When Jayalalithaa became the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister for the first time in June 1991, she had no administrative experience. But that was no handicap when it came to grasping complex issues and problems concerning the State. She was also known for taking swift decisions, even when she knew they would be unpopular.
Recounting their experiences of interactions with her, officials, both serving and retired, say Jayalalithaa had a “phenomenal” memory. In many instances, she would ask questions on the status of issues that might have been referred to her only occasionally.
A former IAS officer, who worked closely with her from 2001 to 2006, recalled how Ms. Jayalalithaa addressed an all-party meeting on the Cauvery water dispute in 2002 without even a sheet of paper to refer from. “There was some delay in getting the necessary files and she had decided to leave her chamber at the Secretariat without the papers as she was getting late for the meeting. She was able to recollect even minute details of the issue precisely and accurately,” the retired bureaucrat said.
Even in her first term as Chief Minister, she proved herself to be a leader who would work late hours, said a former IAS officer who served under her from 1991 to 1996.
Hours of work
Once, he and some others held a meeting with her that went on till early morning hours. Before he took leave of her, she asked him, “Would you be here by 10’o clock?” “10 p.m.?” he asked. “I mean 10 a.m.,” Jayalalithaa replied. After a pause, she told him that once the assignment was completed, he could relax for a day or two.
During 2002-2003, Jayalalithaa vigorously pursued the reform agenda. Her decision to abolish free power supply for farmers came in for severe criticism but she stood her ground. But after the AIADMK was routed in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, she restored the scheme. The decision to sack over a lakh government employees who went on strike in the early 2000s also made her government unpopular and yet, she did not relent. Most of those dismissed were later reinstated on the Supreme Court’s order.
Another retired IAS officer said that though she did not like to change her mind after adopting a particular course of action, she was amenable to changes if they were convincing. She would be “firm but not inflexible,” the officer said.
'A circus ringmaster'
Jayalalithaa once likened herself to a circus ringmaster, when it came to dealing with bureaucrats.
Making this observation in the Assembly in May 2002, she acknowledged that officials were “lackadaisical”. She said, “Like a ringmaster... I am trying to whiplash them into action.”
When DMK leader Duraimurugan found fault with Ministers for presenting “inaccurate figures” to the Assembly and wondered if officials were providing wrong information, she said on her return to power in May 2001, she found the officials “totally demoralised.” This was due to the “treatment” meted out to them by the DMK regime of 1996-2001.
On assuming charge as CM in May 2001, she started motivating the officials to work. But the Supreme Court unseated her just four months later, since her conviction in the TANSI case was in force then.
Jayalalithaa contended that her absence in the subsequent five months was like an “extended holiday” for the officials. On returning to power in March 2002, she resumed motivating them.
Some civil servants had privately expressed disappointment over her analogy.