An upstanding citizen of Chennai tells the story of going through old records at the prestigious Sacred Hearts girls’ school at Church Park in the city. She found many of the “outstanding” students did not go on to achieve any big things in life while some of the “average” students did. But there was one [...]

Sunday Times 2

Jaya the queen can move anywhere

AIADMK eyes clean sweep in Tamil Nadu

An upstanding citizen of Chennai tells the story of going through old records at the prestigious Sacred Hearts girls’ school at Church Park in the city. She found many of the “outstanding” students did not go on to achieve any big things in life while some of the “average” students did. But there was one student who was both first in class and excellent in extra-curricular activity. And the young girl would then go on to lead an extraordinary life, first in cinema, and then in politics. It’s a biography that’s not yet exhausted.

And if the image has been prone to exaggeration and allegory, she has all­owed it to be so. For she is indeed the Queen of Hearts in the wonderland of Tamil Nadu who has at times also been known to say “off with their heads”. At the start of 2014, J. Jayalalithaa is on top of her political form. In her third term as chief minister, she appears to have consolidated, and understood the art of yielding power. She is still ruthless in exercising it, but has survived three years without any big scandal or corruption case. She is now more restrained but shrewder in her calculations.

Jayalalithaa: Will she form the government in Delhi as head of the third front?

Her face is omnipresent in this critical state that will send 40 MPs to the Lok Sabha. Conventional wisdom has it that in this bipolar field fragmenting into a four-cornered one (AIADMK and DMK being the big players, with DMDK, MDMK and PMK in one or the other alliance comprising Congress and BJP), Jayalalithaa’s party could sweep Tamil Nadu this time, possibly making it the country’s single largest regional party.

That is why, when Delhi is viewed from a Chennai lens, there are many who argue that there can be no Modi government without Jayalalithaa’s support. That’s where the nub is. For that would only happen if she were not to find herself at the head of a Third Front herself. And such a formation could, theoretically, be as much within striking distance as any other in a tight race this summer. In other words, as a hack here quips, “If not Modi then Amma!”

Indeed, an AIADMK resolution last year left little to the imagination: “She needs to lead the nation to make India a strong superpower and to ensure all freebies being provided to the people of Tamil Nadu be made available for the rest of India too.”

AIADMK sources say her booth management for the big election has already begun. Workers have been dispatched to ensure her voters turn out in large numbers and the administration works in the ruling party’s favour. They say she has chosen only the Left parties as her allies and is not even bothered to woo the other small but significant players in the state because she is in no mood to part with seats.

As other parties scurry for alliances, the calm manner in which she’s trying to maximise her potential does exude a sense of confidence. But despite Tamil Nadu’s indices being nothing to sniff at – especially in a competitive comparison of state-level indices – it is certainly not as if the people being ruled by Jayalalithaa have no problems:

- There is rising unemployment in a society where people know their rights.
- There is labour unrest too in pockets in this industrialised, urbanised state.
- The power situation is critical although people say it is improving.
- The fishing community along the coast has its own problems, in one part a dispute over area rights and frequent arrests by the Sri Lanka navy. (The dispute with Sri Lanka over the island of Katchatheevu continues to fester-in 2011, the Jayalalithaa government filed a petition in the Supreme Court asking that India’s ceding of the island to Sri Lanka in 1974 be deemed unconstitutional). In the belt around the Koodankulam nuclear plant, the fishing community and protesters are mulling a shift to the Aam Aadmi Party platform.

But these are small currents in the larger picture. A chief minister largely seen as an efficient administrator could have been challenged if the opposition was united. It is not. And much of the discontent has been offset by imaginative, popular welfare acts that actually work on the ground. Twenty kilos of rice for each BPL family, mixie-grinders, free fans, bicycles for school kids, full scholarships for students who do well in schools, one rupee for an idli in Amma canteens and three rupees for curd rice, cash, sari and a taali (mangalsutra) for girls getting married.

Naturally, the fact that the DMK looks like self-destructing adds to the Lady’s invincibility. The brother-versus-blood brother drama in that party got a new twist last week with the chief of the clan himself adding theatrical twists to events. Party boss M. Karunanidhi, no stranger to the potent appeal of welfare schemes and freebies, had led the DMK front (that included the Left parties now with Jayalalithaa) to a sweep of all seats, then 39, in 2004. That is the sort of performance the AIADMK would like to make in 2014.

It does not seem impossible. In the decade since 2004, the AIADMK has shored up support and its leader polished off some rough edges. Simultaneously, the DMK has got embroiled in high-profile scams such as 2G, lost credibility on the Sri Lankan Tamil issue, besides the constant debilitation brought on by clan/sibling rivalry. Little wonder Jayalalithaa’s supporters now see her as a power centre without whom no government will be formed in Delhi. They go a step further and ask why she should not lead a coalition were the opportunity to present itself.

