Wednesday, Nov 30, 2022

Chennai Corner

This was a year of highs and lows. Some of the newsmakers and events that dominated the year in Tamil Nadu

Highs and Lows

This was a year of highs and lows. Highs for Chief Minister Jayalalitha and the AIADMK and lows for former CM M Karunanidhi and the DMK. At the end of the year, Jayalalitha was not sitting as pretty. The purge of Sasikala Natarajan from her perch at 36, Poes Garden also called Veda Nilayam, along with her husband Natarajan and 12 others was dramatic after Jayalalitha reportedly sniffed a palace coup. Sasikala and her coterie, who had been influencing the appointment of ministers, bureaucrats, etc was reportedly planning to move in from her position of “CM 2” to CM presuming that the court case on disproportionate assets would fell Jayalalitha. The high was, however, when the party celebrated the ouster of the “Mannargudi Mafia” (as Sasikala and her cohorts came to be known as), and the cheers and optimism was that finally Amma was going to justify the overwhelming mandate she got.

For Karunanidhi, the DMK was beset with problems but on the personal front he was much cheered up after daughter Kanimozhi, who was arrested on May 20 by the CBI in the 2G case, got bail after 194 days.

Jayalalitha: Almost Annus Mirabilis...

Jayalalitha's party was in the doldrums till last year. The last straw was when the AIADMK candidate even lost his deposit in the Pennagaram by-elections in March. One year later, the AIADMK is king and Jayalalitha is the queen.

In the first flush of the landslide victory and becoming CM again in May, she seemed to have a new attitude, new approach, was warm and friendly so much so the media was totally in love with the new Jayalalitha. But that did not last long and of late her interactions have been through press statements whether it is the ouster of Sasikala and company, the Mullaperiyar issue, the Koodankulam Nuclear Power Plant controversy, the Samacheer Kalvi. It must be stated that on the Mullaperiyar and Koodankulam issue, she has been feisty coming across as representing people. With the centre, she has not been a Mamata Banerjee— she does not have the numbers of MPs that didi has— but she has been belligerent in dealing with the PM although she made nice with Delhi by going there soon after taking over. Her demand then that TN be given Rs two lakh crores and her latest demand for Rs 25,000 crores have not been met.

People— who voted her in with a landslide validated it by handing her a handsome victory at the local body polls in October— seem to have accepted that if she comes in, her regime will be marked by overturning all of the DMK government’s decisions. The same thing happens when the DMK comes in. “Is there rule of law in your state?” the court said when she sacked 15,000 contract workers hired by the DMK government. What is clear is it’s only the courts who have not feared to tread, rapping Jayalalitha on the knuckles more than once— on the Samacheer Kalvi issue when children wasted two months of school just because she did not want to follow the policy of her predecessor, and the Anna Centenary Library at Kotturpuram that the DMK government constructed at a cost of Rs 230 crores which she wanted to shift. What will happen to the New Assembly complex which she also announced would be turned into a Super-speciality hospital is open to question. The priority there will be the inquiry she instituted into the wasteful expenditure. There has been a hitch with the judge heading the commission of inquiry resigning on the grounds of “ill health”.

She tried hard by filing petitions in the Supreme Court, to dodge summons for a personal appearance by a Bangalore court hearing her Rs 66 crore disproportionate case. But here again her will was not done and she was forced to go to Bangalore twice and answer over 1300 questions over four days.

Karunanidhi: Annus Horribilis...

2011 has truly been annus horribilis for Karunanidhi. The people sent him packing in the Assembly elections held on April 13 and a judge sent the apple of his eye, Kanimozhi, to Tihar jail. When 2011 came around, like the 75th script he penned (for Ilaingan, which hit the screens around Pongal), which was so out of touch with today’s reality that it sank at the box office, even he was so out of whack with the pulse of the people he did not see the Amma tsunami coming.

There’s widespread agreement that Karunanidhi, now 87, let his children, wives, other family members and leaders in the party feather their nests. His family became supreme in the party, cinema and every other part of life so much so that the patriarch held the Congress to ransom over policy(like Mamata Banerjee is doing now), ministerial posts. The 2G scam in which his party leaders like A Raja and Kanimozhi have been arrested led to the DMK getting a licking at the ballot box.

Far from Karunanidhi deciding who to hand over his “throne” to, it turned out that the patriarch had to vacate as CM. It was not so much a pro-AIADMK vote as an anti-DMK vote and TN had kept its reputation intact— of being true to the dosa syndrome where the DMK and AIADMK rule in turns for the last 40 years.

