BY JAYASHREE ARUNACHALAM

Four months ago, standing in the blazing sun of Chidambaram with a screaming wave of supporters at her feet, Jayalalithaa faced a cut-out of the Parliament. Newspaper articles were discussing her prime ministerial capabilities ad nauseam. Her election rallies were theatres of emotion—grovelling senior party leaders; weeping supporters holding on to her photograph; her own anthem blaring on repeat, heralding her as the golden lady.

When she went on to sweep 37 out of 39 contested seats in the Lok Sabha polls in May, she seemed to be an unstoppable force.

At 2 p.m. on September 27, Jayalalithaa was convicted by a special court in Bangalore in an 18-year-old case tried under the Prevention of Corruption Act and the Indian Penal code. She has been found to have amassed wealth to the tune of Rs 66 crore disproportionate to her known sources of income during 1991-96, her first term as Chief Minister. The verdict—subject to the appellate process—ensures that she demits office with immediate effect, and cannot contest the 2016 assembly polls. She also faces a four-year jail term and a fine of Rs. 100 crore.

More importantly, the AIADMK, a party that has 150 MLAs and 37 Lok Sabha MPs, finds itself without a leader.

Jayalalithaa’s position as undisputed queen with no known successor is legendary. Her party workers frequently describe her as omnipresent, and speak freely only on the conditions of anonymity. She stands head and shoulders above senior leaders because, as one local secretary put it, “she doesn’t want any equals”. All she wants are exaggerated demonstrations of subservience.

Few party members can claim any kind of personal equation with her. Party members also shy away from discussing her aide and partner-in-conviction, Sasikala Natrajan. “They are close. It is not our place to comment on their relationship. A criticism of Sasikala is a criticism of Amma,” says Mukundan, a party worker at the AIADMK office in Chennai.

At 9 a.m., Rajamanickam, an AIADMK worker in Chidambaram, cautiously said the party does not know what to expect but is “confident that Amma will not be defeated”. At 2.30 p.m., his confidence had plummeted. “We don’t even know what is to be done day-to-day now. No one is told what the plan is going to be for the party.”

The party found itself in a similar, though far less critical, state in 2001, when Jayalalithaa was banned from contesting in elections after being found guilty of criminal charges. O. Pannerselvam subsequently became chief minister, a role that party workers freely—but anonymously—say was that of a puppet. Several names are being discussed to replace her, including that of Pannerselvam, but no one is sure, since Jayalalithaa has never tabled the issue as a topic of discussion. And none of them dared discuss it in her presence. “We were told this is nothing, so obviously that’s how we behaved,” says Rajamanickam.

The impression is that once Jayalalithaa is removed from the process, the chain of command fractures. There are senior leaders in charge of various departments and portfolios but within the AIADMK structure most decisions are run through Jayalalithaa herself. When Pannerselvam was chief minister she still held the reins, but a jail term of uncertain duration and eviction from electoral politics, will change that. This is an opportunity for those in the AIADMK who are brave enough to imagine a destiny without their leader. Jayalalithaa herself probably has a plan, but party workers are not privy to this knowledge. A sense of despair at their leader’s conviction is all that has been granted to them.

Reactions of AIADMK supporters have started coming in. In Coimbatore, dhoti-clad men lie on the road. Outside Jayalalithaa’s house in Chennai, women are beating their breasts in agony, while others burn photographs of Subramanian Swamy, who first filed a criminal complaint against Jayalalithaa in 1996. Many shops in Chennai have already downed shutters, anticipating violence by AIADMK workers. In Kanchipuram, a bus has been set on fire, and supporters are clashing with policemen in Trichy. AIADMK functionaries have taken to the streets in protest, regardless of the fact that it’s their leader who is guilty of corruption.

It does not seem to make a difference to her supporters that Jayalalithaa was convicted of wrongdoing. There is no reinforcement of faith in the judicial system; instead there’s a prevailing sense of injustice that Amma could be jailed. In the complex ways that democracy functions in Tamil Nadu—where the citizen is always banking on the benevolence of the state, where corruption and worse in high places is a given, and where perceived personal bonds with the leader mean the most—a verdict like this is a shocker.

“This was only one small case,” Mukundan says, sounding desperate. “She has great love for Tamil Nadu.” This unanticipated conviction—even though it was always likely—has hit them hard. Even on the Internet, opinions are divided. That so many others are as bad or worse is a recurring theme.

But it’s a heavy fall for a relentless politician who, in the last few months, launched a slew of projects named for her—Amma Salt, Amma Theatres, Amma Cement. Her vanity accompanied her this morning too, when she departed her Poes Garden house for Chennai airport. She traveled, as she always does, in the front seat of her vehicle which is fixed with a light just above her, so it can shine on her face like a beacon as she passes through the streets of Chennai. Today, like every other day, the light was on, and the Puratchi Thalaivi was glowing.

(The piece has been updated to reflect the quantum of punishment.)

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