C. Ponnaiyan is an AIADMK veteran who has served under both MGR and Jayalalithaa and was finance minister once. He is sure it will be impossible for Modi to get the numbers being projected in national opinion polls. His reasoning may not look self-evident in Delhi but is quite obvious and unforced here in Chennai. “The personality cult built around him by the media does not reach rural areas. The BJP is present only in a few states. This election is an opportunity for a Third Front. And whoever gets the largest share of seats should lead it. We believe Madam will get that. She is firmly with the Third Front idea and the Left parties who will play a role in creating that.”
Strategists point out that when Modi became the BJP’s campaign committee chief, Jayalalithaa congratulated him. But she did not do so when he was declared PM candidate, and has since chosen to keep her distance and ignore him during his visits to Tamil Nadu. There is, of course, the analysis that she is putting out the line about being a PM candidate in order to motivate voters and cadres in the state, besides putting the stakes so high that any potential PM would have to grovel before her. Either way, she is playing to be kingmaker if not king and queen herself.

Cho Ramaswamy, founder-editor of Tughlak magazine and an institution in Tamil Nadu, has known Jayalalithaa since her days as an actress.

He says it’s too early to predict precise outcomes as the alliances with smaller players like DMDK, MDMK have not been finalised and they do impact the arithmetic. He believes Jayalalithaa will play her cards after the general election results are announced. Yet, he’s one of those who’d like the old bonhomie formalised. He says in the context of Modi’s “growing popularity”, if we want to “see something new” then why not a BJP-AIADMK alliance? “It would sweep an election”.

Yet that does not seem to be possible. Many commentators do, however, talk of a growth in vote share for the BJP. DMK organising secretary T.K.S. Elangovan says this: “I see the BJP and Modi as two units here. The first is zero but the second is appealing to urban upper-caste voters. But not enough to win seats although this is a very urbanised state.” Yet he believes both the DMK and AIADMK have learnt that alliances with the BJP turn out to be a liability when assembly elections take place for when you combine the Muslim and Christian populations they make up 15 per cent of the voters. “We lost the 2001 assembly elections partly because we were in alliance with the BJP in Delhi,” he says.

Yet the state BJP unit is upbeat and its chief Pon Radhakrishnan makes it a point to say “many Christian pastors are also joining the BJP”. He adds that “anyone, including Azhagiri, can join the BJP. All are welcome – we are Tamil Nadu’s growing force.” The BJP has sealed an alliance with Vaiko’s MDMK and now claims to have roped in Ramadoss’s PMK too.

But the party they are really keen on is the DMDK of actor Vijaykanth, aka Captain, who is keeping everyone guessing as he is believed to have the capacity to pull 8 to 10 per cent of the vote. Known by his followers as Puratchi Kalaignar (revolutionary artist), he has a following that cuts across caste and community and can work well in an alliance. He’s already been with the AIADMK and fallen out so that is ruled out. It seems he is trying to play the Arvind Kejriwal persona in Tamil Nadu, even as rumours abound about the amount each formation has been tapped for as the price to get him on board. (A Congress source reveals anyone who ‘gets’ Vijaykanth will have to fund the campaign of his candidates.)

Then there is the Congress, with a still-respectable vote share that works in an alliance. This time round, the political class says with unanimity it will fail to win one seat in Tamil Nadu. Besides, the UNHRC’s vote against Sri Lanka will come up in March in Geneva and that sentiment too will go against the Congress. The cheerful PCC chief, B.S. Gyanadesikan, hopes for a tie-up with Vijaykanth but says “even if we go it alone and lose, the Congress in Tamil Nadu will never cease to exist. There has always been a Congress base here and, remember, voters know our symbol here, they do not know the BJP’s.” What of the possibility of a DMK-Congress tie-up in the last stretch? The AIADMK’s Ponnaiyan has this to say: “If they fight together, they will be sunk for killing 1.5 lakh people of the Tamil race. They will end up in the bottom of the sea.”

Mother SuperiorJaya’s positive vibe rests on these:
- Scandal-Free: Her third term has been calmer, less rancorous. Fewer controversies and scandals.
- Pragmatic: She showed political nous on Koodankulam, opposing it in campaigning, okaying it in power
- Populist: With a strong stance on Lankan Tamils, she has stolen the thunder of old backers DMK, MDMK
- Governance: Ensured success of visible and eponymously branded welfare scheme ‘Amma Canteen’
- Realistic: Making a strong bid to bag all 40 LS seats in the state. A strong showing will mean she can play kingmaker or eye the crown.
- Crafty: Backed Left names for RS. That keeps open the option of heading a Third Front formation.



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