Karunanidhi had not even recovered from this blow when Kanimozhi was jailed sending him and the party into further dejection. After that, his one quest was to see his daughter out of jail. While he shed tears for Kanimozhi, his son Stalin stepped into the breach, and unsuccessfully tried to keep the DMK’s chin up as Jayalalitha set up a special cell for land grab cases. While Karunanidhi was weighed down by the defeat and the land grab cases— he called it political vendetta— the local body elections came and once more the DMK got a tanning from the AIADMK. It showed that people’s anger at the scams, the land grab, the “family misrule” of the DMK had not abated.

At year end with Kanimozhi getting bail, Karunanidhi might give more time to the party, and for introspection. After delinking from the Congress for the local body polls in anger over Kanimozhi’s incarceration, he’s more in a mood to forgive now that she has been released. Evidence that he was building bridges with the Congress could be seen from his calling on Congress President Sonia Gandhi on his last trip to Delhi as opposed to his ignoring her in the earlier two trips.

Kanimozhi: Picking Up the Pieces

2011 was not a good year for Karunanidhi’s favourite daughter Kanimozhi either. Not only did she spend a little more than six months in Tihar jail after being charge- sheeted by the CBI in the 2G Spectrum scam, the image she had cultivated of a reluctant politician, who was more interested in literary pursuits was shattered. Her incarceration made her appreciate the rousing reception she got after finally getting bail after failing the first four times. “The grand welcome has given me resilience,” she said. But, for the moment, she is realistic— she has to be in Delhi frequently while the 2G case is on— saying, “Getting bail is only a first step. The most important thing is proving my innocence.”

“I will continue my political career as my father brought me into this field. I will work according to his wishes,” she said throwing down the gauntlet for step-brothers Stalin and Azhagiri’s benefit. There is speculation that Kanimozhi, who was sent to the Rajya Sabha by her father in 2007, will get a “big post” in party as a “reward” for her “sacrifice”. But whatever she thinks, the truth is that Kanimozhi in involved in a serious case for which, if she is convicted, the punishment could be severe.

Her father’s task is to bring his two sons, Stalin and Azhagiri (who may have got their nose out of joint when some posters hailed her as the “future CM”) on board. Incidentally, while Stalin was at the airport to welcome her (along with Kanimozhi’s step-sister, Selvi, and stepmother, Dayalu Ammal), Azhagiri was conspicuously absent. Some feel it’s an indication of melting hostilities. Others say they were ordered by the father to the airport just as he had sent them to Tihar jail to look her up.

But the aam aadmi did wonder what “sacrifice” she had made to warrant such a reception or for that matters posters such as, “Alas, what tortures you have to face, for being a person who has not even thought of harming an ant” or even “From now on, you are not a garland of f lowers, you will be our battle flag (Ini Nee Poonkodi alla, oru porr kodi …. Naalai sarithiram padaippaval nee)"

Cho Ramaswamy, Editor of Thughlaq, says, “I don’t understand how she is a martyr.” Dr Suresh of the PUCL said, “Where is the sobriety? I think these sorts of ‘celebrations’ only expose the level of desperation in the DMK to win back people’s minds. But the DMK should remember that people including Kanimozhi were seen as being involved in the Spectrum scam.” The Foodking CEO, who fought the recent local body elections to become Mayor of Chennai, says: “She did not go to jail fighting for public interest. She was investigated and found accused as a conspirator in the 2G case and therefore was jailed.”

Stalin— This Thalapathi has to Wait

It is the opinion of many that if Stalin had taken the DMK into election, instead of Karunanidhi, the party might not have fared so poorly. The DMK got only 23 seats in the 234 seat house, conceding 150 to the AIADMK. Even he had to sweat and his election still remains contentious with his opponent Saidai Duraiswamy (the current mayor of Chennai) going to court contesting his win.

However, this year it has been up to him to keep the DMK flag flying with his father being very low over Kanimozhi’s jail term. Even when many DMK stalwarts were jailed on land grab charges, it was Stalin who did the round of prisons to keep the morale up. He took on Jayalalitha repeatedly accusing her of vendetta politics and foisting cases against DMK men. But at year-end, it was Stalin— along with son, Udayanidhi, who has since got anticipatory bail— and four others (Srinivas, P Venugopal Reddy, Raja Shankar and Subba Reddy) who were charged by the Central Crime Branch on the complaint of N Seshadri Kumar, who claimed that he had been threatened into parting with a 6,000 sq plot off Cenotaph Road much below the market rate.

