Janaki v. Jayalalitha

janakijaya Edging closer to his legacy: Janaki (with kerchief) and Jayalalitha

For the loser, it could mean political oblivion

SENIOR officers at the secretariat in Madras referred to them as J-1 and J-2. These were the codewords the bureaucrats used for the two women closest to MGR. Neither of them directly telephoned any officer nor asked for any file. But their influence was quite palpable. And though they were involved in neither the cine world nor in politics, the bureaucrats of Tamil Nadu nevertheless used to joke about the succession war in AIADMK. And uncannily they had picked on the two possible candidates: J-1 and J-2 long before MGR’s death.

J-1, Janaki is 62. J-2, Jayalalitha is 39. Janaki, among the first heroines of MGR, had been with him for 44 years. Jayalalitha had been his heroine in 23 films till he gave up his film career for politics. Janaki never came into the limelight. Jayalalitha missed no opportunity to bask in the spotlight. Janaki is an Iyer from Kerala. Jayalalitha an Iyengar from Karnataka.

Their intense mutual antagonism came out into the open during the first week after the death of MGR. Janaki spoke no word. She appeared before the public only once. But Jayalalitha kept vigil over MGR’s body throughout, at a vantage point in Rajaji Hall. Besides, whenever the television cameras were on she was ready to wipe the forehead of MGR.

“The fight is between the wife and the mistress,” say the cynics. But the fight is deeper. They really hateD each other. And it would be a pleasure for both of them to have their revenge. For Janaki to pip Jayalalitha at politics. And for Jayalalitha to don MGR’s mantle.

If R.M. Veerappan, the film producer-cum-distributor who rose to be the strong man of the MGR cabinet, had not proposed Janaki’s name for the leadership of the party, in the aftermath of Jayalalitha coming into the picture and staking her claim, Janaki would herself have joined the fray.

In fact jockeying for supremacy between the two had started even when MGR’s body was still warm. Jayalalitha had rushed to the ‘Gardens’ – everyone refers to MGR’s residence as Gardens – but she was not allowed in. But she had her revenge. When the body was brought to Rajaji Hall, Jayalalitha managed to keep a place for herself at the head. Where she remained throughout. She knew that Janaki, 62, and convalescing from a by-pass surgery, would not have that kind of stamina.

Jayalalitha was conscious of the great opportunity. On the first day she came in a black sari. On the second in a white sari with red and black border – the AIADMK party colours. Poor Janaki could not match these carefully planned show tactics. She came in a simple cotton sari, its colours and prints having no significance.

Then came the ‘Deepan’ incident. Jayalalitha tried to climb on to the gun carriage. The army personnel were taken aback. The officer, a colonel, asked her to get down. One jawan offered his hand but Jayalalitha did not oblige – she squatted on the gun carriage. Deepan, a nephew of Janaki and small-time actor in Tamil films, jumped on to the carriage and pushed her down. The whole world watched it on television.

Later, Governor Khurana was to ask the police officials about this incident. He wondered how the solemnity of the occasion could be broken in such a manner.

It appeared that all the party members were only waiting for the body to be interred. Sections of party men went to the ‘samadhi’, laid a wreath and paid their respects to the departed leader. They then promptly headed for their respective destinations – the residence of Janaki or Jayalalitha.

That the battle for succession would be fought out between the two Js had become obvious ever since MGR fell ill in 1984. But it was also equally obvious who among the MGR cabinet would back whom. Veerappan’s antipathy for Jayalalitha goes back to MGR’s film days, as does Janaki’s, and it was inevitable that the two would make common cause. And Nedunchezhiyan, though number two on paper, was never known for any capacity to gather popular support and perforce had to turn to Jayalalitha to lead his fight. Jayalalitha, who had been declared persona non grata by MGR, really had no choice in the matter and agreed to stake her claim for the leadership on the urging of Nedunchezhiyan.

Unfortunately for Jayalalitha, her relationship with MGR had all the elements of a roller-coaster ride. Janaki had always made it clear in her conversation with friends that she was determined to prevent Jayalalitha from coming out on top. And the three years of illness suddenly found Janaki emerging as the person closest to MGR.

