Anecdotal recaps

Print edition : January 06, 2017

Chief Minister Jayalalithaa addressing the media in Bengaluru on November 29, 2012, after a meeting on the Cauvery water issue with Karnataka Chief Minister Jagadish Shettar. Photo: K. BHAGYA PRAKASH

Jayalalithaa in May 2011 after being sworn in as the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu for the third time. Photo: V. GANESAN

Cho Ramaswamy on the occasion of the 46th anniversary of his magazine, "Thuglak", in Chennai on January 14, 2016. Photo: V. GANESAN

IT may be both stretching a metaphor and mixing metaphors, but one is nevertheless tempted to vest the cyclone Vardah, which lashed coastal Tamil Nadu, with an after-me-the-deluge significance. It seemed, even in its stark reality and in the destruction it wreaked, like a powerful unleashing of pathetic fallacy to underline the volatile political flux in the aftermath of Chief Minister and All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) supremo Jayalalithaa’s passing. The real, after all, has been subsumed in the larger than real in the politics of Tamil Nadu over the last six decades.

The heady combination of the social churning triggered by the Dravidian movement, its cinematic populist wish fulfilment and its pragmatic policy expression and implementation by Dravidian political parties in power seems to have settled down, across the main and splinter party formations, into an etiolated Dravidian tokenism. What is now common to the two main rivals, the AIADMK and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), and the other smaller parties claiming to belong to the Dravidian political genre is their obsession for the populist. Populism, one must quickly add, isn’t necessarily a dirty word in the post-Dravidian movement Tamil political lexicon. After all, M.G. Ramachandran’s celebrated boost to the noon-meal scheme for schoolgoers (initiated by the K. Kamaraj government in the 1960s), which was even panned as populist when it was introduced, has become a model of welfarism at its best in the Indian context, emulated by many other States, internationally cited and a national policy in India now.

The series of “Amma”-branded schemes launched by Jayalalithaa—including the cradle baby programme to counter female foeticide, baby kits for mothers, gold for marriage for poorer women, the very affordable canteens, packaged water bottles, laptops for students, salt, cement, seeds, fans and grinders, pharmacies, mobiles, cinemas, call centres and vegetable shops—may seem munificent, benevolent and populist but make a difference here and now to the daily lives of those benefiting from them. They are unlikely to be withdrawn by a future government, even if the appellation under which they are promoted, and which evokes her mass appeal, may be changed.

It almost seems as if she was making populism as much a philosophy as a driving force of her personal style of government. Its economic prudence may be academically contested; its political desirability may be questionable because it keeps at bay any structural change towards a more equitable order. But then at a time when quick, and quick-fix, benefits are the order of the day and technology drives human aspiration for instant gratification rather than more substantive and durable medium- or long-term change, people don’t need to take a gift sop other than at face value. And, in any case, as the veteran economist and former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, citing John Maynard Keynes, reminded us the other day in Parliament (in the context of the demonetisation tamasha), in the long run we are all dead.

Any reasonable evaluation of Jayalalithaa will, I suspect, involve arbitrating over the pros and cons of populism both in the political culture of the Dravidian parties and in our times. That, in any case, is beyond the scope, or even competence, of this column. In the suspenseful weeks of her hospitalisation, which fluctuated between an eerie deathwatch and the hope-against-hope prospect of her bouncing right back to be on top of things, I was reminded of my three brushes with her, each of which, in different ways, gave me a sense of the formidable and sparkling person behind the image.

The first incident dates back to the early 1980s when I, in my early thirties then, was a news presenter on Doordarshan Madras. A nightly news bulletin well accomplished, or so I thought, I was leaving for home when there was an urgent summons from the duty room (the round-the-clock vigil-cum-public interface point in a government broadcasting centre). There was a phone call waiting for me from the Chief Minister’s office. The voice at the other end had the unmistakable inflection caused by the famous bullet wound in the neck. It was the Chief Minister, MGR, himself. Don’t you know, he proceeded to upbraid me without preliminaries as soon as I had introduced myself, Tamil “panpadu” (Tamil culture)? Don’t you know how auspicious the lighting of a lamp before a function is? I racked my brains to think of a lighting of a lamp item that might have gone wrong in the newscast but couldn’t come up with any. After a few more unhappy sounding words about the importance of lighting the lamp, the distinguished visitor hung up.

