In my 35 years of journalism that saw several pleasant peaks, amid the inevitable lows, I must consider the reporting of J Jayalalithaa as being among the most challenging and exciting professional experiences. I still remember one of those early assignments covering a part of her hectic electioneering across Tamil Nadu in 1984, when she demolished her rival M Karunanidhi's campaign that people should not waste their votes on MGR since he was being kept artificially alive at a Brooklyn hospital. The AIADMK swept the polls and, returning from the US, MGR was sworn in as chief minister for his third consecutive term.
Following Jayalalithaa's campaign caravan in my own vehicle-I was then working for The Week magazine – I was astonished at the huge response bordering on mass hysteria wherever she went. I witnessed crowds from one village running behind her vehicle right up to the next village, just to listen to her for a second time. I heard people in the rural segments, particularly women, speak in wonder about her fair complexion and the flawless speech delivery. On one such occasion, breaking for lunch at a government guest house (I think it was at the Sathanur Dam), Jayalalithaa turned towards me and asked, 'So Singh, what do you think (of the campaign)?' I remember my reply too just as vividly – 'A chief minister in the making, ma'am.' She burst into laughter.
It was not shallow praise but an observation that I made while remembering what a close friend, Alai Osai Mani, a senior film journalist, had told me about MGR's campaign tours. Mani, who is no more, had narrated how people would run behind MGR's campaign vehicle from one village to the next, even women.
Within a short time of being inducted into the AIADMK by MGR and amid apparent hostility of the seniors who feared her quick ascendancy, Jayalalithaa handled admirably the huge challenge of leading the party campaign in that critical poll of December 1984. True, the public sympathy post-assassination of Indira Gandhi (the Congress was an ally of the AIADMK then) and the hospitalisation of MGR helped but the fact remains that Jayalalithaa's intense electioneering across Tamil Nadu hugely helped the party score a huge win.
But her detractors within the AIADMK succeeded in poisoning the mind of MGR against her and got her sidelined. And when he died on December 24, 1987, Jayalalithaa faced her biggest political and personal challenge. She had to wage a bitter battle for the mantle of AIADMK leadership and defeat the machinations of R. M. Veerappan and company, who had propped up MGR's widow for a while in the hope of gaining control of the party and the government by manipulating her. Failure would mean not just the loss of political power but also personal harm as her detractors within the party, and outside, would have hounded Jayalalithaa out of Tamil Nadu. In every sense, it was a tough battle for the dainty lady in the terrible male-dominated Dravidian arena and it began right on the gun carriage carrying MGR's mortal remains to the burial place at what later became his marble memorial by the Marina.
Her rivals in the AIADMK physically harassed her as she firmly stood by the head of the cortege on the steps of the historic Rajaji Hall and then pushed her down when she tried to get onto the gun carriage for her mentor's final journey. Humiliated by that crude conduct of detractors, Jayalalithaa refused to get intimidated and the other hand, appeared to have resolved then, and there, not to give up the fight for the AIADMK leadership. I was at her Poes Garden bungalow within a short time of that incident and a visibly distressed Jayalalithaa told me how terrible she felt at being so badly treated. Those men had stepped on her toes with their shoes and pushed her, she had then said.
That was the page-one lead for the Bombay-based newspaper I was then working for, The Indian Post. Even since those early days of glory and tribulation in the AIADMK, Jayalalithaa continues to be the favourite for the newspapers and TV channels across India and it has very little to do with her being MGR's heroine in movies. The editors and their readers loved her courage, intelligence and communication skills, besides, of course, her elegant beauty.
But we must not forget that many journalists, apart from even some of her own party colleagues and, of course, the rivals, had initially dismissed Jayalalithaa and the big crowds she drew at her public rallies as a natural fall-out of film glamour. Here, I must recall what I had written in The Week magazine of January 22-28, 1984. I had said: The Tamil Nadu people, who set the precedent of electing a celluloid hero to head the government, are only exhibiting their curiosity about MGR's former heroine, these people feel.
But these sceptics are unable to explain why, in that case, Jayalalithaa draws bigger crowds with each trip to a place. As she herself puts it, "If it is just film glamour that is drawing the crowds, would they come back a second time and a third time too, when I visit them? And why should they sit for over an hour just to satisfy their curiosity of how a film star would speak politics? They have accepted me as a political leader and there is no doubt about it".
I remember covering her Salem rally of May 1, 1983, for The Week magazine. She was then the AIADMK propaganda secretary. Old-timers gathered at the huge maidan told me they had never witnessed that kind of turnout. Over a lakh of people must have been there to listen to Jayalalithaa and when her speech that lasted an hour, maybe more, was over, many were heard commenting that MGR's vaarisu spoke well.
When she returned to Salem seven months later, the crowd had swelled to twice the earlier number. And many turned up at the maidan more than three hours before her scheduled arrival. Her meeting at Aruppukottai drew an even larger turnout. She was to speak for an hour but had to wind up in less than 10 minutes on police request as surging people trying to push into the playground stepped over electricity lines and plunged the place into darkness. Party lieutenants understood they should get larger maidans for her meetings, preferably on the outskirts of the cities/towns, to be able to accommodate the crowds.
From those Salem days to now, Jayalalithaa and her AIADMK have only grown exponentially in public esteem, not just in Tamil Nadu but also in other parts of the country, particularly in Delhi. Her lieutenants and the cadres have pledged all their energy to ensure that their Amma emerges as the decider in the formation of the next government at the Centre, after the 2014 poll verdict. It's been a long journey for Jayalalithaa, on a road strewn with stones and thorns, to emerge victorious in the battle for supremacy in the male-dominated Dravidian political turf. And this journey is still long from ending, for she is still very young at just 65.
