|COVER STORY |
The Jayalalitha Backlash
Stung by the AIADMK chief's pressure tactics, the BJP-led government at the Centre is paralysed. How long will Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee continue to yield to her personal agenda?
By K Govindankutty and K M Thomas
Puratchi Thalaivi J. Jayalalitha is accustomed to having the last word. Last month, the AIADMK general secretary drove into Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's 7 Safdarjung Road residence in her air-conditioned Tata Sierra. Before she disembarked, a retainer rushed to place a stool below the car door. The lady put one regal foot down, then the other, and gently made her way to Vajpayee's living room. The meeting over, Jayalalitha decided on an impromptu press conference. Major Jaswant Singh, now playing major-domo, obsequiously escorted her to the marquee on the patio. There, quite oblivious of the prime minister's assurance to Parliament about not misusing Article 356, she announced that she expected the BJP to keep up the pressure on the DMK Government in Tamil Nadu. "They know what to do," she declared with menacing certitude.
Union Special Secretary (Home) Ashok Kumar clearly did not. Sent to Tamil Nadu as part of Home Minister L.K. Advani's endeavour to improve coordination between intelligence and law-enforcement agencies, he did what a model bureaucrat should not do: speak out of turn. It was bad enough speaking to the media, but Kumar compounded his offence by giving a clean chit to the state Government on the law and order front. It was an indiscretion that led to his ignominious transfer. For the Government, the fallout was more debilitating. It led to tensions between the Home Ministry and the Prime Minister's Office and fuelled speculation of a tussle between Advani and Vajpayee. In the outside world, the shock was more severe. In 24 hours, Jayalalitha was on the warpath; in 48 hours the Government began looking shaky; and after a week of internecine warfare, the BJP-led Government was resembling the fractious United Front (UF) regime it had just replaced. "Two down without a run on the board," gloated UF spokesman S. Jaipal Reddy. Even the BJP couldn't disagree.
A headache for Vajpayee since she held back her letter of support on March 12 and bargained her way into three cabinet berths and three other ministerships, Jayalalitha is fast becoming a nightmare for the Government. In single-minded pursuit of a personal agenda, she has triggered a veritable civil war in the coalition. As the war of words between Jayalalitha, Commerce Minister Ramakrishna Hegde and Urban Development Minister Ram Jethmalani intensified, there was renewed concern over the stability of the Government. More pertinent was the fear that a preoccupation with Jayalalitha and her battles would end up paralysing the Government and destroying its credibility. As a harassed prime minister tried to use gentle persuasion to settle an unseemly political brawl, he was berated by coalition partners and even BJP colleagues for being too mild. The apparent weakness shown by Vajpayee in handling Jayalalitha has led to a flurry of demands from other coalition partners for more. The BJP, by the admission of its outgoing president L.K. Advani, has ended up looking "weak". More important, the public image of the Government has taken a severe battering.
A possible beneficial effect of Jayalalitha's shenanigans is the decision to resurrect the still-born coordination committee as a forum to resolve the internal strains of a disparate coalition. But even this proposal could run into trouble. Bred in a different political culture, Jayalalitha is just not accustomed to an atmosphere of free and frank debate. During the discussions on the Government's National Agenda she took umbrage at Hegde's rebuttal of her proposal to make Tamil an official language. That minor incident provoked her into holding back the letter of support to Vajpayee in March. Subramanian Swamy, Jayalalitha's battering ram, for example, says that he has more worthwhile things to do "than sit with Hegde and Jethmalani". There are already whispers in the AIADMK that the coordination committee may be a forum to "corner" the supreme leader.
If the coordination committee does meet next month -- and Vajpayee's chosen emissary Jaswant Singh succeeds in making Jayalalitha sit at the same table with Hegde -- some questions will remain unaddressed and unanswered. Ironically, these are the precise questions that are agitating public opinion. Will Jayalalitha agree to be a disciplined partner? For how long? How far will she go to press her personal agenda? Will Vajpayee meekly acquiesce? If he doesn't, will she bring the Government down?