It was only later when the problem was gone into by my news producers Sampath Kumar and Nishat Ahmed (both of whom continue to be my colleagues now at the Asian College of Journalism) that we realised what had so irked the Chief Minister. There was in that news bulletin a visual coverage of one of the Chief Minister’s functions that had begun with a lighting of the lamp by Jayalalithaa, who then already was, or was shortly to become, the propaganda secretary of the AIADMK. The shot footage of the event did contain this opening sequence of the traditional lamp being lit. Those were days when Doordarshan used reversal film stock that had to be chemically processed and quick dried before the footage was edited; editing thus was always a rushed affair to meet the deadlines of newscasts. In that rush, our editor, K.N. Raju, who normally edited with an accurate sixth sense in which speed, alacrity, creativity and a phenomenal memory for the shots that comprised each stretch of film hanging above the bin beside the editing table were subconscious elements, had snipped the lamp-lighting sequence in question into the discard bin, which is where lamp-lighting sequences that routinely accompanied most public functions ended up. Hence the missing sequence in the bulletin that had occasioned the Chief Minister’s call, whether of his own accord or at anyone else’s prompting, one will never know.

As the regular face on the tube those days with the news tidings, I was the fall guy in the episode. But to be fair to MGR, he made amends with grace and a certain flair soon after. I was at the secretariat at Fort St. George waiting outside the conference hall for an important meeting under way to be over (every government meeting was important for Doordarshan, remember?), when the doors of the hall opened and MGR strode out exuding his usual energy and ready charisma. He spotted me standing some distance away in the corridor, walked up to me, clasped my right palm in both of his and said almost earnestly that he was wrong in speaking as he did to “thambi” (younger brother, me); that he realised of course that I wasn’t in any case the one to blame. I thought I could use this moment of indulgence to extract a commitment of an interview that I had been trying to do with him, but how and why that didn’t work is another story.

To return to Jayalalithaa, after that vicarious intimation of her importance in her party and to her mentor, soon after she had been inducted into the AIADMK, our paths crossed, so to speak, at her bidding more than a decade later, in 1995. By then we had launched the Asianet channel and cable ventures and I was running them out of the studios and offices in Thiruvananthapuram and the corporate office in Chennai. As I was preparing one afternoon to leave the corporate office for lunch along with a close and senior friend and colleague, the influential journalist V.K. Madhavan Kutty, who happened to be visiting from Delhi, I received an urgent call from a senior bureaucrat in the Tamil Nadu government to ask if I could meet the Chief Minister at her Poes Garden residence, if possible within an hour. I asked if I could bring Madhavan Kutty along for the meeting and the bureaucrat, after quickly checking with those concerned, said I could. So we duly arrived at Veda Nilayam with a bouquet of flowers each for the Chief Minister and “Chinnamma” Sasikala, who we were told would also be present, and, with minimal security fuss, were ushered into a room. Chinnamma soon entered and greeted us and exchanged pleasantries with us until Jayalalithaa breezed in a short while later, charming and all smiles, and broached the subject of the meeting.

Complimenting me on the success of Asianet, she said she realised how important it was in future for political parties to have their channels of mass communication. She cited, with a pragmatic sense of healthy respect and without any hint of derision, the example of Sun TV and how it served the DMK cause. Would I be able to set up a channel similarly for her and run it until her own functionaries could take it over? There was another more pressing request. Would we be able to wire up Thanjavur, like we had done in Kerala with copper coaxial cables strung along electricity poles in the country’s first State-wide cable network system, in time for the World Tamil Conference, which was scheduled a few months away? Madhavan Kutty was almost jabbing his elbow into my ribs to get me to say yes to both, but discretion, the better part of valour, prevailed and I managed to wriggle out of the situation. I pointed out that my plate was already overly full and that while I would be happy to provide any information and guidance needed we wouldn’t be able to take these projects on ourselves. She was gracious and understanding and left it at that.

It would be another decade before I met Jayalalithaa again, this time in response to a letter from me seeking an appointment with her. I wanted to see her to request for allocation of some land on lease for the campus of the Asian College of Journalism, which we had set up as a not-for-profit public trust in 2000. I received a fairly quick response from her office, and the appointment was set up for a morning a few days later. I was not sure whether I should recount what happened at the meeting because it involves my longstanding friend, the ace journalist and now publisher of The Hindu group, and fellow trustee of the ACJ, N. Ram. But since he has himself revealed it in a discussion, following Jayalalithaa’s demise, on a national news channel, I guess there is no harm in recounting it. It conveys a measure of the woman.

