Cover Story

J Jayalalithaa: The Phoenix

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J Jayalalithaa, acquitted by the court, returns to reclaim the crown. Is she on her way to become Tamil Nadu’s most powerful political icon?

On Monday morning, when a former DMK MP texted a customary greeting to a party leader, he wasn’t expecting a reply. ‘Anna, how can it be a good morning?’ came the querulous retort, a little after 11.30 am. Their world had just come crashing down. The Karnataka High Court had acquitted AIADMK General Secretary J Jayalalithaa of all corruption and conspiracy charges in the Rs 66.6 crore disproportionate assets case, unexpectedly overturning her conviction in September 2014 by a special court. The DMK camp, disoriented by a total lack of recourse, could only watch with a lump in its throat as the geriatric M Karunanidhi appealed in vain to the ‘higher court of conscience’. “The fight has gone out of Dravidian politics. A long tradition of democracy is about to be decimated—all because of an incredibly lenient verdict,” declared the former DMK MP, preferring to remain anonymous.

The genteel environs of Poes Garden in Chennai, meanwhile, erupted in a grand carnival of jubilation. Outside Jayalalithaa’s residence, an assemblage of supporters, who had repudiated the very notion that their Amma could be guilty of sin, broke open coconuts, launched into quivering paeans, danced with abandon, stuffed sweets into one another’s mouths, and thanked the gods in what made for a compelling spectacle of performance art. They had reason for such wild cheer. In all the dozen-odd legal battles Jayalalithaa has won since the mid-1990s, never has there been so much at stake, nor so great a sense of relief as has washed over her kingdom now.

The victory is a throwback to the turn of the century, when, after being forced to step down as Chief Minister following an incarceration in a land deal case involving the Tamil Nadu Small Industries Corporation (TANSI), the Madras High Court cleared her and her close aide Sasikala Natarajan of corruption charges, paving the way for her comeback in March 2002. Now, as the potent drama of her resilience repeats after more than a decade, legions of supporters are more ‘emotional’ than ever before, says C Ponnaiyyan, an AIADMK spokesperson and former minister. The emotions that ran high ahead of the verdict were those of fear and grave concern, and seeking divine intervention was one way of assuaging them. The extant reality of Jayalalithaa’s cult, it is true, had scarcely diminished in the seven months since she stepped down as Chief Minister, but the ‘iron lady’ of Tamil Nadu seemed oddly fragile at Bangalore’s central prison, where she spent 22 days after Justice John Michael D’Cunha sentenced her to four years and imposed a Rs 100-crore fine. Back home in Chennai, the insinuations of corruption had hung like a bad odour, detracting from the AIADMK’s historic sweep of the May 2014 General Election, annexing 37 of the 39 Lok Sabha seats in the state. If elections are the equivalent of a physical match in the arena of power, then there is an even greater test a leader must pass to cement her place in the public sphere: a battle of wits against her sworn enemies. Jayalalithaa had all but lost this battle at a special court in Bangalore, where Justice D’Cunha, channelling Al Gore, rapped her for ‘the incestuous coupling of wealth and power’ that had marked her reign from 1991 to 1996. She now faced the ignominy of failing MG Ramachandran, the patron saint of the AIADMK whose legacy she had arrogated to herself, and there was a palpable urgency among supporters to rescue her from her imminent exile from politics.

On 11 May, their prayers were answered and the case went up in a puff of smoke as Justice CR Kumaraswamy found it not ‘sustainable’. If Justice D’Cunha had cited the Supreme Court’s profound pronouncement on corruption in the case of Niranjan Hemachal Sashittal vs State of Maharashtra, 2013—‘It can be stated without any fear of contradiction that corruption is not to be judged by degree, for corruption mothers disorder, destroys societal will to progress, accelerates undeserved ambitions…’— the Karnataka High Court judge disagreed, finding the degree of disproportion of the assets of Jayalalithaa and her three aides to their income relatively small—at 8.12 per cent—and therefore, not worth punishing. He cited the 1976 Supreme Court verdict in the case of Krishnanand Agnihotri vs State of Madhya Pradesh, which held that illegal assets, as long as they made up less than 10 per cent of total assets, would not be considered ‘disproportionate’ under India’s Prevention of Corruption Act.

