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February 3, 1998


Campaign Trail/Shobha Warrier

Amma starts her campaign in style

For me, this ranks as the most nightmarish experience of my life ever.

I reach Marina Beach, in Madras, where AIADMK supremo J Jayalalitha was, in tandem with her alliance partners, kicking off the election campaign.

I am well ahead of time at the venue -- but even that early, the beach is packed full with the party faithful.

What is immediately noticeable is the complete absence of cut outs -- remarkable in Tamil Nadu, where politics is synonymous with skyscraping cut outs of the various leaders. This time, there wasn't a single one to be seen.

Instead, what we got was illuminated pictures -- of party founder and Jayalalitha's late mentor M G Ramachandran, of C N Annadurai, founder of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (who appeared to have been appropriated by the AIADMK for the occasion, perhaps on the principle that while he was alive, MGR was very much a favoured member of his party), Jayalalitha herself, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Lal Kishinchand Advani, V Gopalaswamy of the Marumalarchi DMK, the maverick Subramanian Swamy, Dr Ramdoss of the Pattali Makkal Katchi, and former Congressman Vazhapaadi Ramamurthy.

Meanwhile, the judgment in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case appears to have had a rather marked effect on the TN police, who behaved as if the LTTE was quite likely to attack anyone, at any time. What was worse was that the LTTE hit squad, especially suicide bomber Dhanu, had reportedly used a press pass -- so in the eyes of the police, us media types were all potential assassins.

Thus, the press corps was confined to an area a few hundred meters away from the dais -- and this includes the photographers who, finding that the distance inhibited their work, were in a mood to boycott the entire function.

The crowd danced and sang and generally made merry till the political bigwigs got there -- which, rather surprisingly, they did only about 20 minutes behind time. And a minute after Jayalalitha -- or Amma, as she is referred to universally throughout the state -- climbed up to the dais, all hell broke loose, the crowd burst through the barriers separating them from the press and VIP enclosures, and chaos reigned supreme.

I, in common with other mediapersons, unexpectedly found ourselves swamped by an unruly horde, most of whom smelt strongly of liquor. To get away from them, the only place to go was forward -- where a posse of hostile policemen stood, read to push us right back. Finally, some policewomen took pity on us women journos and drew us aside and out of harm's way.

Thanks to the women police personnel, we had a comparatively peaceful time from then on. And could settle down to watch proceedings, which began with Jayalalitha presenting shawls to her allies, who reciprocated.

Then came the speeches -- with the roster so arranged that the little parties got to speak first -- the PMK, then the MDMK, Swamy for the Janata Party, and so on. Each speaker concentrated on extolling the virtues of the AIADMK, and elaborating on why his alliance with Amma was justified.

The crowd listened, rather quiet and subdued, like a theatre audience sitting through the commercials and waiting for the main act.

Advani rose to speak, and the first signs of delirium erupted, as BJP flags mushroomed among the crowd. Then came Vajpayee -- and by then, the crowd that had pushed us out of the press enclosure and taken possession of it went into extreme delirium. The final barricades went down, the chairs were reduced to kindling -- and we journos looked at each other, rather surprised at the kind of reception the BJP was getting in a state where, we could have sworn, they were less well known than the PMK or MDMK or one of those small outfits.

The BJP, we realise, has a lot to thank Jayalalitha for -- that is perhaps the only plausible explanation for the lotus suddenly finding itself the flavour or, more accurately, flower of the month down here in Madras, which has never been too open-hearted in its welcome to national parties.

And then the crowd got what it had come for -- Jayalalitha, at the mike. The result: mass hysteria. Everyone rushed everywhere, and the police contented themselves with whacking anyone who got within range of their lathis. We journos figured everything had finally gone out of hand, and ran for our lives.

One journo, as he ran, cursed the crowd: "An undisciplined, unruly lot like you don't deserve to come to power!" At which, a policeman standing nearby came up and shook his hand, apparently in complete agreement!

We finally get out of there, not having heard Jayalalitha's speech -- we had our safety to think about, which seemed more important. Only to pass from one nightmare to another -- for out there on the road were hordes of drunken men bawling, brawling, dancing, singing, throwing up and, in an overdose of exuberance, breaking liquor bottles after imbibing the contents.

In the chaos, we bump into Janaki the banana seller. A regular at political meetings at the venue, Janaki says she always does roaring business when there is a political show on. This time, though, she was mixing business with pleasure -- said pleasure being the chance to see Amma up close.