Unlike other DMK leaders and even brother Azhagiri who ran for cover when his “friends” were charged with the same crime, Stalin went on the offensive and registered a counter complaint at the DGP’s office saying it was not a First Information Report but a “Fraud Information Report” and that CM Jayalalitha had grabbed public land in Kodanadu, her estate in the hills. The state government threatened him with defamation for mudslinging. But Stalin scored political points and Jayalalitha was reportedly incensed with the police for botching an operation that reached Karunanidhi’s house.

But the question in DMK circles is: Will he always be a bridesmaid, never a bride? Many times he has come close to being anointed as the “thalaivar” to replace his father but has always remained “thalapathi”. This year, Stalin showed impatience at being made to wait (Karunanidhi articulated many times in the past that he wants to hand over the reins to Stalin but was stymied by Azhagiri). At the DMK’s general council meeting in Coimbatore in July, Stalin’s followers broke out into a chant of “thalapathi,thalapathi” making it clear they were getting restive. But Karunanidhi was irritated and even walked out in a huff. It was not clear whether Karunanidhi did not have the stomach for a family fight with Kanimozhi then in jail or whether he was not ready to step aside or whether he felt his daughter had now earned the right after her stint in jail and therefore was holding out.

Azhagiri — Always the Maverick

He’s still looking over his shoulder although CM Jayalalitha has been mature about handling him as compared to her ham- handed handling of his father in 2001 when she had him arrested at midnight, invoking widespread condemnation for being so brutal against an old man! The fact that he is a union minister is a laksham rekha that Jayalalitha, given to recklessness on occasion, will not cross although during her October 2010 rally in Madurai she promised to run him and “his goondaraj” out of Madurai. It must be mentioned that five men allegedly associated with him including ‘Attack’ Pandi escaped detention under the Goondas Act after the Madurai bench of the Madras High Court quashed their detention on a technicality. The conspiracy theory is that their pleas against the detention was not contested within the stipulated time by the state government deliberately to facilitate them going free.

The temple city which used to be his fiefdom is not so anymore. Azhagiri might be roaming free but this anja nenjar (braveheart) has no teeth anymore. Why even the Madurai corporation took back the 2,000 sq feet of space that he had grabbed— through a resolution at the corporation— for his use. Many of his “friends”/ backroom boys/ loyalists went to jail for land grabbing but they are all out now, curiously.

He set off tongues wagging when he did not show up at the party’s executive committee meet to discuss the Mullaperiyar issue in early December. For a man who hit the headlines two years ago as an absentee minister— his attendance record in Parliament and even at cabinet meetings was abysmal— nobody missed the irony when Karunanidhi attributed Azhagiri’s no-show to his preoccupation with the Parliament session in Delhi (“He has the important responsibility of answering questions in Parliament”). Azhagiri was conspicuously absent when step sister Kanimozhi returned at long last. He was also absent when DMK leaders led by Stalin formed a human chain to support TN’s case on the Mullaperiyar issue. In July when the DMK’s general council met, Azhagiri skipped the afternoon session after the “thalapathi” chant by Stalin’s supporters. Now Azhagiri has to contend with another claimant, Kanimozhi, freshly minted as a “martyr who sacrificed for the party.”

But it must be said that the maverick Azhagiri has made it a habit to bring focus on the undercurrents in the family while Karunanidhi and Stalin go out of the way to pretend ‘all izzz well”.

A Raja— A Lonely Jailbird

With one after 2G scam accused getting bail, the former telecommunications minister, who was arrested in February is among the few still in jail. There are rumours that three major Tamil publications are queuing up to publish his prison diary. Earlier Karunanidhi and former colleague and current chief of the MDMK, Vaiko, had made prison diaries famous. Except, he has not applied for bail so far so the prison diaries might be far off although he has been seen scribbling in jail.

The jotting down may have increased even since former IPS officer R K Sharma left Tihar after the Delhi high acquitted him in October of killing journalist Shivani Bhatnagar. Apparently Raja and Sharma had grown “close” and the former was even learning Hindi from him. Raja is reportedly more tense these days, the smile has vanished and keeps to himself.

Land Grab Cases

This year was marked by the multiplying land grab cases filed by the Special Cell that Jayalalitha set up soon after coming to power. By year-end 300 land grab cases against DMK biggies had been registered. Several top leaders in the DMK including former ministers like S Durai Murugan, Veerapandi S Arumugham, K N Nehru, K Ponmudy, NKKP Raja, KP Samy, Pongalur Palaniswamy, former legislators and two sitting MLAs (Anbazhagan) have been arrested on different land grab charges. So far nearly 20,000 complaints have been registered by the cell headed by ADGP(law and order) S George.

