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March 31, 1999


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The Rediff Interview/ J Jayalalitha

'I don't [see myself as prime minister], but anything is possible in politics'

In what has been described by her detractors as 'a state visit by a regional satrap to Dilli', All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazagham general secretary J Jayalalitha's recent visit to New Delhi, which she herself quantified as a 'political earthquake', has thrown national politics, which was just beginning to become placid, out of gear again.

 Jayalalitha with Sonia Gandhi
Monday's tea party hosted by Janata Party member of Parliament Dr Subramanian Swamy, which brought Jayalalitha and Congress president Sonia Gandhi face to face after almost four years, has sent the political temperature soaring once again. That the central government is not treating lightly Jayalalitha's demand to reinstate Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat, shunt George Fernandes out of the defence ministry, and institute a joint parliamentary committee to go into the matter is clear from the fact that the defence minister called on his comrade in the coalition on Monday night, and tried, vainly, to set the record straight.

Mercurial, tempestuous, whimsical are some of the adjectives used to describe Jayalalitha. So it could still be anybody's guess if she will finally lower the boom on the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government. On Tuesday afternoon, when Suhasini Haider, George Iype and Saisuresh Sivaswamy met her at The Rajput Suite at the Taj Mansingh hotel, Delhi, the woman who has been giving the government sleepless nights sounded clear. While she said "anything is possible in politics", she also clarified that she has always been a dependable ally. Rediff On The NeT presents the only interview Jayalalitha granted in Delhi this week:

The last four days in Delhi have been rather active, politically, for you. You have been meeting various people, politicians, and also attended Dr Subramanian Swamy's tea party in tandem with Congress president Sonia Gandhi. Is there more to all this than meets the eye? What is the significance of your visit to Delhi?

In recent times this is my longest visit to Delhi, I have been here for five days and I have participated in political events and intellectual events. It has been an interesting and rewarding visit for me.

But what about its political significance, especially in view of Monday's tea party?

Well, there has been a lot of media speculation over the significance of what transpired yesterday. But as far as I am concerned I would just say Indian politics is permanently in a state of flux. So we cannot predict what will happen when. We have to wait and watch, and see what further developments take place.

Are you, perhaps unwittingly, contributing to this state of flux by your demands, keeping things on the boil, so to say?

No, that is not my intention. It is not to gain any political mileage that I have made whatever statements I have made so far. I was deeply distressed by the manner in which Admiral Bhagwat was summarily dismissed. And I felt that this could result in demoralisation of the armed forces. And there were disturbing reports about certain matters involving the defence minister which had a bearing on national security. Therefore, all my statements so far have been only in the national interest and not to gain any short-term political mileage.

Do you still insist that a JPC should be instituted into the whole matter?

That is my view. I also feel if there is to be an end to this controversy, if the government is seriously interested in putting an end to this controversy, Admiral Bhagwat should be reinstated, or else the defence minister must be shifted to another ministry.

What did the prime minister tell you when you raised this demand with him, of shifting George Fernandes to another ministry?

He didn't say anything.

Does it mean that your demand has been ...?

Publicly he has said he will not do that, but privately, when I raised the matter with him, he did not say yes or no. He just kept silent.

That is a rather unusual reaction, isn't it?


You have also been a rather uncharacteristic ally, haven't you?

What do you mean by that?

In the sense that in previous coalitions the allies did not keep questioning the government's actions.

What do you mean by a characteristic ally, what do you mean by an uncharacteristic ally?

For instance, when the United Front was in power, none of the coalition partners made any such demands on the government...

I think you have a very bad memory, you should read old newspaper clippings, we have all the old newspapers filed in our party office, if you like I will send you the relevant clippings, which will show you how unreliable those allies were.

I have proved to be a very dependable ally in the past. We had a long-standing alliance with the Congress, and though many times we got a raw deal from the Congress, yet there was never any question about our loyalty and dependability. So, if in an alliance, the bigger partner wants another partner to be dependable and reliable, they should first instil confidence in that ally and treat the allies with consideration.