Now, in a new twist, BV Acharya, the Bangalore advocate who was brought in to represent the State of Karnataka at the last minute and allowed only two days to make written submissions on behalf of the prosecution, has alleged that Justice Kumaraswamy got his basic arithmetic wrong: indeed, the loans from public sector banks availed by the accused and their companies, listed on Page 852 of the 919- page judgment, seem to add up to a little over Rs 10 crore and not to Rs 24 crore as totalled by the judge. If the discrepancy of Rs 14 crore is established, it would mean that the disproportionate assets amount to about Rs 16 crore, as against the High Court’s Rs 2 crore figure. ‘The fundamental mistake is in totalling 10 items of the loan. If there is a Supreme Court appeal, this will be an excellent point to prove that the acquittal of Jayalalithaa is wrong,’ said Acharya in a press statement on 12 May. The Opposition in Tamil Nadu, momentarily elated, has latched on to this precious morsel of hope, revealing itself as a bit of a poseur trying to appear confident in its charges.

A chintzy welcome song, simulated fireworks and ‘AMMA IS BACK’ in bold text greet you when you log on to Enter the website and pictures of Jayalalithaa, in her monochrome saris and with an unruffled and inscrutable expression, are repeated through the page. Beneath all the ritualistic fanfare that has surrounded the return of Amma, there runs an unmistakable undercurrent of seriousness that cannot be wished away. Convicted thrice—in the Pleasant Stay Hotel case, the TANSI case and the disproportionate assets case—Jayalalithaa has had to exorcise the demons of a disastrous reign and build her reputation anew. In 2003, the Supreme Court, while upholding her acquittal in the TANSI cases, warned her against ‘assuming power to indulge in callous cupidity’. ‘She must atone … by returning the property to TANSI unconditionally but also ponder over whether she had done the right thing in breaching the sport of the Code of Conduct and giving rise to suspicion that rules and procedures were bent to acquire the public property for personal benefit,’ the Court added.

Her expiation, then, has come in the form of welfare schemes for cheap canteens, provisions, cement and medicines, which took the public perception of the Dravidian state to a new high. In a massive image-building exercise during her last term as Chief Minister, she effectively inserted a benevolent facsimile of herself into the popular consciousness. In the course of her absence over the past few months, this subliminal programming held sway over her vast support base, which never quite wrestled with whether she was in fact guilty of corruption. “In the TANSI case as well as the disproportionate assets case, the courts never completely absolved Jayalalithaa. But to her followers, she is infallible,” says Gnani Sankaran, a Chennai-based writer and political commentator. “Had she been sentenced in the assets case, the AIADMK would still go on to win the Assembly polls.” In February, the party, demonstrating its sway over the electorate, swept the bypolls to the Srirangam constituency, a seat that had fallen vacant due to the corruption charges levelled against Jayalalithaa.

With her acquittal, Jayalalithaa, in her own words, has emerged “as gold further refined by fire”. Finally rid of the burden of past indiscretions, and arguably at the peak of her popularity, she will go from strength to strength, shaping the course of Tamil Nadu politics like few others have. In a bipolar state where power is a fleeting knighthood bestowed on either jouster, Jayalalithaa, riding a tsunami of sympathy, looks poised to steer her party to a second consecutive term in office. Not since MGR has someone bucked anti-incumbency in Tamil Nadu. If she calls for early polls, as is expected, she could make history and even supplant her late mentor and precursor as the most popular Tamil political icon of her time.

A sense of historical rupture already prevails in Tamil Nadu. The verdict, says state BJP President Tamilisai Soundararajan, “has brought politics to a standstill in Tamil Nadu”. While the DMK has suffered the worst blow, everyone is evaluating their options, she says. “Some incidents change the life and attitude of a politician. I hope this case is one such incident for Jayalalithaa. Corruption is still rampant in the government,” Soundararajan alleges, “and this must change.”

“It is a black day for justice,” says EVKS Elangovan, the Tamil Nadu Congress Committee president. “The danger of corruption will come back to haunt the state. An emboldened Jayalalithaa will not hesitate to do it on a much bigger scale.” Such absolute power could be dangerous, worries Thol Thirumavalavan, the leader of the Viduthalai Siruthaigal Katchi or Dalit Panthers. “I have been arguing for a coalition in Tamil Nadu politics. Power should be shared with the marginalised,” he says. Thirumavalavan hopes to approach several parties, including the DMDK, MDMK and the Left, in the weeks to come to try and join hands and eventually align with the DMK, although he admits that the party lacks the charisma of Jayalalithaa, who he says has won the affection of Dalits and other marginalised communities. He knows his ‘front’ would be an ambivalent and reactionary configuration. But with a demoralised DMK that is yet to get its act together and any hope of a Third Front dashed by the political implications of the verdict, it is the best option, Thirumavalavan says. “If we don’t come together in solidarity, we can’t muster a vital opposition.”

