On shaky ground

Print edition : September 15, 2001

With Jayalalithaa going through a time of legal and political troubles, Tamil Nadu faces uncertainty.

WITH orders expected in a few weeks in the Supreme Court and the Madras High Court in cases that will decide her future, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa is on a sticky wicket, legally and politically.

The All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, which she heads as general secretary, was in the throes of a crisis as the realisation dawned on partypersons that she had nearly run out of time to get elected to the Assembly in time to retain the chief ministership. There was gloom in its headquarters in Chennai as word spread that her legal advisers had reportedly hinted to her that she should resign. This was consequent on the Supreme Court staying on August 30 the proceedings in her appeals in the High Court and directing that another Judge should hear the appeals afresh but not earlier than October 1.

Soon Chennai buzzed with speculation on who Jayalalithaa would nominate to become Chief Minister if she were forced to step down. The names mentioned in this context were those of Electricity Minister D. Jayakumar, Education Minister M. Thambidurai and Finance Minister C. Ponnaiyan. Rumours also travelled from New Delhi that she would not nominate a sitting legislator because there was the possibility of the nominee refusing to step down later. So her choice, speculation had it, would be a non-legislator such as Visalakshi Nedunchezhiyan or Dr. V. Maitreyan, who will have to get elected to the Assembly within six months. The Intelligence wing of the State police got into the act, and spread the word that the choice was likely be Uppiliayapuram R. Saroja, Minister for Tourism.

Jayalalithaa herself remained inaccessible. Informed sources said that she was "upset" by the Supreme Court's stay on the proceedings in the High Court. She reportedly got annoyed with Ponnaiyan, who holds the Law portfolio as well, for having failed to file a caveat in the Supreme Court anticipating that K.V. Venkatapathi, Special Prosecutor in the appeals, would move the apex court.

Jayalalithaa filing her nomination papers for the Andipatti Assembly constituency at the Theni Collectorate.-K. GANESAN

When the effect of the Supreme Court's stay order sank in, Jayalalithaa reacted angrily in the Assembly on September 1. She asked DMK members whether or not they had tried to influence the Supreme Court in the cases against her. She said she was not attributing motives to the Supreme Court but it had ruled against a Special Judge discharging her from the 'coal case' after the DMK government appealed against the verdict. Earlier, a Judge of the Madras High Court had upheld her discharge in the same case, she said. "How did they (the DMK) obtain the judgment? The DMK members should clarify whether or not they obtained the judgment using influence," she said.

However, realising that her rhetorical query could boomerang on her, she claimed on September 3 that newspapers had "wrongly" reported her remarks, attributing different meanings to it. She said that the DMK members had argued that her present appeals in the TANSI cases (relating to the purchase of the property of the government-owned Tamil Nadu Small Industries Corporation) should not be heard by the Madras High Court because she was the Chief Minister of the State. However, when the Special Judge discharged her in the coal case and the High Court upheld it, the DMK government appealed against it in the Supreme Court. The apex court ruled against her being discharged. "So I made a statement to the effect that DMK members should clarify whether someone would not think that the DMK, being part of the coalition government at the Centre, obtained that order," she said.

Jayalalithaa added: "I only spoke in the sense that whether those who claim that justice will not prevail in the High Court when I am Chief Minister would accept any claim that the order was obtained in the coal case using influence. I did not say anything else meaning to disrespect the court... I have never expressed any opinion about Judges when orders were passed affecting me. I have never found fault with any court. I respect every Judge. I fielded a retired Judge of the Supreme Court as a candidate of the AIADMK in the Lok Sabha elections (in 1999). I have not said anything in this House attributing motives to Supreme Court Judges."

