An eventful sojourn

Print edition : April 10, 1999

India's National Magazine from the publishers of THE HINDU

Jayalalitha's recent visit to Delhi, the attempts she made there to strike a national profile, and her recent show of friendship towards the Congress(I) have led to the impression that she has a long-term realignment of political forces in mind.

ALL India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader Jayalalitha's sojourn in New Delhi between March 26 and 30 proved to be an eventful one. From Day One, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and its bete noire, Janata Party president Subramanian Swamy, vied with each other to keep Jayalalitha in good humour. Senior BJP leaders Jana Krishnamurthy and K.L. Sharma, along with Law Minister and AIADMK leader M. Thambidurai, drove up to the tarmac at the airport to receive her with garlands. At the arrival lounge, Jayalalitha, who was accompanied by her associate Sasikala Natarajan, was accorded an effusive welcome by Subramanian Swamy and AIADMK Members of Parliament. A function organised to welcome her at the public sector Ashok Hotel - where she stayed initially, before shifting to another five-star hotel - was attended by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's family.

The first function attended by Jayalalitha was a seminar on "Democracy in Internal Party Structures". The seminar, organised by Women's Political Watch, a non-governmental organisation, was chaired by former Prime Minister I.K. Gujral and addressed by Vajpayee. Jayalalitha was invited to the seminar since the AIADMK was the first political party in the country to have announced a 33 per cent reservation of party posts for women. Addressing the participants, Jayalalitha complimented the Congress(I) for following her example and took a dig at the BJP by quoting Manu: families that neglected women would be ruined. In his response, Vajpayee said that he was proud of the fact that two of his allies (the AIADMK and the Trinamul Congress) were headed by women (Jayalalitha and Mamata Banerjee respectively). Jayalalitha claimed that during her stint as Chief Minister, the Tamil Nadu Government had made attempts to set right gender inequalities, but the momentum had been reversed after the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) came to power in 1996.

FOR the BJP and its coalition partners, arranging a coordination committee meeting at short notice during Jayalalitha's Delhi visit was a brilliant step aimed at forcing her to participate in it and improve her ties with the rest of the coalition. However, the effort backfired when Jayalalitha used the occasion, on March 27, to demand the transfer of George Fernandes from the Defence Ministry to another "less sensitive" Ministry in view of the "serious" allegations levelled against him by former Navy chief Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat. She made it clear that she believed that Admiral Bhagwat was "innocent" and that he should be reinstated. This, she is believed to have said, could be done after a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) investigated the issues related to the controversy. (Opposition parties have been demanding a JPC probe into the Bhagwat affair.)

Speaking to newspersons after the meeting, Fernandes said that he had gone to the meeting armed with "relevant files" and was prepared to make a presentation. However, no presentation took place. Jayalalitha is believed to have said that the Defence Ministry's handling of the matter had affected the coalition's image, besides leading to the stalling of parliamentary proceedings. She claimed that the controversies relating to the Defence Ministry had created unrest in the armed services. Further, she referred to the allegations made against Fernandes, including the one that he supported the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and rebels from northeastern India, and his Ministry's alleged lack of initiative in checking the cross-border traffic of drugs in the subcontinent. Fernandes denied the allegations. (On March 29, he had a 90-minute meeting with Jayalalitha. The meeting is believed to have been organised by Vajpayee to clear her misgivings. However, that Fernandes failed to convince her became apparent in the days that followed.)

Jayalalitha with former Prime Ministers H.D. Deve Gowda, P.V. Narasimha Rao and Chandra Shekhar at the tea party.-RAJEEV BHATT

Although the Coordination Committee decided to reject the demands, Jayalalitha stuck to her "suggestions" even while opting to abide by the Committee's decision. Unmindful of her dissenting voice, Fernandes, the convener of the Committee, termed its decision as "unanimous", while Vajpayee described it as a "collective decision".

On the evening of March 27, BJP MP Vijay Goel organised a reception in Jayalalitha's honour at his residence. Intended as a rival function to the one planned by Subramanian Swamy on March 29, Goel's reception had glitter and glamour and offered a varied menu. The party, however, attracted only a few leading lights of the coalition. Several BJP leaders, including Union Home Minister L.K. Advani, and Samata Party leaders did not attend the party.

Even as Jayalalitha stuck to her demand that Fernandes be shifted from the Defence Ministry, the Prime Minister indicated in Lucknow on March 28 that Jayalalitha was "convinced" about the need to reject the demand for a JPC probe in view of the Opposition's bid to avoid a debate on the Bhagwat issue in Parliament.

On March 28, Vajpayee's foster son-in-law Ranjan Bhattacharya and Human Resource Development Minister Murli Manohar Joshi called on Jayalalitha to assuage her "hurt feelings" in the aftermath of the Coordination Committee meeting.