When Jayalalitha came to power, it was a sure thing that she would go after Azhagiri. But while he escaped because he is a union minister, his “friends” who flirted on the wrong side of the law because of his “protection” were not so lucky. Four of them were arrested in July including DMK executive committee members G. Thalapathi, N. Suresh Babu (who is believed to be a close political aide of Azhagiri), Krishna Pandi and Kodi Chandrasekharan. The complaint against them was that they compelled a woman to sell her property worth Rs.4.36 crore for just Rs.40 lakh when the DMK was in power. Azhagiri, who is known to be very loyal to his aides, went on several occasions to Palyamkottai prison to see them. “I’ve come to see my friends,” he told the media defiantly.

Azhagiri’s wife, Kanthi, and son, Dayanidhi, (whose company Cloud Nine produces films) figure in another case. In fact, this piece of land was reportedly not included when Azhagiri declared his assets on joining the union cabinet. There are documents that show Kanthi bought agricultural land— from the lottery kingpin Santiago Martin, who too was arrested for grabbing land—measuring four acres on March 5, 2010 for a mere Rs.85 lakh. The market value of the plot which belongs to the Madurai Temple Trust was Rs 16 acres at that time. The temple priest Subramaniam has claimed, “Santiago Martin illegally claimed ownership of this land and now it has been transferred and registered in the name of Kanthi Alagiri. We demand that the government retrieve our land and return it to the temple trust.”

Ponmudy spent the largest prison stint (82 days) while Nehru, Veerapandy and Raja spent about 40 days and finally got bail by approaching the Madras high court because they were charged with criminal offices which were non-bailable. Some leaders like Samy, union minister Azhagiri’s aides like Pottu Suresh were charged under the goondas act.

At Karunanidhi’s direction— remember he famously said the party had no money and DMK lawyers have to take one for the party as the expression goes— the DMK legal wing formed its own team to fight the cases. According to DMK legal wing secretary, “All the cases against our functionaries have been foisted. And since our wing has fought effectively, most of our cadres, including those booked under the Goondas Act, have now obtained bail.”

But the story is far from over. The question is will victims have to do the round of courts (Jayalalitha promised special courts) to get the land back while Jayalalitha gets hyped up as the saviour of the people.

Kodankulam and Mullaperiyar

Film scholar, Theodore Baskaran, said, “Today, excessive oratory and grandstanding has gone out of Indian cinema.” But for politicians, oratory and grandstanding is de rigueur. At year-end neither of these two ongoing disputes, started by and kept simmering by politicians, seemed close to resolution. If anything by the first week of December, the 116-year-old Mullaperiyar had stoked the fire so much that Tamilians and Keralites in the border districts were viewing each other with suspicion and were marching to their respectively borders belligerently.

Cashew plantations in Kerala went bereft during the plucking season because Tamils did not go there to work. In fact there has been a symbiotic relationship between the two states for as long as anyone living in the border area can remember. Tamil workers go across the border to work in plantations and even have incomes of Rs 500 per day are facing bleak days of no income. “We are on the verge of starving,” says a worker articulating the plight of many others. Families in Kerala, who depend on TN for milk and vegetables, have taken these off the table. Many Sabarimala pilgrims, after being stopped because there were in buses having TN registration, decided to break their “deeksha” in local temples, something that’s never happened before.

While Kerala politicians agreed to back off because PM Manmohan Singh told them no talks can take place unless fires are doused, the damage had been done. But the PM, who almost sacrificed his government in 2008 on the nuclear deal has not managed to allay the fears of locals— despite sending former President APJ Kalam and even setting up a 15-member expert panel— against the Koodankulam Nuclear Power Plant(KKNPP) who have been protesting since September 12. Even on December 18, thousands of protestors organised by the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy took out a rally against the PM’s statement that the plant would be operational in two weeks.

Arasu cable

The Tamil Nadu Arasu Cable TV that Jayalalitha revived and re-launched in September has recorded a collection of Rs 18.28 crores. Karunanidhi had launched Arasu cable in 2007 to rival Sumangali Cable Vision of the Maran brothers with whom he fell out in May. But after the reunion in December 2008, Karunanidhi allowed Arasu to go defunct, losing subscribers.

But now the government charges Rs 70 for a cable connection of which Rs 50 goes to the operator and has garnered 1.13 crore subscribers which will be increased to 1.5 crore in March 2012. “We have got a revenue of Rs 4.45 crore till date,” exults Arasu’s MD S Vivekanandan.

