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January 9, 1998


AIADMK convention gives Jayalalitha a boost

N Sathiya Moorthy in Madras

Jayalalitha with L K Advani New Year, 1997. Former Tamil Nadu chief minister and All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam supremo Jayalalitha Jayaram was in prison, an undertrial in the corruption cases involving her days in office. An entire row in the Central Prison, Madras, had been vacated for her, as she was under 'Z' category security -- she still is -- and she was a loner, fighting what she called 'political victimisation' of the DMK government, headed by M Karunanidhi.

In contrast, New Year 1998 saw her in the midst of crowds and hangers-on, thousands -- if not hundreds of thousands -- of partymen converging on Tirunelveli. What is more, she stayed put on the specially-erected dais for over 16 hours, spending a whole night, waving and cheering her fans, followers and worshippers, the three broad categories into which her AIADMK cadres fall.

Figures vary. Even within the AIADMK. Party sources first put the expected crowd at the New Year rally at over 2.5 million, but on the day of the event, brought it down to 2 million, and later 1.5 million. But a day later, at a crowded press meet, Jayalalitha herself put the figure at a high "35 lakhs" -- or 3.5 million.

Chief Minister M Karunanidhi's tongue-in-cheek reaction was not wide off the mark. 'Jayalalitha seems to have forgotten the decimal point between the three and the five in her 35 lakhs claim,' he said. Intelligence estimates and private assessments put the attendance at the rally closer to that -- and even lower.

That being the case, Jayalalitha's charge of official interference and harassment, to stop incoming vehicles, and of denying party cadres in the districts, trucks and buses, by influencing fleet-owners through transport department officials, did not cut much ice. By the morning of the third day, when various leaders of the AIADMK-led alliance addressed the convention, the crowds had swelled further. One reason was that their respective cadres had come to hear their leaders, but there was no denying the AIADMK effort.

The conference has proved to be a success for the AIADMK supremo, in a limited way at least. Her timing was superb. Though an early poll had been in the air when she announced the party's silver jubilee conference at Tirunelveli some six months back, there was no way anyone could have predicted it this close. So close that on the second day of the conference, the Election Commission issued the poll schedule.

For all this, the Tirunelveli conference may not be all that a morale-booster for the AIADMK worker. True, they took turns, some time and again, to have a glimpse of their leader. But they know enough to accept that the voter might not have forgotten, even if he had forgiven, the AIADMK for its past misdeeds while in power.

Says Chinnaswami, an AIADMK worker from Salem: 'There is sympathy now for Amma now that the DMK government has been unable to get early verdicts in the cases pending against her. The people have also shed some of their bias. But it is another matter, if they are ready to vote us in."

Chinnaswami, like many others in the AIADMK, is convinced that the prospects of a Bharatiya Janata Party-led government at the Centre will imply the end of the DMK regime in the state. ''A fresh election to the assembly will mean Amma's return to power,'' he is sure, though he does not explain what attitudinal difference the voter would have gone through between now and six months hence, if Jayalalitha was the main issue.

That the AIADMK is in an attacking mood was all visible on the 36-odd floats at the rally. One depicted a five-headed cobra whose hoods represented various DMK leaders starting with Karunanidhi, strangulating common folk, and Jayalalitha like goddess Lakshmi, emerging on the lotus, to save them. Another showed Karunanidhi, Tamil Maanila Congress chief G K Moopanar, and their aides scattering like jackals at the sight of the majestic lion (read: Jayalalitha).

The lotus theme did not end with the tableaus. Speakers at the second day's poorly attended debates, discussions and kavi mela, all eulogising Jayalalitha no end, often referred to the lotus and the leaves, sprouting and blossoming. The 'lotus' being the the election symbol of the BJP, the AIADMK's new ally, and the 'two leaves' that of the AIADMK itself.

Even BJP president Lal Kishinchand Advani did not miss out the point. In his otherwise cliché-ridden speech, he referred to the AIADMK having the free 'lotus' symbol when it entered the election fray on formation in the early seventies, before the party settled for the 'two leaves'.

There were other subtle indications of the AIADMK and the BJP coming together during the proceedings. For one, most participants owing allegiance to a party whose history dates back to the self-respect, anti-religion movement of 'Periyar' E V Ramaswami Naicker, were seen freely sporting Hindu religious marks on their foreheads, a habit they started adopting from Jayalalitha's days as chief minister.

Jayalalitha with L K Advani As if this was not enough, the proceedings on all three days began with the traditional nadaswaram recital euphemistically called mangala-isai in true religious style in the conference invitation, with Jayalalitha's pictures on both covers. Why, even the party's women wing volunteers wore green saris, to respect superstitious sentiment -- brothers having to get a green sari for their married sisters, as justified by Hindu myth.

And dear sister was how MDMK supremo V Gopalswami repeatedly addressed Jayalalitha, while making his emotionally surcharged speech, quoting both Tagore and Tiruvalluvar at the same time, defending the alliance and ridiculing the Karunanidhi-led DMK government.

'There is no compromise on the basic tenets of the MDMK, and our voice will rise whenever the problems of the Tamils are ignored by whoever is ruling from Delhi,' he declared in his thunderous voice as Advani sat listening.

If Jayalitha had anything to contribute, it was in trying to create further confusion in the Congress camp and thus sending out a message to the BJP that the AIADMK could not be taken for granted. 'Even now the Congress has been sending out feelers for reviving the alliance with the AIADMK, but there are no second thoughts on our side,' she declared in her valedictory address after Advani had left.

State Congress chief K V Thangabalu was quick to deny any such attempt by his party -- but the point had been made by Jayalalitha, for the BJP to know that she too had her post-poll options open.

There is no denying that the AIADMK-led alliance could gain electorally from the conference, though how Jayalalitha's party will gain from its allies remains to be seen. The AIADMK does not really require the votes of its allies -- not that any of them are strong enough -- in constituencies where it has a winning edge against the DMK-TMC combine.

In others, where either the BJP, MDMK or the PMK has a fighting chance, the alliance as a whole and AIADMK votes in particular, can make the difference. That's the message from Tirunelveli, though what shape it takes on polling day will depend on the seat-sharing process, and the choice of candidates, not just by the AIADMK alliance but also by the numerically stronger DMK-TMC combine.

"Stability at the Centre or local corruption will be the election issue,'' says DMK worker Thangavelu from Tirunelveli. "If the DMK-TMC combine brings in the communal angle to slight the BJP, that could be counter-productive. Likewise, if AIADMK leaders dwell on the imminent dismissal of the DMK government, that can create negative voter sentiment. The focus then will be on Jayalalitha, and it will be better for the alliance to project Atal Bihari Vajpayee and his stability card as its poll plank.''

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