Back at the helm

Published : Mar 16, 2002 00:00 IST

Jayalalithaa begins another term as Chief Minister with a promise to concentrate on development.

"THE victorious mother of a valiant history," proclaimed a hoarding at a traffic intersection in Chennai, depicting Jayalalithaa as a Tamil warrior in a period costume and with a drawn sword. As if to reinforce the warrior imagery, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) general secretary went on the offensive when she met mediapersons on March 2. She quickly squelched an insinuation from a reporter that she had been "depressed" when she was fighting the corruption cases against her. "Do I look depressed? If I had been depressed, would I be sitting here ?" she shot back with a disarming smile. She said that the whole country had praised her for having bravely fought the cases. Jayalalithaa had reasons to pat herself: she had been sworn in Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu a few hours earlier.

A carnival-like atmosphere prevailed on Kamarajar Salai, the beach-front road that leads to the Madras University centenary auditorium where she took the oath of office. Hundreds of hoardings had sprung up overnight on either side of the road. The hoardings, put up by her "genuine loyalists" and "loyalists forever", hailed Jayalalithaa as the mother of various Tamil epics. One of these said: "You have been crowned to metamorphose Andipatti (the land of paupers) into Arasipatti (the land of the queen) !" (The reference was to the Andipatti Assembly constituency, from where she won a byelection on February 24.) While music bands blared out songs from Tamil films featuring Jayalalithaa and M.G. Ramachandran (the AIADMK founder and former Chief Minister), dummy-horse dancers waltzed on platforms on the roadside.

The swearing-in ceremony lasted about an hour. Along with Jayalalithaa, 26 Ministers took the oath of office. Thousands of people watched the ceremony on a giant screen at the nearby M.A Chidambaram Stadium.

The 27-member Cabinet had several surprise choices. She dropped 10 Ministers from the Cabinet of O. Panneerselvam, who stood in for Jayalalithaa until she got elected from Andipatti, and inducted 13. Panneerselvam was elevated to the No. 2 position in the Cabinet, displacing Finance Minister C. Ponnaiyan. Panneerselvam got the important Public Works portfolio. Ponnaiyan, seen as an ambitious man, lost Law and Prisons but retained Finance. The seemingly unambitious Panneerselvam was rewarded for his loyalty to the leader and for having skilfully steered the State since September 21, 2001 when the Supreme Court struck down Jayalalithaa's appointment as Chief Minister. The Supreme Court ruling was based on her disqualification from contesting elections after being convicted and sentenced to imprisonment in two corruption cases. Her acquittal by the Madras High Court on December 4 enabled her to contest from Andipatti.

This is the third Cabinet since the AIADMK came to power in May 2001. Of the 132 AIADMK legislators in the 234-member Assembly, 42 have been Ministers at one time or the other in the last 10 months. Referring to this, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) president and former Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi commented: "Should not everybody get an opportunity?"

Jayalalithaa denied that she had a "jumbo" Cabinet. According to her, there should ideally be 30 Ministers, representing the 30 districts in the State. So the Cabinet, she said, was still short of three Ministers.

That Jayalalithaa had her priorities cut out was clear. She declared: "It is my aim and goal to make Tamil Nadu the No. 1 State. I am planning for all-round development." In her assessment, her acquittal in the corruption cases and her election from Andipatti had brought about political stability, which was essential for economic development. "Right now, I am only thinking about how to extricate the State from the financial mess," she said.

The swearing-in took place in the background of the communal conflagration in Gujarat. In a statement, she said that political leaders who issued statements of condemnation whenever members of the minority communities were victims, were silent on the latest "barbaric crime" (the burning of the Sabarmati Express at Godhra). "Such acts of senseless violence should be condemned no matter who is responsible for them and no matter who the victims are. It is not as though a crime is a crime only when it is committed against the minorities and not so if it is committed against the majority community. This should be viewed as a crime committed against humanity," she said.

Jayalalithaa's statement was music to the ears of the Bharatiya Janata Party, which heads the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government at the Centre. H. Raja, State general secretary of the BJP, appreciated her statement and said that most political parties and "pseudo-secularists" hurried to make statements only when people belonging to the minority communities were murdered. Raja, however, declined to say whether her remarks would create dissensions in the NDA, which is led in Tamil Nadu by the DMK.

Karunanidhi did some semantic tightrope-walking. He said that the NDA constituents stood for religious harmony and that the NDA government was secular. Karunanidhi served notice on the BJP, saying the DMK would be in the "BJP-led alliance government as long as it is secular. We will not be there if the government gives permission to build a Ram temple (in Ayodhya)."

Jayalalithaa's standpoint on the Godhra violence was of a piece with her support to the NDA government's policy of economic liberalisation and to the Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance and her silence on the re-induction of George Fernandes as Defence Minister and on the "coffin scam". Her latest observation that she would not have a "needless confrontation" with the Centre was also significant.

State BJP leaders, however, said that the position taken by Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi on the Gujarat violence did not mean that the AIADMK was keen on joining the NDA and the DMK was raring to get out of it. According to them, Karunanidhi had few options. If he pulled the DMK out of the NDA, he would face opposition both at the Centre and in the State. "When that happens, the AIADMK will go all out to annihilate the DMK. Will Karunanidhi opt for it?" a BJP leader asked. It suited the BJP to enlist the support of the AIADMK on crucial issues and simultaneously keep the DMK in the NDA. The BJP leader said: "We will allow this ambiguity to continue."

A Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC) leader said that both the DMK and the AIADMK supported the NDA out of necessity. "If the DMK stepped out of the NDA, the AIADMK will immediately walk into the parlour," he said, pointing out that the AIADMK's alliance with the Congress(I), the TMC and the Left parties was already over.

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