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May 12, 1999


Chicago Hospital: Jayalalitha Beats Vajpayee, Sonia In Getting An Institute Named After Her

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Aseem Chhabra

The names of a two-time US presidential candidates, who is also a civil rights leader, and a regional Indian politician accused of corruption charges and who toppled the BJP-led central government are soon going to be linked together at a hospital in Chicago.

J jayalalitha Next month, the Reverend Jesse Jackson is expected to inaugurate an institute at Chicago's Doctors Hospital that will be named after J Jayalalitha, the former Tamil Nadu chief minister, who has acted in over 200 films in five languages.

Convent-educated Jayalalitha, who succeeded her co-star M G Ramachandran as leader of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, made her debut in an English-language film, Epistle over three decades ago. She was also in the lead in Izzat -- her only Hindi film -- opposite Dharmendra.

The Doctors Hospital has long been affiliated with Jackson's Rainbow/PUSH Coalition. Jackson's son Jonathan and the Reverend Willie Barrow, co-chair of the coalition's national board, both serve on the hospital's board of directors. The hospital's cancer prevention institute is named after Jesse Jackson.

As is the case in her political and personal life in India, controversy also surrounds the initiative to name the medical institute after Jayalalitha.

People backing the project consider her to be a "future-looking" and an "emerging" Indian politician at the national scene. Those who oppose her style of politics question the intelligence of associating her name with any institution. Some, including S P Udayakumar, a professor in Minnesota who used to run the BJP Government Watch Forum, has written a letter to Jackson.

The brainchild of Dr Vijay Prabhakar, executive vice- president of the Doctors Hospital's Wellness Institute, the proposed Jayalalitha International Institute of Preventive Medicine will focus on allopathic and alternative medical treatments. The project also has the support of two other Indian doctors at the hospital -- Dr Virendra Bisla, chairman of the cardiology department and Dr Ravi Barnabas, director of outpatient services.

Dr Bisla and Dr Prabhakar are active members of the thriving Indian community in Chicago. Dr Prabhakar is chairman of the Indo-American Chamber of Commerce while Dr Bisla is president of the Indo-American Business Forum.

Dr Prabhakar said the new institute was set to open on May 15. However, due to scheduling conflicts, the formal dedication ceremony will not take place before the end of June. He added that Jayalalitha is not expected to attend the ceremony and could be represented by her ally, Janata Party president Dr Subramanian Swamy.

Dina Anderson, deputy press secretary for the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition in Chicago, said Jackson's schedule had changed substantially in the last several weeks and that she could not say whether he would be available in June for the formal dedication ceremony. Jackson spent several days in Yugoslavia last week and helped to have the three American soldiers released from the Serbs.

"We were looking for a leader from India or the east, who looks into the future rather than dwells into the past," Dr Prabhakar recently said in an interview from his office in Chicago. Besides Jayalalitha, the group of doctors considered two other candidates -- Congress president Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

Dr Prabhakar said the question of Sonia's "foreign-born citizenship" would have been a controversial issue.

The corruption charges against Jayalalitha did not affect the choice that Dr Prabhakar and his colleagues made. "Which politician today does not have a corruption charge, either here or in India, tell me?" he asked. "Everybody has their weaknesses and their strengths. But she as a leader has the right goals for the people."

"She is very intelligent," he said. "I have met several politicians from India, right from Indira Gandhi to Morarji Desai. But I have never met any person with such a depth and breadth of knowledge on any subject."

Dr Prabhakar would not comment on Jayalalitha's involvement in the toppling of the BJP-led coalition government, referring to her actions as "a political judgment."

Among Jayalalitha's achievements during her tenure as chief minister, he cited the creation of the first all-women police station, and her commitment to family planning and pre-natal care facilities in Tamil Nadu.

Dr Prabhakar and his associates made a recommendation to the Doctors Hospital's board of director to name the facility after Jayalalitha. Later the board passed a resolution calling upon Jesse Jackson to dedicate the facility in the AIADMK leader's name. Dr Prabhakar said Jackson was aware of Jayalalitha's "emergence as one of India's top political leaders."

This is not the first time that Dr Prabhakar has been involved in promoting Jayalalitha's name in Chicago. In April 1996, he worked with Illinois state Senator Howard Carrol and Chicago's city council in naming a few blocks on Devon Avenue -- the city's main Indian shopping center -- as Jayalalitha Way. According to reports, the street signs were taken off the next year when Jayalalitha's rival, the DMK's M Karunanidhi took over as chief minister of Tamil Nadu.

Other prominent leaders whose names appear along the blocks of the avenue include Mahatma Gandhi, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, Mother Teresa and Israel's Golda Meir.

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