'We had always been supporters of Amma because she was the heir of MGR. MGR is like God to us. Do you know we have his photo in our pooja room? No, we have not kept Amma's photo in our pooja room, as she is alive. But she is like God to us. Idaya daivam. The god of our hearts!'

What, you haven't heard of the alleged corruption, the alleged scandals, the alleged misdeeds of her government, I ask her.

I don't care, comes the pat response, those tales have been spread by her political enemies. If there was any corruption in her regime, Janaki says, hedging her bets here, it was because of the corrupt people who surrounded her, she herself was pure as a lily.

Abbas was another businessman who was making hay while the political sun shone -- his own item of merchandise being pictures of MGR, Jayalalitha and Anna. Sure, a few film stars and sundry gods formed part of his collection, but the day obviously belonged to the politicians, whose images sold like the proverbial hot cakes.

On closer examination, I realised that Abbas was a savvy businessman -- considering the occasion, he had taken care to see that neither matinee idol Rajnikanth, nor the up and coming Sharat Kumar, formed part of his collection of film star pictures -- both being DMK supporters, their presence could well have been resented by the AIADMK faithful.

"As I was arranging the pictures on display, one picture of Karunanidhi came into the open," recalls Abbas. "My god, I was lucky to escape, some of the AIADMK fellows who were standing here threatened to tear every picture to shreds, I had to beg their forgiveness. Tomorrow, I will take out Karunanidhi's pictures again, and put aside Jayalalitha's -- see, one has to learn some tricks to survive in this world. One thing though, no matter which party has a rally or meeting here, you are safe with MGR's pictures, they all love him."

I ask him which party he himself prefers. Abbas looks around, then says, "AIADMK." I am convinced -- not of his political preference, but that he has indeed learnt the tricks essential to survival.

Like Janaki, Selvakumar has his own banana stall alongside the beach road. "I have never voted in my life," he says, matter of fact. "Why should I waste my vote? All politicians are the same, I don't see any difference in them. Nobody is interested in the poor. They will come to us only when they want our vote. So, I decided that I would never vote in my life. If I want to eat, I have to work hard. Do they help people like me? No, never."

Malar looks up from her task of the moment, which is frying bhajjis just so. "Our lives are like these bajjis, always in hot oil," she says, philosophically. "It does not make the slightest difference, whether Amma comes back to power or Kalaignar (Karunanidhi) wins, our lives will be the same.

"I have been voting for Amma's party for a long time," she adds. "I don't know if all those allegations are right or wrong, but I can tell you one thing, they have amassed a lot of wealth. But then, they were not bad to us poor people. They left us alone to lead our lives. But the present regime hiked the prices of everything including rice, vegetables and even onions. We cannot even travel by bus, it has become so expensive. So, I feel Amma's time was better as they did not disturb me."

I walk away, wondering what she will say to any inquiring journo the next day -- Karunanidhi's DMK is scheduled to hold a rally at the selfsame venue.

As I walk homewards, I think of a chat I had earlier, before the madness broke out, with Periaswamy, member of the AIADMK volunteer brigade (Thondar Peravai). From the time of MGR, he told me, his family had been hardcore supporters of the AIADMK and he couldn't even think of voting for, supporting, any other party.

"Yes, I was a bit disappointed with the way our party behaved during the five years when Amma was in power," he says, but adds vehemently that he does not think Jayalalitha herself was corrupt. "It was all those selfish, corrupt colleagues of hers who did those things, gave our party a bad name," he says firmly.

Pressed, Periaswamy admits that perhaps yes, Jayalalitha had perhaps lost touch with the real workers of her party, she had moved away from the people, who could not reach out to her. "It was the wedding that really alienated her from the people," he says, referring to the immense, conspicuously extravagant wedding ceremony of Jayalalitha's 'foster son' Sudhakaran to matinee icon Sivaji Ganesan's grand-daughter.

"See," he explains, "we party workers contribute only 10 per cent of the votes, the rest should come from the people. In the last election, she only got our 10 per cent votes, the faithful votes. The general public blamed the misdeeds of her colleagues, of Sasikala Natrajan and others, on her and voted against her, that is why she lost."

At the time, I point to Sasikala, sitting prominently in the front row of the VIP seats. She is back in Jayalalitha's Poes Garden home, I remind Periaswamy, so will things go back to what they were before?

"Amma told us, Sasikala is her friend, but she won't interfere in political matters. We believe her!" was the reply.

Simple as that.

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