There should be mutual respect and mutual give-and-take. It cannot be one-sided. The major partner in the coalition cannot adopt a big brotherly attitude towards the other allies all the time and expect them to fall in line blindly. And all that I have said, all my statements, have been either in the national interest or in the interests of the state of Tamizhnadu. There has been no self-interest in any of my statements. There is nothing personal.

You also brought up the demands of Tamil Nadu earlier, like the Cauvery waters, making Tamil a national language... Has there been any progress on those?

There has been no progress. I raised these issues at the co-ordination committee meeting. I also raised these issues during my meeting with the prime minister yesterday. I extracted an assurance from him that after the recess, when Parliament meets again for the remainder of the Budget session, I insisted that a constitutional amendment to protect reservation wherever it is above 50 per cent, wherever it is in vogue in certain states, should be brought in, should be taken up immediately. That in effect means protection for the 69 per cent reservation, which is already there in Tamizhnadu.

Now this is something which we got included, which I got included, in the national agenda (for governance) one year ago, when this government assumed office, and I have been raising it at all the co-ordination committee meetings which I attended and in all my meetings with the prime minister whenever I met him during the past one year. I also sent delegations of my MPs to meet the prime minister and I have sent innumerable letters in this regard. But it still hasn't happened.

So yesterday, when I met the prime minister, I insisted that this should be done in the remainder of the Budget session and he agreed. I also obtained an assurance that the bill for providing 33 per cent reservation for women in the state legislatures and Parliament will be taken up for discussion and debate and passed in the remainder of the Budget session.

Then, one of our long-standing demands, which has also been included in the national agenda, is that a committee should be set up to study the feasibility of declaring all the languages included in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution, including Tamizh, that is the 19 national languages, should be declared official languages of the Indian Union. This does not involve Parliament, all it needs is for a committee to be set up. So I wanted the prime minister to see that this is done immediately.

Another project, which is important not only for Tamizhnadu but indeed for the entire nation, is the Sethusamudram canal project. This has been a longstanding demand of ours, for several decades, but it is only now that the prime minister has come forward to accept in principle that this project will be implemented by the central government. And though this was mentioned in the Budget presented this year, no specific budgetary allocation was made for this purpose.

So I insisted, at the co-ordination committee meeting and in my one-to-one meeting with the prime minister yesterday [Sunday], that a specific budgetary allocation should be made, and an early date should be set for the inaugural ceremony, and that the prime minister should come to Tamizhnadu to lay the foundation stone and expedite the execution of this project. He agreed to that too.

You just mentioned women's reservation. On that issue you had said in your speech that you are also in favour of also looking at caste-based women's reservations...

Yes, yes, that is our party's policy. But first let them at least begin with the 33 per cent reservation and then we can go on to this sub-reservation.

All over the subcontinent we have women in power, without reservation even. Do you think it has really helped the condition of women in the subcontinent?

Not really. With the exception of myself and Mamata Banerjee, practically all the other powerful women in politics in the subcontinent are in politics and achieved positions of eminence only because they belonged to politically powerful families. If you take Sirimavo Bandaranaike in Sri Lanka, she came to power because she was the wife of [first prime minister Solomon] Bandaranaike. Similarly Chandrika has come to power because she was the daughter of Bandaranaike and Mrs Sirimavo. If you take Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto could achieve that position of eminence only because she was the daughter of [the late Zulfiqar Ali] Bhutto. Similarly, if you take Mrs Khaleda Zia in Bangladesh, and Sheikh Hasina, one is the wife of a former president, the other is the daughter of a former president, so it is only because of that family relationship that they are considered leaders.

Even in the case of Indira Gandhi, she was the daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru. So, with the exception of myself, I don't think there is anyone who has come from a non-political background who has really made it big in politics.