For all her reticence in the past, Janaki was not about using her position to influence the state’s administration and taking potshots at politics, though always discreetly.

Senior officers recall that she did make use of her own people to get things done at the secretariat behind MGR’s back. So much so that MGR had to come out with a directive that the government and its departments should not have any dealings with his wife and family members.

One of Janaki’s worst fears just after MGR fell seriously ill in October 1984 was that Jayalalitha would assume the leadership of the party. Close friends of Janaki recall the days when MGR was in Appollo Hospital in Madras and Janaki absolutely refused to allow Jayalalitha to come anywhere near MGR.

Even during MGR’s stay in the US in 1984, a war of words had broken out in Madras. And Jayalalitha was pretty active in this war. But all the while Janaki kept in touch with some party leaders and was advising them on how Jayalalitha could be neutralized.

Janaki is also said to have wielded a good amount of influence on MGR especially during his last days. In fact family friends say that MGR had greatly appreciated Janaki’s concern and care for him and of late had even made this known very explicitly to his party men.

That is a pointer to the fact that this latest battle between the two Js will be the decisive one. The first challenge was issued, not so surprisingly, by Jayalalitha, who announced that it was her duty to follow MGR’s policies and preserve the unity of the party. And as the party split into the Veerappan and Nedunchezhiyan factions, Jayalalitha began holding her own durbar and at her Poes Garden residence in Madras where her ‘supporters’ started gathering everyday in hundreds to have her darshan, that is enacted three times a day. In fact her supporters expect her to make some startling move.

On the last day of 1987, she kept telling people who came to her house that she would make known public certain directives given to her by MGR before he died. But the next day Jayalalitha’s act took on a different shape at the party office where she proclaimed herself as the general secretary of the party in “accordance with the wishes of a majority of the district secretaries”. She then convened the general council and the legislature party meeting in a marriage hall on the very day that the Veerappan group had scheduled their meeting in the party office. The distance between the two venues was short enough for anyone who wanted to switch allegiance at the last minute and yet make his presence felt at the venue of his choice.

Veerappan persuading Janaki to lead the party had really shaken the Jayalalitha-Nedunchezhiyan camp. Although Veerappan and his supporters claim that Janaki acceded to their request in the interest of the party. Janaki is obviously only the front man in the proxy battle. Having undergone a minor bypass surgery in the US when MGR was there recently, Janaki is frail and is still to fully recover from the shock of her husband’s death. But Veerappan and his men are confident that she is capable of running the government.

Jayalalitha meanwhile keeps harping that she is not interested in power or being in government but only in building up the party. But only a few really believed that. And at this stage she needs something more than empty words to catch the people’s attention.

veerappan The Veerappan meeting

Although MGR did sense his end he made no attempt to groom a successor. But one man who was carefully biding his time was the old Chettiar warhorse, R.M. Veerappan.

Even as Veerappan was consolidating his position, he was sending out feelers to Jayalalitha. At one stage his supporters including a party MP, said that they were willing to work out a compromise – a choice post for her. But the efforts failed because she demanded parity with Veerappan. For that matter even Nedunchezhiyan and Veerappan met on December 28. But nothing came out of the meeting.

Nedunchezhiyan did have a few ministers backing him. Panrutti S. Ramachandran was with him more because he would never find a place in RMV’s camp. Rajaram was there because he hated to be with Ponnaiyan in the other camp. Thirunavukarasu was there because he was a close supporter of Jayalalitha and could never have gone to the other side. The only other minister was K.K.S.R. Ramachandran who had a dozen MLAs with him. A Veerappan supporter said: “These ministers are there not because they like him. In fact, Panrutti never liked the man. They are there simply because they will never be taken by Veerappan.”

Hotel President was the hideout of the Veerappan men. And men like Jepiyar, the Metrowater chairman, organized the operation: Information Minister V.V. Swaminathan shuttled between the hotel, RMV’s home, and his own residence.

