The image is more than two decades old. But it refuses to fade from public memory, at least in Tamil Nadu. Jayalalithaa Jayaram, then an out-of-work actress and a novice in Dravidian politics, was knocked off the bier when she tried to clamber on a gun carriage transporting the mortal remains of MG Ramachandran (MGR) for his funeral. She had been pushed by an enraged nephew of MGR’s wife Janaki, who had her own anger against Jayalalithaa. It was an event telecast live by Doordarshan, and it gave a fillip to the political career of Jayalalithaa, who cleverly manipulated MGR’s legacy to emerge as his heiress within the AIADMK, his party, and the wider political arena as well.
Heirdom can be burdensome. For her entire political career so far, Jayalalithaa had resisted adopting one aspect of MGR’s persona, his support for Eelam, a yearned-for Tamil homeland (in Sri Lanka). But on 25 April, in the midst of a Lok Sabha election campaign she finally gave in. This marks her most dramatic switch in stance ever. In a campaign speech at Erode, Tamil Nadu, aware of peaking public sympathy in the state for the suffering of Sri Lanka’s Tamil civilians, she declared herself in favour of Eelam.
The DMK Chief Minister M Karunanidhi, her archrival, had always been seen as the bigger Eelam supporter. By stealing the thunder, Jayalalithaa has suddenly raised the stakes in a way that could influence electoral outcomes.
It’s a story that goes back a long way, even before the 1987 funeral. To his fans, MGR was a matinee idol turned politician, a leader of the Dravidian movement for a vision of social justice espoused by the rationalist leader Periyar Ramaswamy. To Jayalalithaa, though, MGR was ‘everything’ as she put it; this was not a rational formulation, but then, neither was MGR’s deification by his cult followers.
That fan base was vast and varied enough to make or break electoral fortunes, as Jayalalithaa proved by posing such a stiff challenge for power to the only other big claimant to the Dravidian legacy, Karunanidhi of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the original Dravidian party that MGR had split to form the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK).
All these years, Jayalalithaa had seemed sensitive to Sonia Gandhi’s view of the LTTE, Sri Lanka’s Tamil rebels held guilty of the suicide-bomb assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, her former PM husband. Jayalalithaa retained this view despite being classified by the LTTE, which had habitually held MGR as its ‘favourite Indian politician’, as Eelam’s main enemy in India, next only to the late Rajiv Gandhi.
But wars have a way of turning sentiments. With the Sri Lankan army closing in on the rebel outfit, and civilian refugees washing ashore in Tamil Nadu, public emotion was sure to run high. And swaying or being swayed by public emotion has always been Jayalalithaa’s strong point.
“She has corrected a big mistake. Her change in stance echoes the sentiments of Tamils all over the world,” was the response of Tamil nationalist leader P Nedumaran. Yet, the fact that her call for Eelam took not only Nedumaran, but also other LTTE supporters like Vaiko, Ramadoss and Thol Thirumavalavan by surprise speaks volumes for how stunning her reversal of stance is.
As for her bid for inclusion in a central coalition, Jayalalithaa is now rooting more strongly for the Left-led Third Front than ever. Just where she stands in India’s complex party matrix has never been clear, nor where she sees herself on the Left-Right spectrum. During the last presidential election, she had aligned herself with a ‘third’ alliance formed by Chandrababu Naidu’s TDP and Mulayam Singh’s SP, but eventually threw her lot in with BJP candidate Bhairon Singh Shekhavat.
Jayalalithaa’s saffron relationship has had its own share of U-turns. When she was in power last in Chennai, her state government had enacted a controversial law to ban ‘religious conversions’, a move inspired by her spiritual adviser then, Swami Jayendra Saraswati of Kanchi Kamakodi Peeth. But, sensing minority disaffection, she suddenly snapped her political links with the BJP, flipped her position on conversions and even ordered the arrest of the Swami for the alleged murder of a temple priest. Now, she’s a Third front ally of the Marxists.
With such a track record, no one quite knows what to expect of her next. Not least the Congress. Rajiv-era nerves apart, the party would need an alliance partner in Tamil Nadu after the polls. So it was that the UPA Government claimed credit for Sri Lanka’s 27 April declaration that it was holding back its heavy weapons in the military offensive against the LTTE, which was supposed to sound like a reprieve for unarmed civilians at risk of classification as ‘collateral damage’.
The collateral benefit for the UPA was that it gave Karunanidhi, an alliance partner, the facesaver he needed to call off his protest fast after only about half a day’s self denial of food.
Just what all this means for the finer details of Tamil politics is still being worked out. As for AIADMK workers, they are relieved so see the party return to the MGR mould; he had donated Rs 6 crore of his own to the LTTE in the mid-1980s to buy arms. In return, the outfit’s chief V Prabhakaran gifted his benefactor an AK-47 assault rifle, hailing him as a fellow ‘social revolutionary’. MGR’s attempts to secure official backing for the LTTE, however, fell afoul of New Delhi.
Back then, Jayalalithaa’s view of the LTTE had not yet crystallised, though she was assumed to be in sympathy with the Eelam struggle in Sri Lanka, as were most other state leaders. Only after the LTTE’s Sriperumbudur terror strike of 21 May 1991 did things change. In an Assembly election that followed, she attacked the outfit and rode the Rajiv sympathy wave to power in Chennai. Now, however, as tales of Sri Lankan atrocities against civilians do the rounds of Tamil Nadu, the horrors are hard for any politician to ignore.
Those who agreed with her earlier stance, such as Subramaniam Swamy and Cho Ramaswamy, term her switch a case of rank opportunism. “She has been vocal against the LTTE since the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi,” says Cho, “Her alliance won all seats except one Assembly seat just after the assassination, and Karunanidhi was the only one who got elected to the opposition benches. Now, she is lampooning that history.”
Whatever she’s doing, observers suspect that the DMK is jealous of it. They secretly envy the freedom she has because she is not part of the ruling coalition at the Centre. Karunanidhi, in contrast, has to play his line with caution, calling Prabhakaran a personal friend (and no terrorist) one day, and retracting his description the next. t’s the sort of flipflop approach that irks Eelam sympathisers some of whom are disappointed with India’s alleged failure to defend Tamil interests in the neighbouring island country.
How deep does this feeling run? It’s a question on which election results in Tamil Nadu could turn. Karunanidhi has the burden of incumbency, and this is a state that seems to have made vote rotation between the DMK and AIADMK a habit. Jayalalithaa had the advantage of a broader local alliance this time round, with everyone alienated or snubbed by the CM rallying around her (last time round, she had been the focus of such a joint attack). Former friends of the DMK like MDMK and PMK, not to mention the Left, are now with the AIADMK.
“Amma will play the role of king maker at the national level,” predicts an AIADMK leader, “She has no ideological baggage and so she can easily become part of any formation that gets maximum seats.” It’s interesting, her politics. Notice how her manifesto for this election speaks of national issues more than local?