Within a DMK fissured by scams, Karunanidhi’s heir apparent, MK Stalin, could only muster a throwaway statement in the aftermath of the judgment. TKS Elangovan, a party spokesperson, was unavailable for comment. And when I called Durai Murugan, a former DMK minister and the sitting Katpadi MLA who was famously charged with roughing up Jayalalithaa in the Assembly—his caller tune, ironically, was a percussion piece usually reserved for weddings and auspicious occasions—he snapped that I should refer to his leader’s statement. Still, the DMK has some semblance of structure and propriety which are entirely missing in the ruling party, says a former AIADMK member who switched over to the other side some years ago. He calls the AIADMK a “group of people who chase after power and money with little regard for anything else”. The alleged ministers working under Jayalalithaa, he says, are like “postmen tasked with collecting money and handing it over”. “I was part of the regime and I know what it is like. You cannot express your opinion, you have to be compliant and fall in line. And you cannot have a conscience,” he says, still referring to Jayalalithaa as ‘Madam’.

“She takes long walks, writes English poetry and reads history and philosophy.” Ponnaiyyan paints an intriguing—and questionable—vignette of Jayalalithaa as a misunderstood recluse that is at odds with the epithets commonly used to describe her. “There is no room for bombast in her life,” he says. “My house is better provided with material allurements than hers.” As someone who rarely steps out of the aura of her mystique, Jayalalithaa’s personality appears entirely forged in the hot smithy of political ambition. But her long and blundering relationship with Sasikala, her confidante, political lieutenant and companion for over two decades, tells an epic story of loneliness and betrayal, and possibly explains her alleged trust issues. An associate and a party man in the know says Jayalalithaa has patched up with Sasikala out of “practical necessity” and because there is “a lot of money at stake”. The duo fell out in 2011 after Narendra Modi, the then Gujarat Chief Minister, reportedly alerted Jayalalithaa to the Sasikala family’s extortionist activities in the state. “Sasikala helped Madam through the loneliest phase of her life. But her family is an ambitious and corrupting influence and they are kept at arm’s length by all party functionaries,” he says. Sasikala and her relatives VN Sudhakaran—the estranged foster son for whom Jayalalithaa hosted a lavish wedding in 1995—and J Ilavarasi were also exonerated in the disproportionate assets case along with Jayalalithaa.

The BJP, perhaps, is one ally Jayalalithaa still has. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, with whom she appears to share a long and judicious friendship, was among the first to congratulate her on her legal triumph. (Few would remember now that in October 2000, when a local court indicted Jayalalithaa in the TANSI case, Modi, then a BJP general secretary, had hailed the judgment as an important step in the fight against corruption.) The BJP has adopted an equivocal approach to Jayalalithaa, alternately seeking her support for its Bills in the Rajya Sabha where the AIADMK has a strength of 11—Finance Minister Arun Jaitley called on her in January, when she was still an undertrial—and projecting itself as a viable alternative to the Dravidian parties in Tamil Nadu. “We are emerging as a strong force in Tamil Nadu and we will continue to enroll more members—we already have 40 lakh—so that we are able to enter a fruitful, non-corrupt coalition,” says Soundararajan, adding that it is too early to comment on the possibility of an alliance with the AIADMK. The BJP may harbour hopes of aligning with the party for the Assembly polls, but Jayalalithaa would rather go it alone when on a strong wicket. There is little scope for distracting cameos in the one-woman act that has once again taken the politics of Tamil Nadu by storm.

Modi and Jayalalithaa have more in common than meets the eye. They scripted their personal mythologies in the face of relentless attacks by the opposition and emerged bigger than their respective organisations. And while charisma and authority may be the defining traits of a leader, there are striking biographical parallels. Modi overcame serious allegations of involvement in communal activity—charges he was absolved of by an SIT—to become India’s man of the moment. Amma is the saviour of her party-state, her personality cult now bolstered by a felicitous verdict. But where the Prime Minister speaks to an aspirational India, Tamil Nadu is still caught up in the paradigm of the welfare state. “There is some ideological synchronicity with the BJP, but it doesn’t go all the way,” says an AIADMK leader. The imposition of Hindi and the three-language system will remain a bone of contention, he says. “Imagine a child running with three bags of rice. And another running with two bags. Which one will run faster?”

Legal luminaries, meanwhile, have expressed concern over the fact that Jayalalithaa’s case seems to have been decided without a prosecutor’s arguments in court. After the Supreme Court declared the appointment of Bhavani Singh as public prosecutor illegal, Acharya was reappointed late in the day but not given a chance to present his case. “This was short of a fair hearing. Both sides should have had equal opportunity to present their arguments, even if, the High Court being an appellate forum, there was no additional evidence to be submitted,” says A Ramesh, a senior advocate at the Madras High Court. After 18 years, however, a further delay would be tantamount to denying justice to the accused. Or would it? From the propaganda posters dotting Tamil Nadu, one is inclined to think that the mother would still have reigned over the hearts of her people, and prophesied, from the pulpit of her own church, her resurrection.