Not unexpectedly, many of the answers are to be found in Tamil Nadu, more precisely the law courts in Chennai. Since assuming office two years ago, the Karunanidhi Government has slapped as many as eight cases of corruption against Jayalalitha. In one of the more serious cases involving purchase of TV sets during her chief ministership, Jayalalitha was arrested and jailed for a month in December 1996. To expedite the judicial process, the state Government established special courts to try Jayalalitha and 12 of her ministers in the previous government. She went to the high court questioning the legality of the special courts and secured a stay. The division bench that heard her petition is now all set to give its verdict. If it upholds the special courts, it is certain that proceedings will move at a furious pace. Legal experts indicate that certain cases like the one involving kickbacks in the purchase of 45,302 colour TV sets can be concluded speedily since they involve scrutiny of official documents. "The case can be completed in 60 days if there are no hitches," says a member of the investigation team. Already, the high court has rejected Jayalalitha's plea to drop her from the TANSI land case. In the TIDCO case, filed, ironically, by Swamy, she and two others were ordered to make good a Rs 28.29 crore loss to the exchequer. "The countdown has indeed started," says Karunanidhi, "and it is for Jayalalitha to go to prison."
Not that Jayalalitha is in a mood to give in easily. It is widely believed that she has used her clout at the Centre to influence the transfer of Chief Justice M.S. Liberhan just as he was to pass judgement in the crucial special courts case. Legal circles in Tamil Nadu are outraged by this apparent act of subversion, and the Chief Justice of India has been flooded with letters of protest. A group of lawyers went on dharna in front of the high court in Chennai for three days last week against the transfer. Equally sharp has been the reaction to the appointment of 33 pro-AIADMK advocates as Central government standing counsel, and the transfer of Enforcement Directorate (ED) officer K. Kumar who was heading the investigations into FERA violations of Jayalalitha's trusted aide Sasikala Natarajan.
However, even if Jayalalitha is able to scuttle those cases (mainly involving Sasikala) that come under the Centre's jurisdiction, she still has to run the gauntlet of state government prosecution. Which is why the dismissal of the Karunanidhi Government figures so high on her agenda. If President's rule can somehow be imposed in Tamil Nadu and the state remote-controlled from the Centre, Jayalalitha has a realistic chance of extricating herself from the mess she finds herself in. It is not for nothing that her nominees have been carefully allotted portfolios that have a bearing on her cases. Law Minister M. Thambi Durai has already stated that the cases against Jayalalitha are "politically motivated".
Jayalalitha knows that the best way to achieve her objective is to cry hoarse over a breakdown of law and order in Tamil Nadu. Contrary to the impression Vajpayee and Advani have given of their unflinching commitment to constitutional norms, the BJP has never categorically turned down Jayalalitha's demand for the dismissal of Karunanidhi. It has merely stressed the enormous difficulties of using Article 356 whimsically when such a decision is subject to judicial review -- as happened in Uttar Pradesh in February. Jayalalitha reacted severely to the verbal indiscretion of the Home Ministry official because she sensed a subtle shift in the Government's tack. She was also encouraged to believe that the Home Ministry was pursuing an independent agenda, perhaps as an offshoot of strains between Advani and Vajpayee. In a bid to make Jayalalitha conduct herself with greater responsibility, the BJP is now understood to have informed her that a weak and vulnerable Centre will be in no position to sack Karunanidhi if the opportunity presents itself. In short, it is in Jayalalitha's self-interest to bolster and strengthen the Vajpayee Government while simultaneously building up an impressive dossier against Karunanidhi.
Whether this reasoning will influence Jayalalitha's future conduct is unknown. There are suggestions, emanating from circles close to Swamy, that the aiadmk supremo has already made up her mind to withdraw support to the Vajpayee Government. Her hesitation is on two counts. First, the clear unwillingness of the Congress and the UF to shoulder the responsibilities of government; and second, her fierce personal antipathy to Sonia Gandhi. In any case, the UF is very unlikely to ditch Karunanidhi for Jayalalitha, not even for the sake of teaching the BJP a lesson. Even a section of the Congress feels it is more prudent to let the BJP stew in the AIADMK's juice.
