He realised that she was a very independent woman "who acted on her own volition". Indeed, when MGR opted for a new heroine in 1970, an irate Jaya found a new friend in Telugu star Shoban Babu. It was only in 1981 that the relationship was revived, leading to her induction into politics a year later. Recollects Kannan: "A minister in MGR’s cabinet invited Jayalalitha to present a dance-drama at Madurai. MGR was so impressed by her performance that they became friends again."

Though the friendship was revived, MGR kept a close tab on his Ammu. Notes John: "This played on her mind. She felt she was a trapped woman being observed under a microscope. But she also seemed to have enjoyed all the attention." Interestingly, among those asked to spy on her by MGR was Sasikala who then ran a video parlour. Later, she became one of her closest advisers. Notes Kannan: "Very few people know this. But copies of the letters she wrote to me on her political moves made their way to MGR. I am convinced that this was given to him by Sasikala."

MGR had reasons to be suspicious. In late 1984 when he was hospitalised in the US following a stroke, Jayalalitha, a Rajya Sabha MP since 1983, was convinced that she should take over the reins. She approached the then prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, and governor S.L. Khurana to appoint her chief minister since she felt that MGR’s health would not permit him to discharge his duties. Her moves were widely reported. Kannan who acted as her courier confirms her efforts to get to the top slot. So does John. Thirunavakkarsu. And R.M. Veerappan.

Stung by her moves, MGR stripped her of the deputy leadership of the parliamentary party. In an interview to Savvy magazine, she articulated her anger against the decision: "MGR has been a great influence in my life, I don’t deny that. But now I am my own person. I have evolved. Hereafter, I am responsible only for myself. Never again will anybody influence me to such an extent that all my thoughts and actions and statements are influenced and made in a particular way just because someone else wants it that way."

 In this "I will launch myself" mode, a parallel outfit called the Jayalalitha Peravai (conference) was formed in 1986, courtesy Kannan. Though Jayalalitha has denied any hand in its formation, Kannan told Outlook that it was with her full knowledge. The formation of the Peravai upset MGR no end. She was asked to stop functioning as the propaganda secretary of the AIADMK, a post specially created for her in 1983, and Kannan was expelled from the party. "When I met MGR he was very cryptic in telling me not to support that woman," says Kannan. The rivalry continued and in early 1987 the group opposed to Jayalalitha managed to convince MGR to convene the general council of the party to expel Jayalalitha and her friends. Sensing this, 33 MLAs owing allegiance to Jayalalitha held a meeting and decided to approach Rajiv to prevail upon MGR to stall Jayalalitha’s expulsion. Says Kannan: "This meeting was wrongly reported by the state intelligence as a move to float a rival party. A bitter and sad MGR could not stomach his protege breaking away. The sacking of Jayalalitha was struck off the general council’s agenda and Madam was invited to speak at a public rally that evening." This was the turning point in her career.

According to Jayalalitha’s inner circle, it was her success in managing MGR, often described as the wiliest of CMs, that convinced her she could manipulate all categories of politicians. Her pressure tactics with the BJP, they aver, are only a manifestation of this. Her former friend Thirunavakkarsu notes: "She has a history of using people and then discarding them." According to him, she has no permanent friends. This perhaps explains why she has tied up with her one-time arch rival Subramanian Swamy. Adds Thirunavakkarsu: "You cannot view her actions through traditional logic. She is a very impulsive person who manufactures situations to push her own personal agenda."

To a great degree, MGR is responsible for her achieving instant VIP status in the party. It was he who gave orders to partymen that they should stand up to show their respect to her. It was he who advised her to shun the media. When she came to power in 1991, she took all this to an extreme limit. She kept even her ministers at a distance. It was widely believed that it was Sasikala Natarajan who ran the government.

But the final word comes from Cho: "It is her habit to make unf-avourable remarks against her allies. She did it to Narasimha Rao. But this is the first time that she is trying to humiliate a PM. She is in a desperate hurry. Perhaps the cases against her could be solved only when the state government is changed. What she fails to understand is that the mandate is as much the BJP’s as the AIADMK’s."

Political wisdom dictates that Jayalalitha should be more diplomatic. But Jayalalitha functions on the principle, what Jaya wants Jaya shall get. Given her past, it doesn’t seem that preposterous, but for the Vajpayee government it spells continued turbulence.

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