This is not enough. Generally we see the mindset of most of the political leaders here who are men. Though they pay lip service to the cause of reservation for women, in their heart of hearts, they don't want to see it in practice. Where the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendment are concerned, that is providing for reservations for women in local bodies at the panchayat level up to the district level, that didn't really pose a threat to men at the higher levels of politics. So they allowed it to be implemented. But when it comes to state legislatures, and particularly when it comes to Parliament, they feel threatened.

So it was purely because of my insistence that the bill got introduced at all. Otherwise, they were trying to keep postponing it on some pretext or the other. Every time there was some pandemonium or unruly scene in the House, the speaker would just adjourn the House. So I raised the question as to why the speaker could not exercise his powers and call the marshals and the watch-and-ward staff to expel the unruly members and carry on with the business of the House.

In Tamizhnadu, when I was in power for five years, we faced so many unruly scenes created by the opposition parties in the House, but never once did we adjourn the house. The speaker would try his best to contain the situation for one or two hours and if the confusion showed no signs of abating he would just order the unruly members to be expelled. So I asked why the Speaker, Balayogi, could not do the same, and it was only after that they finally got the bill introduced.

But after that, it has once again been put in cold storage. So now I extracted an assurance from the prime minister that this bill will be taken up for discussion and debate in the remainder of the Budget session and passed.

The prime minister has been saying that he will be implementing your demands for the past year. Every time you come to Delhi he has said he will implement them, but practically nothing has been done.

Well, now I think the situation is slightly different, and we have to wait and see, whether the demands are met or not, whether the prime minister's assurances are implemented or not.

Are you happy with the performance of the government in the last one year?

It could be much better ( laughs).

But your assessment. Are you happy with the last one year?

This is my answer. The performance could be much better.

A lot of the BJP allies seem to be unhappy. So would you put the cause of the BJP's attitude down to inexperience, or sheer indifference?

One aspect is, the BJP has been so long in the Opposition that when it finally achieved power it did not really know how to handle it, and they have had very little administrative experience. That is one aspect.

The other aspect is, it still has to sink into the BJP leaders' consciousness that this is a coalition government. That though the BJP is the biggest partner in this coalition, they do not enjoy an independent majority. And yet, they take major policy decisions without consulting or informing the allies. That has been the major cause of friction between the BJP and its allies. This is what I have been pointing out to them time and again.

But your objections to Fernandes's continuation in the defence ministry are much more serious than that.

Yes, of course.

You almost termed him an anti-national...

No, I did not use those words. What I said was, several serious allegations have been made, which involve not just allegations of corruption running into thousands of crores of rupees but also certain allegations which have a bearing on national security. So I feel that the defence minister's actions have proved to be a major embarrassment to the government. And if the government has really nothing to hide, if the defence minister says, as he says, that he has not really done anything wrong, then why should they be afraid to constitute a JPC, why should they be afraid to face a JPC?

So it was a big struggle to get them to agree to even a debate in Parliament. But now they have agreed to a debate. I have already gone on record as saying that if there has to be an end to this controversy -- one does not want a controversy to be prolonged forever, because now the Opposition is stalling proceedings in Parliament, the Budget could not be passed in the Rajya Sabha, that is a waste of public money, tax-payers' money -- we cannot afford to have this kind of disturbance, pandemonium, bedlam in the House all the time. So an end has to be found to this controversy.

That is why I suggested this solution: one, Admiral Bhagwat should be reinstated; or two, the defence minister should be shifted to another ministry.

Yesterday Fernandes presented before you his case, the circumstances and reasons for Bhagwat's dismissal. Are you happy with his explanation?

I do not want to comment on the presentation or explanation made by Mr George Fernandes. But he was here for 90, he spoke for 90 minutes. After that, even after that, my stand remains unchanged.

You always seem unflappable, in control of the situation...

Is that wrong?

No, no. But, is that how you have always been, in control of the situation? Do you ever get flapped?

I suppose I have evolved and matured with time. I have had a very difficult life. I have had to face insurmountable, seemingly insurmountable obstacles. I have fought my way through life, so probably that has made me into the person I am now.

Photographs: Atul Chowdhury

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