Rajnikanth— The year of Rebirth

The sms joke that did the rounds was that the collections for Shah Rukh Khan’s Ra-one did not even exceed the collections made for parking at theatres showing Robot which came out last year. Incidentally, Shah Rukh even got Rajnikanth to come to Mumbai and shoot a cameo for Ra-one in a marketing ploy that would get his fans in and Ra-one could be acclaimed as a hit in the south. That did not quite happen even if Rajni, just out of a Singapore hospital in mid-July, did the only movie shoot he has done since April when he fell ill on the sets of Rana.

Rajinikanth, had suffered from exhaustion on April 29, the first day of the shoot and was admitted to Isabel Hospital here but discharged the same day. However, he was readmitted on May 4 for allergic bronchitis and viral fever and later shifted to Sri Ramachandra Medical University Hospital before being flown to Singapore on May 27. The crowds milling outside the SRM hospital was a measure of Rajni’s status as a demi-god. The man, often complimented for his humility, wrote a letter to his fans just before his return here from Singapore. “I will not forget this for ages. I don’t have the words to thank you all. Henceforth, my ambition is to entertain you all. I will appear in Rana soon and entertain you,” he said, ending speculations that the movie in which he had been paired with Deepika Padukone has been shelved due to his ill health.” But he has not begun shooting.

For a man who does one film in two years, the superstar has 50,000 fan clubs more than double his closest competitor Vijay who has 20,000. Like Vijaykant who converted his fan club into his cadre, actor Vijay too has the same plan going by the fact that in the assembly elections they banded together and supported the AIADMK. “Rajni sir has not given permission to start new clubs for the past 15 years otherwise there would be many more,” says Sudhakar, head of the Rajnikanth Fan Clubs’ Association. Rajnikanth not only has worshippers in many states in India, he also has fans in Japan.

Rajni’s fans are now lobbying for December 12, his birthday (he turned 62 this year) to be declared as World Style Day because style is synonymous with him— not just his cigarette flick, his sun goggles toss, but the way he talks, walks, sits, etc. In fact, the lobbying began about a month ago on a Facebook page after a post by a Rajnikanth fan. Since then it has gone viral and now there are one lakh fans (and counting!) who are clamouring for the dedication. But the biggie is next year when his birthday is on a significant day— 12/12/12. Next year will also be marked by his film Kochhadayaan, an animated prequel to Rana, that is going to be directed by his daughter, Soundarya.

The Kolaveri Boy

For actor Dhanush it has been a bittersweet year. On the one hand father-in-law Rajnikant fell ill but on the other, he won the national award for Aadukalam. While actors like Surya— the Aamir Khan of Bollywood— are more talked about and have a certain urban profile, Dhanush quietly made waves in rural TN with critically acclaimed films like Kadhal Kondein, Pudhupettai and even hits like Thiruda Thirudi, Thiruvilayadal Arambam, Polladhavan, Yaaradi Nee Mohini and Padikathavan.

By year end he became the Kolaveri Di boy as the song went viral. “The National Award did not get me as much media acclaim as this one song has. I am ecstatic,” said Dhanush who went to Mumbai and admitted he talked to “top actors” for a Hindi film he intends to direct. Incidentally, Kolaveri, which has become an anthem for the youth, is going to be shot on him in a film called 3 which his wife, Aishwariya, is directing. This is her first time as director. Also, certainly the year when she had a bigger profile than sister Soundarya, considering she was the official spokesperson for the family when father Rajni was ill.

One hopes that she will have more luck as director than sister Soundarya did as producer of an animated film Sultan which has never saw the light of day although promos of Rajni as Sultan the warrior were released with much fanfare in 2008. The film was renamed Hara last year, then Dheera this year. Last month, however, Soundarya tweeted, ‘Sultan is my dream project. Had a few roadblocks, a few wrong turns. Have now restarted my film with a new title and storyline.”

Is the Mayor for real?

Chennai had the usual problems this year— roads that were destroyed during the rains and garbage piling up everywhere. The new Mayor, Saidai Duraiswamy— the first AIADMK mayor and also the first mayor of the Greater Chennai which is now 425 sq kms— hopes to make a difference along with the recently appointed Muncipal Commissioner, PWC Davidar. And if he is faithful to the persona who came across at the recent seminar on Sustainable Development, there’s hope for this city yet. After the seminar he was handed a giant bouquet. He asked the organizers how much the bouquet cost. Rs 300, they said. “Since there are five bouquets here, this giant bouquet must have cost Rs 1500. With Rs 1500, you could pay a year’s school fees of a child,” he said. Was he trying to make a statement for effect? What one should mention is that Duraiswamy has been running academies to train IAS aspirants in Chennai and other places of TN and is something of a hero for youngsters!