There is an additional point of concern. Vajpayee has been excessively accommodating to Jayalalitha. Her nominees have been rewarded with prize portfolios that have phenomenal scope for patronage. R.K. Kumar, the minister of state for finance, wields control over 23 nationalised banks that together disburse Rs 40,000 crore of loans, not to mention the two insurance companies whose tentacles reach out to every major private sector boardroom. This is not including his control over Central excise and the ed. Petroleum Minister V.K. Ramamurthy oversees the purchase of an estimated Rs 20,000 crore of crude oil and regulates the allotment of gas agencies and petrol pumps. Indeed, taken together, Jayalalitha's nominees control a budget larger than the exchequer of Tamil Nadu. No other dispensation can be as generous to her or give her a better deal, a reason why she will think long and hard before changing sides. Brinkmanship still remains her best option. She will continue needling Vajpayee, constantly reminding him that he remains prime minister because of her support. The problem with this dangerous game is that she could be forced into positions that leave little scope for retreat.
Viewed from the perspective of Tamil Nadu, Jayalalitha may be even less inclined to jump ship. The BJP may be loath to accommodate her insistence on dismissing the DMK Government, but so will all the other parties with the possible exception of the Congress. Given the peculiar arithmetic of the 12th Lok Sabha, it would be hard to find any regime mustering support for a vengeful use of Article 356. For Jayalalitha, the numbers don't add up.
Even the threat to internal security argument is not entirely credible. The controversial Home Ministry team is understood to have painted a grim picture of the situation in Tamil Nadu in its written submission, a reason why Karunanidhi hurriedly presented his Government's own White Paper on the Coimbatore blasts of February 14. But even if there is evidence of a serious terrorist threat fuelled by Islamic fundamentalism, the situation today is no worse than what it was when Jayalalitha was at the helm. According to state government statistics, 135 persons were killed and 394 injured in 333 bomb explosions between 1991 and 1996, when the AIADMK was in power. After Karunanidhi took over in June 1996, there have been 29 explosions that led to 86 deaths and injuries to a further 400. Most of the casualties are from the Coimbatore blasts that left 61 dead and over 300 injured. "What is good for Karunanidhi's dismissal was, of course, not good enough for hers," says a popular Tamil columnist.
Jayalalitha is too seasoned a hand to be unaware of actual realities. If she still persists with her apparently irrational posturing, it is due to her belief that pressure must be maintained to keep her in the reckoning. Jayalalitha is wary of going to prison, not because she lacks personal courage or a spirit to fight back, but because she is apprehensive of her alliance disintegrating. For the moment the PMK and MDMK are solidly with her, but if push comes to shove, they may decide to exploit any leadership vacuum to their own advantage. After all, S. Ramdoss and V. Gopalasamy have their roots in a different political tradition. In addition, Swamy, who feigns to be very close to Jayalalitha, has his own personal agenda and will not hesitate to revert to an anti-AIADMK theme if he senses frustration. In Tamil Nadu, as Jayalalitha knows only too well, there are no permanent friends or enemies. Everything is negotiable.
Surrounded by sharks and sycophants, a vulnerable Jayalalitha inevitably falls back on a bizarre feminine machismo that has many takers. In private, many BJP ministers believe that her bluff should be called. But they also know that if Jayalalitha turns rogue, their own world will come crashing down too. And the next time round the electorate will not readily buy either stability or ability with the same alacrity.
Vajpayee, says an aide, "knows there is no solution to the crisis. It will fester". All he can do is to perform on other fronts, perhaps wean away a few more MPs from the Opposition and hope that Jayalalitha will see sense. It is likely to be a fond hope. A formidable, self-serving Amma looks set to stand between India and wholesome governance.
� Living Media India Ltd