Jayalalithaa was on shaky ground on the political front also. The Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), which was an important constituent of the AIADMK-led front in the Assembly elections in May, has pulled out of the alliance. G.K. Moopanar, president of Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC), another key ally of the AIADMK, died on August 30 (obituary on page 118). The TMC has elected G.K. Vasan, son of Moopanar, as party president. But Vasan's leadership qualities are untested. Some senior TMC leaders, who were against Vasan being anointed party president, want the party to merge with its parent, the Congress(I). These factors could affect the AIADMK's prospects in the panchayat elections, which are scheduled for October 16 and 18.

Although PMK founder Dr. S. Ramadoss, after quitting the AIADMK alliance, was speaking about forming a third front, it looks certain that the PMK will return to the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) led by the DMK in Tamil Nadu. M. Karunanidhi, DMK president and former Chief Minister, said on September 9 that there were "chances" of the PMK joining the NDA in the State. He said: "We cannot say anything pointedly about other parties." This was seen as a barb aimed at the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazha-gam (MDMK), which too left the DMK-led front before the Assembly elections. MDMK general secretary Vaiko maintains that his party will not have ties with either the DMK or the AIADMK in the panchayat elections. But sources in the Bharatiya Janata Party say that its State general secretary L. Ganesan will try to bring both the PMK and the MDMK into the NDA. If that happens, the NDA will be stronger in Tamil Nadu. However, the Dalit Panthers of India, headed by its convener R. Thirumavalavan, and the Puthiya Tamizhagam, another Dalit-based party in the DMK front, oppose the return of the PMK.

Janata Party leader Subramanian Swamy, who first sought sanction to prosecute Jayalalithaa on charges of corruption in 1994.-S. MAHINSHA

The AIADMK is bound to feel the loss of the support of key sections of the Vanniya community, the main support base of the PMK. The TMC leaders themselves admit that the party's entire vote share (about 10 per cent) may not be transferred to the AIADMK.

Besides, the Congress(I) in Tamil Nadu has hardly been warm in supporting its ally. E.V.K.S. Ilangovan, TNCC president, has been trenchant in his criticism of the AIADMK. Addressing a public meeting in Chennai on late Congress leader K. Kamaraj's birthday on July 15, Ilangovan went to the extent of declaring that the two Dravidian parties (the DMK and the AIADMK) "should be sent home". He also said that the Congress(I) would like to contest the panchayat elections on its own. These observations drew a sharp response from AIADMK leader K.A. Sengottaiyan, who appealed to Jayalalithaa "not to have any ties with the Congress as long as Ilangovan remains TNCC president".

P. Chidambaram, president of the TMC Democratic Forum and former Union Finance Minister, alleged that Jayalalithaa "did not provide good governance" in the 115 days in office, noting that she had spent her energies in fighting legal battles. She did not attend the National Development Council meeting in New Delhi and the Chief Ministers' conference convened by Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee. Nor did she meet the Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission to finalise the State's Plan outlay. The State was "perilously close to a debt trap," Chidambaram said. The State Budget did not announce any new investments in industries or any programme to tackle unemployment, he pointed out.

What will be comforting for Jayalalithaa is that the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Communist Party of India (CPI) will continue to be firm allies.

AIADMK sources fear that the grip of the Sasikala family on Jayalalithaa will increase if she resigns. Sasikala, a close friend, lives with Jayalalithaa at Poes Garden, Chennai. After the AIADMK lost power in the 1996 elections, the party split. Several top leaders left the party, alleging that Sasikala's family was virtually running the party. The lavish wedding celebration of V.N. Sudhagaran, Sasikala's nephew and Jayalalithaa's erstwhile foster son, in Chennai in September 1995 caused revulsion among the people in Tamil Nadu.

After Jayalalithaa became Chief Minister in May, there were indications that she was distancing herself from Sasikala. Unlike in her previous tenure when the Chief Minister came to the Secretariat infrequently and officials and Ministers had to meet her at home, she works in the Secretariat almost every day now. Party sources said that she was keen on providing an efficient government and so was keeping Sasikala's family at arm's length. But at a recent wedding function of a relative of Sasikala, Jayalalithaa pointedly referred to Sasikala's suffering for her sake.

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