Vajpayee's aides organised a luncheon meeting between him and Jayalalitha on March 29. She is said to have held "cordial" talks with him on various issues, while avoiding the Bhagwat affair. Vajpayee accepted her invitation to lay the foundation stone for the Sethusamudram project and conceded her demand that a postage stamp be brought out in honour of the late K. Santhanam, a freedom fighter. He also agreed to introduce a law to reserve 33 per cent of the seats in Parliament and the State legislatures for women and legislation that allows States to reserve more than 50 per cent of the seats and jobs in educational institutions for the backward classes. Jayalalitha is also believed to have broached the issue of Cabinet expansion and reminded the Prime Minister of her demand for more berths for her nominees. She has been demanding that Vazhapadi K. Ramamurthy be shifted from the Petroleum Ministry and this portfolio be given to an AIADMK nominee.

However, soon after enjoying the Prime Minister's hospitality, Jayalalitha said that her view that Fernandes was unsuitable for the post of Defence Minister "still stands". She said: "I still maintain my stand that it would be in the overall interest of this Government and of national interest to shift Mr. Fernandes out of the Defence Ministry."

It was the tea party organised by Subramanian Swamy in Jayalalitha's honour on March 29 at Hotel Ashok that turned the heat on the BJP-led coalition. Subramanian Swamy appears to have gone by the maxim of the more, the merrier; one estimate put the number of guests at more than 600. Significantly, Congress(I) leaders turned out in large numbers - after it was known that party president Sonia Gandhi was likely to put in a brief appearance. Sonia Gandhi did turn up but stayed for less than 10 minutes and left after greeting Jayalalitha. Only three leaders from the ruling coalition were present - Kalpnath Rai (Samata Party), Pritish Nandy (Shiv Sena) and Uma Bharati (BJP). Senior leaders from Opposition parties other than the Congress(I) were present in full strength - they included Chandra Shekhar, H.D. Deve Gowda, Devi Lal, Om Prakash Chautala, Buta Singh and Syed Shahabuddin.

After the party, Jayalalitha described it as a "political earthquake" (northern India was rocked on March 28.) However, on her arrival in Chennai she claimed that the remark had been made in jest, even as observers charged her of being insensitive to the plight of the victims of the quake.

IT was obvious that Jayalalitha used her Delhi visit not only to cultivate contacts across the political spectrum but also to show that her concerns lay well beyond Tamil Nadu. She visited the United Services Institute, where she interacted with senior defence officers. She endorsed the long-standing demand of defence officers for representation in decision-making services. At a seminar organised by the Jawaharlal Nehru University, she wondered why India and China could not forget the bitterness of the past and improve bilateral relations - a statement seen by many as a veiled attack on Fernandes' aggressive statements against China. She was critical of Jawaharlal Nehru for referring the issue of Pakistani aggression on Kashmir to the United Nations in 1947, and termed it a "Himalayan blunder". She alleged that Nehru's acceptance of the Mountbatten-inspired idea for a plebiscite had cost the country dear. Enthused as it was by the positive signals sent out by her on the previous days, the Congress(I) chose to describe her remarks on Nehru as "academic".

SOON after Jayalalitha left for Chennai, Vajpayee and leaders of the other constituents of the coalition met to discuss the political situation. After the two-hour meeting, it was clear that the Government had decided to take a hard line and would not concede her demands. Briefing newspersons, Information and Broadcasting Minister Pramod Mahajan said that Fernandes would continue as Defence Minister and that Admiral Bhagwat would not be reinstated. He also ruled out the possibility of constituting a JPC to probe the Bhagwat issue. He, however, emphasised that the AIADMK was "still a part of our alliance".

Going by the reactions of the BJP and its allies, it was evident that they were ready to take on the AIADMK chief. Speaking to newspersons in Delhi, Trinamul Congress leader Mamata Banerjee questioned the validity of Jayalalitha's demands since Jayalalitha herself faced corruption charges. BJP leaders M. Venkaiah Naidu and Pramod Mahajan vouched for Fernandes' integrity and said that there was no question of shifting him from the Defence Ministry. Speaking to newspersons after a function organised to mark the inauguration of the card scheme for People of Indian Origin (PIO), Power Minister P.R. Kumaramangalam said that Jayalalitha's credibility had dropped because of the contradictory statements she continued to make. Virtually challenging her to leave the coalition if she was dissatisfied with its functioning, Kumaramangalam said that the Cabinet's collective decision on the Bhagwat issue would not be reconsidered.

The growing mutual distrust worsened further, with Vajpayee saying that nothing would happen to the Government even if some alliance partners chose to withdraw support. Speaking to newspersons at Panaji on April 1, he maintained that the Government was stable. When asked about the remarks made by Kumaramangalam, he said that they were his personal opinions. The party's thinking on the issue was yet to crystallise, he said. He, however, declined to comment on the issue of other allies criticising the AIADMK.

The BJP and its allies thus appear to be getting ready for a confrontation with Jayalalitha on the assumption that she has no other options and that her sabre-rattling techniques should no longer be tolerated.

Meanwhile, observers continue to puzzle over the real reasons for Jayalalitha's offensive against Fernandes, who, until recently, had enjoyed her confidence and respect. Her attempts at striking a national profile have raised many interesting questions.

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