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March 7, 2000

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Saisuresh Sivaswamy

Jaya he!

At the best of times it's tough being a Tamilian. The rest of India, thanks to the peripatetic Tambrahm and an ignorant Bollywood, knows us only by one or all of the following stereotypes: a dark-skinned, dhoti-clad, idli-eating, vibhuti-splashing race which substitutes the 'y' sound for 'e', and of course, revel in the exclamations aiyo and appadiya.

It is indeed tough to measure up to these exacting standards, you will agree.

But the worst is not over. Just when the rest of India was getting used to the idea that, yes, there are more Tamilians who don't conform to the above yardsticks, someone had to go and raise the bar. So now one is expected to not only offer a scholarly spiel on the phenomenon called Jayalalitha, but also carry the cross for why the people voted her in the first place and why analysts all over believe that she will return to power in next month's assembly election.

Such prognostication, let's accept it, presupposes that the law, often derided as an ass, will not scuttle the lady's smooth sail to Fort St George. The jury is still out over that nettle, and till informed opinion tells us otherwise, we must not preclude anyone's innocence, or even electoral eligibility.

It's a grim prospect for those of us who are beyond the pale of the state and hence a little beyond its politics as well. I mean, answering questions about Sadagoppan Ramesh's obvious lack of staying power at the crease to Vijayakanth's atrocious wardrobe would be nothing compared to explaining Tamilians' obvious amnesia which alone could make them plump for a woman who they had ejected with scorn only five years ago.

In the intervening period, much water has flowed down the Cooum. Even as she was rotting in Coventry, the Bharatiya Janata Party did a rescue act on her -- by beating the dithering Congress to the draw and tying up with her for the 1998 Lok Sabha election. One would never know for sure if the electoral dividends were a sign that the na´ve electorate had pardoned her sins -- as Jayalalitha interpreted the verdict -- or that the BJP had finally arrived in the land of the Pandyas -- as Venkaiah Naidu et al insisted was the case.

Those were watershed days, my friend, and forget Tamil Nadu, even the nation cannot afford to forget how the lady rocked the polity with her bombshells, before which even Pokhran II seemed tame. Never before in the history of independent India was the fate of a duly elected, federal government decided at a tea party hosted by dowagers and political gadflies. But so tenuous was the dividing line between the treasury benches and the Opposition in the 12th Lok Sabha that it was often joked that even the sound of a chair scraping would send the House into turmoil.

Sure, the central government collapsed soon after, but the epicentre of the quake was not New Delhi but distant Chennai. What could have been more eloquent than Murasoli Maran's wail that his party had been thrown to the wolves, when the erstwhile constituents of the erstwhile United Front rushed to embrace the very lady they had pilloried till just the other day!

Given this background, the next round of elections should have shown who the people of Tamil Nadu were with, but again, true to style, by dividing the honours between the NDA and the AIADMK almost equally they confirmed the stereotype that they were a race apart. The trick actually is quite simple. What Jaya had done, during all the sniping that she did when she was a partner at the Centre, was to couch her demands in Tamil terms, equating dishonouring her wish list with an insult to Tamil pride.

And ever quick to take umbrage, the people could see nothing wrong in what were strictly temper tantrums.

They are what an actress throws on film-sets when she feels that the spotlight has shifted away from her. And if she is a big enough star, this will bring the focus back on her pronto. Much is said of the link between the silver screen and the world of politics in Tamil Nadu, but before you knock it, it would be worthwhile to remember that the two are professions that depend, and thrive, on public adulation.

Will it be a case of collective amnesia if the Tamil Nadu voter goes with Jayalalitha again? Not really. Even established national parties have sacrificed principles at the altar of political expediency, so why is the voter expected to not be swayed by arguably lower standards?

Look at the turnaround by political parties in Tamil Nadu in just five years. The last time round, Moopanar hijacked the entire Congress party in protest against P V Narasimha Rao's decision to align with a venal regime, joined hands with the DMK and trounced the Congress-AIADMK. Jayalalitha was then lucky to have won her seat, the public anger against her then was almost tangible.

Enter the BJP, which tied up with the untouchable Jayalalitha for the 1998 Lok Sabha elections, and the vote was suddenly three-way. The people spoke with their ballots, as they did the next year when thanks to Jaya's tea party, the BJP was now with the DMK, while the TMC went into the enemy camp.

Through all this churning that politicians have done, how can the voter alone be expected to keep his integrity, sift the grain from the chaff, exercise his better judgement etc?

Words of wisdom were thrown at me by an autorickshaw driver while on a recent visit to Chennai. A Tamil Maanila Congress supporter once, he now swore blind loyalty to Amma, and wouldn't brook a word against her by an imported Tamilian like me. "Look at Moopanar sir," he told me. "Last time he walked out of the Congress because he couldn't stand Amma, now the same man is falling at her feet but doesn't know how to convince people like me who were with him five years ago..."

That was only one straw in the wind. It may not tell you the force of the gale, but surely it indicates which way the wind is blowing.

Of course, between now and polling day, anything can happen that will overturn the carefully projected calculations of political parties. And given Tamil Nadu's recent history, violence will certainly be a factor. And yes, it will also lead to another adjective -- violent -- added to describe Tamilians all over.

Saisuresh Sivaswamy

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