And I am reminded of what she had told me in one of her early interviews. She spoke about her schooling at the Presentation Convent, Church Park. She was always a topper in studies, in sports, in drama and dance, in debates, in everything. She finished her matriculation in that school as the best student of that year. She even got a scholarship for further studies and secured a seat in the prestigious Stella Maris Women's College. "I wanted to do law and I would have certainly become one of the best lawyers in the country. But my mother forced me into films", she had said.
There is no doubt that Jayalalithaa would have become one of the best lawyers in India if she had been allowed to pursue studies, but then, that would have benefited only a limited number of people – her lucky clients. If destiny denied her the chance to pursue her passion in college corridors and court halls, it also gifted her state and its people with a leader who is extremely intelligent and competent, who could deliver unto them the development and progress she has promised.
I am unable to resist the temptation of ending this essay in nostalgia with a recall of what a senior bureaucrat told me during the peak of the tsunami (2004) tragedy. 'Her grasp of detail is awesome and her decision-making is super swift. This helped us deliver quick relief to the survivors and prevent outbreak of diseases in the tsunami-hit areas', said the officer who was looking after the relief operations.
She had to pass a ‘screen’ test'
With his health failing him, the ageing MGR wanted someone intelligent, good-looking and articulate, to travel around the state addressing people about his party’s principles and the government’s performance, besides taking on rival Karunanidhi. But few people know that the heroine of 100-plus films in five languages, including one in English, had to undergo a ‘screen test’ before MGR made that choice. It happened during the annual handloom exhibition at Egmore in Chennai, sometime in April 1982. Jayalalithaa was one of the speakers and she was given about 15 minutes.
She was not even a member of the AIADMK at that time. She spoke about the MGR government’s good work, about the weavers’ problems and so on. There were giggles when she took the mike but soon that was replaced with rapt attention. The ‘spy’ of MGR seated in a remote corner of the audience, Kamatchi Somasundaram, better known as Solai, the then editor of the AIADMK party organ Anna (it later became Namadhu MGR), went back to the leader carrying a smile of satisfaction and the tape of that speech. MGR listened to the recording again and again, then nodded his approval. Jayalalithaa had won the first round and the next step was to see if she would draw crowds like her leader.
MGR planned the induction and elevation of his pupil in meticulous manner. She joined the AIDMK on June 4, 1982 and within a fortnight came the big party conference at Cuddalore, where Jayalalithaa made an electrifying impact, coming into contact for the first time with the ranks. They quickly accepted her as a leader, particularly the MGR fan clubs who were then the AIADMK backbone. She addressed the youth wing members in Chennai on July 7 and a few days later her first public meeting at Madurai. It was a big hit. Within a short time, MGR was getting reports that wherever she went, she was getting huge crowds and that the audience was not just star-gazing but responding positively to the charming and articulate lady. In fact, the crowds were getting larger than even those witnessed for MGR rallies in the past. In this blaze of public adulation and the leader’s attention, all the senior AIADMK leaders and ministers got left far behind.
The opposition and some media persons raised questions of propriety when Jayalalithaa started seeking clarifications from officials after visiting slums and noon-meal centers, and speaking to children. MGR then made her a member of the state advisory committee to oversee his ambitious noon-meal scheme. A couple of days later, around August 20 (1982), she took a group of presspersons to some noon-meal centres in Chengelpet district. When MGR expanded the noon-meal scheme to cover more children and the elders at a function in Madurai on Anna’s birthday on September 15, Jayalalithaa inaugurated it at Gopalapuram.
MGR decided on a new policy for the AIADMK by which no person could hold two party posts. That resulted in Tiruppur Manimaran, party whip in the Assembly, to give up his post of AIADMK propaganda secretary. Having created a great impression on not just MGR but the majority of party rank and file with her hard work, it came as no surprise when AIADMK general secretary P U Shanmugham announced her appointment as propaganda secretary on January 28, 1983. Until then, the post of propaganda secretary seemed more of a decorative title than one for delivering any significant contribution to the party. Things changed dramatically at the AIADMK headquarters on Lloyds Road (Avvai Shanmugam Salai) after Jayalalithaa took charge.
Hordes of party members, men and women, started arriving from far and wide to meet the kozhgai parappu seyalaalar. Most came with petitions. Some brought DMK members to be admitted in the party. Talking to Amma was like talking to MGR and returning with her assurances was like carrying home a pot of gold. Dorai, the influential manager of the party headquarters, had then described to me how the office had become hyperactive after Jayalalithaa’s entry and how she energised all the party wings. Unlike her predecessors, S D Somasundaram and Manimaran, she attended office on all days when she was in Chennai.
I had then quoted Solai in my article for The Week. He had said: “This is the second upsurge in the AIADMK after the first one when MGR left the DMK and started his own party. That is why we now call her Puratchi Selvi (revolutionary woman leader). She was called Chinthanai Selvi (thinker) earlier due to her many published works. As one who is accompanying her on all her tours and public meetings, I can say without any hesitation that she is drawing as much crowd as the chief minister does and in some places even more than him. MGR knows this. She is a success and there is no turning back now”.
(This is a reprint of the article that appeared in DC on 25.2.2013)...