Jayalalithaa's long walk in the political wilderness

Anyone Seen Her Lately?

The Lady of Poes Garden has vanished from Chennai to a little known tea garden in the Nilgiris. Tamil politics awaits her return, stars willing.

K A Shaji

Wilderness has its attractions, they say. About 75 years have passed since Lord Erskine, British governor of the erstwhile Madras Presidency, visited a remote village located on the eastern ridge of Blue Mountains in the present Nilgiri district of Tamil Nadu. Stunned by its beauty, the British Lord termed it a princess among hill stations. Since then, much water has flowed down the Moyar and Bhavani rivers which pass through the village, but Kodanad remained desolate and overshadowed by Ooty hardly 30 km away—till J Jayalalithaa made it her summer retreat.

The former chief minister of Tamil Nadu and supreme head of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) has a white mansion in Kodanad on a sprawling tea estate acquired some years ago. If anything is splendid about it, say her critics, it is her isolation at the moment. For the past four months, she has fortified herself there in near complete solitude—far from the bustle of Chennai politics.

Assuredly Jayalalithaa wouldn’t like the sound of the allegations being made in the state capital by her arch rival and current chief minister M Karunanidhi: that she bought that tea estate with 800 acres of land using ‘benami’ tactics (use of dummy names for land registration), that she violated several laws to construct the palatial bungalow, that she is guilty on many counts. As it happens, all this is in the news because the cases against her in the matter are awaiting their judicial verdict. The estate also hit headlines recently when poor locals came out in protest against being prevented from using a public road passing through the plantation.

Yet, Jayalalithaa remains a political force to reckon with, a clear sign of which is the rising reverence with which her fans regard the tea estate in question: all the publicity has only given it the aura of an alternative power centre. In a state given to over-the-top iconography, her presence as opposition leader in the state Assembly is less important than her occupation of some sanctified space or the other, wherever it might be. An element of mystique adds to it. According to a political observer, her retreat has already stretched as long as the UPA’s second reign at the Centre.

There are no clues emerging about when it will end either. Jayalalithaa vanished behind the gates of her Kodanad mansion soon after the humiliating defeat her party suffered in the last Lok Sabha election. The Chennai temperature, both political and atmospheric, was high at that time and so nobody found anything strange in her decision to head for the hills. But now that the plains are no longer quite as hot, people are wondering when she will return to her famous Poes Garden abode in Chennai.

As for AIADMK party members, they have had to satisfy themselves with her long-distance musings from the hills. Journalists have been kept supplied with photocopies of her statements faxed across from Kodanad. These address a plethora of issues—from national security and the plight of Sri Lankan Tamils to Union Minister MK Azhagiri’s poor command over English and Hindi. But other than the all-round amusement caused by Azhagiri’s attempts to get Hindi/English speaking bureaucrats in Delhi to respond to him, none of Jayalalithaa’s observations have had any impact lately.

Despite her fluency in English, she is acutely aware that the trail of snickers that Azhagiri is leaving in the north does not translate into a fan following for her in the south. In June, she ordered her party to boycott the three recent by-elections to the Tamil Nadu Assembly. To observers, it was just a way to avoid campaigning in places too far from Kodanad, while posturing against the possibility of a free-and-fair election under the Karunanidhi regime.

Murmurs of discontent have risen in decibel level since. “She expelled me from the party through a small statement issued from the Kodanad estate to the media—no meeting of party higher ups or other democratic proceedings,” complains SV Sekhar, the Tamil comedian and Mylapore MLA who was once her close confidant. “Look at the iftaar party she supposedly ‘hosted’ [in Chennai during Ramzan recently]. In response to her invitation, top leaders of AIADMK’s allies, MPs, MLAs, highly respected Muslim leaders and business magnates all participated in it,” he adds, “She was the only absentee.”

Jayalalithaa could not make it to the event on account of ‘unavoidable circumstances’, according to a message read out on her behalf by the AIADMK’s minority wing secretary Anwar Raja.

It’s how the Iron Lady operates nowadays; party functionaries are summoned to the hills for diktats every now and then, and that’s the word until the next audience is granted. This modus operandi makes Jayalalithaa the only directly elected leader in the country running her party by remote control. “Even whenever she is in Chennai, Jayalalithaa is not easily accessible to both public and party workers. How long can she run a powerful regional party like the AIADMK with just press releases and sermons?” wonders political observer C Lakshmanan.

Chennai, in the meantime, is abuzz with tales of Amma’s political exile. According to a top source close to her, she is evading direct politics only because of astrological advice. According to him, she has long gotten over the electoral debacle, and is plotting a powerful comeback very soon. It’s just that various heavenly bodies need to be in perfect alignment for the auspicious moment. “A Kerala-based astrologer told her to stay away from the Chennai house and active politics for a certain period of time,” says the source, “Now, she is just waiting for the date recommended by the astrologer to return to Chennai.”

So far, astral dictates have done little to relieve Jayalalithaa of the bad press she’s getting. That she has sought refuge in Kodanad in the company of her controversial close friend Sasikala Natarajan, who is also accused in many corruption cases, is fuelling a frenzy of speculation. Pictures have surfaced of the two women socialising with tribals in hamlets they have apparently visited lately, leading to sarcastic comments about such ‘revelry’ by her critics.

The more charitable say that her long hibernation must surely be meant for some serious purpose. Provoked by the decision of Chennai’s Metropolitan Transport Corp to carry couplets of poet-turned-politician Karunanidhi in all buses, they surmise, she is busy penning her own couplets in bulk for use during her next turn as CM.

Whatever her plans, her well-wishers want her back. “A comeback is not easy without her active presence. But Sasikala is more powerful and influential than us. She is the unofficial second in command and she dictates terms,” laments a former minister and senior party functionary.

Her allies, the CPM and CPI, are certainly not pleased with her behaviour, especially not her poll boycott, ‘citing flimsy reasons’. With the opposition gone, the DMK is having a field day, her communist allies groan.

“She must immediately come out of the Kodanad cocoon,” advises her old friend and famous political commentator Cho Ramaswamy, “People in Tamil Nadu now have a feeling that there is no real opposition party here. AIADMK cadres and people in general are seeking her active presence.”

Party members spy a threat in Karunanidhi’s younger son and deputy chief minister MK Stalin’s growing popularity as an easily approachable leader. At another level, there’s the possibility that Rahul Gandhi might actually pull off the seemingly impossible—revive the Congress in Tamil Nadu. The Gandhi dynasty scion’s Chennai press conference was noted by the literati for his eloquent words on ‘bridging the two Indias’ (words which would have resonance far beyond the state), even as the Congress woos popular cine stars like Rajnikanth and Vijay to sign up. No matter how loyalties shape up in the months to come, Jayalalithaa might find that the enchantment of tea plantations in Kodanad is not preparation enough for the electoral battles ahead, let alone what the stars higher up in the night skies might have to offer.

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