The meeting began on a formal —almost coldly formal, I thought —note, with her, without any pleasantries or even any sign that she recognised me from our earlier rendezvous, asking me straightaway the purpose of my visit, and my duly explaining the reason. I presented her the college brochure which she flipped through until she came to the page with the pictures and brief description of the trustees. What, she demanded to know irately, is Mr N. Ram doing here? He is our trustee and has been with me from the very beginning in setting up the college, I replied, and went on to elaborate a bit about the association, although almost sure in my mind that she already knew all this. She heard me patiently through and then asked me if I knew what her and her government’s relationship with the gentleman and the paper he represented was. The relationship, as I and anyone following the news knew, had been fraught with tension for a couple of years, ever since the Tamil Nadu Assembly had initiated a breach of privilege action against the paper and police action against its senior editors. She proceeded to list what she considered were instances of biased coverage of the paper against her.

By now I suspected that the purpose of my visit was as good as lost and was looking for an honourable exit. Knowing that nothing may come of this meeting actually helped, and I made bold to suggest to her that she should perhaps give Mr Ram a time to meet her and resolve matters; a request for an appointment, I knew, was pending with her office. She again launched into angry declamation about the injustice done to her by the paper—in retrospect, and in the light of the over 200 defamation cases her government has filed against publications, journalists or others, she seemed obsessively concerned about what the media said about her even while hardly currying favour with, in fact personally preferring to ignore, the media (as seems to be the wont of authoritarian democrats these days, including Narendra Modi and Donald Trump). Then, as quickly as she had flared up, she was her cool and charming self again and returned to the actual purpose of my visit.

I kept my hopes in check while I briefly took her through our plans for the college until she finally turned around to a senior Secretary to the government seated along with a few other high-ranking officials on the side and enquired where the government might be able to find some land for our campus. By way of a parting shot she told me: “I want you to know that I am doing this for you in spite of the company you keep.” I, in turn, thanked her profusely but also, as I got up to leave, reminded her about the meeting with Ram, and she said she would think about it. She did, and I believe the meeting that took place shortly after turned out well and helped clear some misunderstandings. A few months later she was also unveiling the foundation stone for the ACJ campus buildings to be located at Taramani.

Cho Ramaswamy

Close on the heels of Jayalalithaa’s demise, someone who had her implicit trust and respect and who in turn admired her for her relentless courage but also forthrightly critiqued her for her many other traits also passed away. Cho Ramaswamy remained the enfant terrible of Tamil Nadu and national politics well until the end. My enduring memory of the man is as the delightfully devastating Tughlaq on stage in the late 1960s, with that bouncy walk and cheeky punchlines—a rippling, walking, talking caricature that anticipated Indira Gandhi’s Emergency rule. I made his acquaintance even as an undergrad at college in the early 1970s, on a chance visit to the late T.T. Vasu’s office. He was there with his pipe and piping hot humour, a seamless continuation of the stage persona. We remained in touch, and even though we did not meet frequently, each time we did it was as if we just picked up the thread from where we had left off.

We had little in common ideologically and he would tease me about my leftism. “If the Left has a future, there is no future left” was his constant taunt. I turned it on its head and used it in my own public speeches: “If the Left has no future, there is no future left.” When I told him how I had freely adapted his line, he complained that you can’t even crack a joke with a leftist without being misquoted. At the same time he had more than a grudging respect for the commitment of Left parties to people’s causes and considered them the least corruptible in the political spectrum.

In the first decade of 2000, Cho, N. Ram and I as moderator did a topical biweekly series titled “South File” commissioned by Doordarshan. It looked at issues in the four southern States and interspersed investigative field reports with a discussion on a predetermined theme among the three of us in the studio. Ram and Cho agreed on some issues, disagreed on more others, and agreed to disagree on yet others, but the discussion was always as civil as it was forthright and informed by a respect for each other’s intellectual integrity and political honesty. He would arrive at the studio for each session of the recording, seated like an alert hobgoblin in the front next to the driver in his modest-sized car, a security man looking like a liability in the back seat. As he readied for the programme, he would make those hilarious and yet politically loaded observations between bouts of loud and insistent throat clearing. Even that medical drill seemed in character and funny then but was to take its toll on his health and force his end when it came—prematurely it seems because the man’s visage never really aged—in his eighties.

Cho rather took to the programme and when it was finally ending suggested to me that I should look at producing an Indian version of the popular British serial Yes Minister, which lampooned the political class in England. He said he would script it. I said I’d do it if he would also play a lead role in it. He said he’d consider the offer. He even had my friend from Doordarshan days, Sampath Kumar, who had worked for some years with the BBC Tamil service in London, bring him tapes of the Yes Minister series for reference. But for some reason, we didn’t proceed with the idea. I often regret we didn’t. He would have captured the quintessential caricature of the Indian politician and the wily or craven bureaucrat as few others could. But even he might have been a misfit, even in the Right, in these artistically intolerant times.

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