If the Veerappan MLA's were kept in three-star Hotel President, those few who were supporting Nedunchezhiyan had better comforts. They were put up at five-star Hotel Adyar Park, and according to a hotel executive, the MLA's preferred to stay in their rooms and would come down only to eat in the restaurant.

On January 2 morning, intelligence men were sure that 95 MLAs were in Hotel President. At about 9.30 a.m. three tourist buses equipped with video sets lined up in front of the hotel and Jepiyar and his men ensured that all the 95 got into the buses. A convoy of police trucks provided security throughout the six kilometer route to the venue of the meeting.

The new MLA's hostel was a deserted save for a few relatives of the MLA's who often stayed there. The AIADMK legislature party office was fully barricaded and it was decided to have the meeting for the election (of the Veerappan group) of the new leader in the open. Metal detectors were used to screen all those who went past the barricade. And initially the press was not allowed to enter. Two MLA's who were ill were brought in – one in a car and the other in a private hospital’s Maruti jeep ambulance. Of the 97 MLA's, three were women. And they were all seated in front of garlanded portraits of Anna and MGR.

The press had been told to clear out. Jepiyar and his men ensured that the MLA's got into the buses. The armed police took charge of the whole place and did not even allow AIADMK MP's to go with the convoy. It looked as if the 95 MLA's were totally under party and police siege. After a stop at Sathya Studios where lunch was said to have been organized, the convoy went to the Raj Bhavan where the gates were closed on the press and party supporters.

Since 11.30 a.m. no one knew what was happening at the Raj Bhavan. And then news trickled that the Governor was having a personal interview with all the MLA's produced by Veerappan and company. By 3 p.m. only 43 MLA's had gone through this exercise.

On the other side, Nedunchezhiyan-Jayalalitha who had taken on the role of the general secretary, and company were facing a tense situation. The general council meeting called by them was a largely attended one. The council accepted Jayalalitha as the new general secretary and soon after that the legislature party meeting took place. At the end of it the supporting leaders like former minister Aranganayakam and Minister Rajaram said that they had 70 MLA's on their side although just over a dozen of them were present. Nedunchezhiyan had a list of the names of the 70 MLA's which he was planning to produce before the Governor. But the outcome of the exercise by both the sides was left in suspended animation.

It is said that at least 30 to 40 of the MLA's supporting Veerappan will stay with him through thick and thin. But there are about 20 others belonging to backward communities whose loyalty is open to question.

The new year’s day ended with a stunner form Governor S.L. Khurana, who declared that the party should elect a new leader latest by January 3. That announcement really shook Nedunchezhiyan. He found MLA's flocking to the Veerappan camp after it had called upon Janaki to be its leader. Nedunchezhiyan, who was sure of Congress support, had believed that he could play along with the existing cabinet till the assembly was called, hoping that he could prove his majority and bank on the Congress’ support. He had mooted this idea to Khurana who turned it down. It is in fact said that Janaki’s candidature that took the Center by surprise.

The one-time fortress Ramavaram Gardens where MGR fans were disciplined to act out a durbar every morning when he was alive, is now open to all. People even sat in the car recently acquired for MGR appropriately with the number ‘MGR 4777’.

Janaki’s first appearance before the people was a well organized affair with at least 500 women crowding under a shamiana to greet her. Veerappan was at hand to lead the frail and weeping Janaki to meet the gathering. And then she went behind closed doors.

For the first time the information department was made use of by Veerappan and company. During the presentation of Janaki, the films division cameraman and crew were recording every detail of the event. That morning senior officials of the information department had called up all the pressmen to inform them of the press meet at Ramavaram Gardens. Minister Swaminathan was overseeing the work of the films division in the Janaki episode. Said a source: “We won’t be surprised if this reel is shown in all the theaters the day Janaki is made the chief minister.”

The final decision now rests with Governor Khurana. But many believe that MGR would have liked the party disintegrate after his death. Whether in cinema or in politics, MGR never wanted anybody to replace him or be on a par with him. Perhaps he wanted the party started by him to end with him. Janaki and Jayalalitha not withstanding.

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