Surprised by Jayalalithaa

Former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa

Former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa

Journalist and writer Karan Thapar feels that there are two interviews for which he is best known. The first, he says in his memoir, Devil’s Advocate: The Untold Story , “is the 2007 interview with Narendra Modi where he walked out after roughly three minutes. The second is an even older interview with J. Jayalalithaa , recorded in October 2004. She stayed the full course. But then, she left in a huff.” Fourteen years later, Mr. Thapar tells us what exactly happened during the Jayalalithaa interview for BBC’s HARDtalk India. An excerpt:

Of all the people I had ever wanted to interview, Jayalalithaa was almost at the top of the list. She intrigued me. Her convent accent, sangfroid, deliberate manner and glide-like walk were captivating. She was so cultivated, so carefully put together, she seemed unreal.

The trouble began with something as silly as flowers. Jayalalithaa had asked for some to be placed on the interview table. So a vast arrangement that stretched from end to end was readied. I balked and refused to allow this huge display to obstruct my view. Instead, I placed them on a stool by her side. What I did not know was that the flowers were not intended for their beauty. Jayalalithaa wanted to hide her notes behind them. In their absence, the papers she carried became visible and, as the interview proceeded, I could see her flicking through them. From time to time, she even seemed to look down and read. I suppose my mistake was to point this out. I don’t know why I did it. “I’m not reading,” she shot back angrily. “I am looking at you straight in the eye. I look at everyone straight in the eye.”

In fact, the truth is that the interview got off to a bad start well before this happened. The fault was undoubtedly my first question.

“Chief Minister, let’s start with your image,” I began. “For the last three years the press has at different times portrayed you as undemocratic, unreliable, irresponsible, irrational and even vengeful. Are you misunderstood or can you accept you have made errors and mistakes?”

Her reply was terse. It was a clear hint of what was to follow. “I’m not irresponsible at all. That’s totally removed from the truth. Yes, I’m misunderstood. As for all these other tags, that is because the media has been against me, not just for the past few years but ever since I came to politics.”

I had intended to attract attention with this question. Unfortunately, to Jayalalithaa, it probably felt like a personal attack. Anyway, I had a set of questions and was determined to carry on.

“And what about the withdrawal of defamation cases against the media and the cancellation of punishment and disciplinary action against government servants for going on strike last year? They seemed arbitrary and unjustified then and they seem the same now.”

“The media is biased against me because I’m a self-made woman,” she replied. “Politics has for long been a male bastion. The media picks on me because I don’t have a family background like other female leaders of South Asia. Look at Indira Gandhi, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, Benazir Bhutto, Sheikh Hasina. They were all someone’s daughter or wife. I have no such background.”

I next raised the manner in which she had arrested her political adversary M. Karunanidhi. It had happened just over three years earlier. At the time he was 77 and a former Chief Minister of 14 years’ standing.

“You arrested your predecessor at 2 in the morning on a Saturday, although the FIR against him had only been filed the day before. And then he was taken kicking and screaming to jail. Why was it done in this high-handed fashion?”

In fact, sections of the press had concluded that this was Jayalalithaa’s revenge for the fact that Karunanidhi had arrested her after she lost power in 1996. Once again, Jayalalithaa was incandescent. Her fury was visible.

“The DMK government foisted cases against me and threw me into jail. I languished in jail for 28 days for a case in which I was ultimately acquitted. When Karunanidhi did this, the media gave him kudos, portraying it as the triumph of good over evil. When I became Chief Minister, Mr. Karunanidhi was arrested in a corruption case. At the time his family channel, Sun TV, played a big hoax, putting out very cleverly edited footage. It was not vengeance. I do not regret it at all.”

Once again, changing subjects, I decided to put to her the zigzag way in which she had switched political alliances over the last six years.

“Let’s turn to what they call your unreliability. You fought the ’98 elections opposed to Sonia, you fought the ’99 elections as her ally, by 2003 you had changed sides again and now, after the Congress has won, you’re claiming there is nothing personal about it. You seem to change your mind every time the mood in the country alters.”

This time Jayalalithaa refused to answer. “I don’t want to discuss Sonia Gandhi in this interview. I have a choice to pick and choose the questions I want to answer.”

Thereafter, things only got worse.

Finally, in the dying seconds, as I thanked her, I stretched out my hand and added, “Chief Minister, a pleasure talking to you.”

For a moment she stared back implacably. “I must say it wasn’t a pleasure talking to you. Namaste.” She rebuffed my proffered hand, unclipped and banged down the mike, and sailed out of the room.

As we drove out of Fort St. George, Ashok Upadhyay (the producer) turned to me, the tapes of the interview firmly in his hands, and said, “We better make the most of this interview because Jayalalithaa will never give you another one again.”

Although at the time I was convinced he was right, Amma proved that Ashok was decidedly wrong. Either because she was a great politician or a generous and large-hearted woman, she took me completely by surprise when we next met.

It happened two years later at a National Integration Council meeting in Vigyan Bhawan, New Delhi. I was talking to Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik when she walked up and joined us. I assumed it was Naveen she wished to meet, not me, so I stepped aside.

“Where are you going, Karan?” she said in a voice that sounded genuinely cheerful. “I came to talk to you. I meet Mr. Patnaik all the time.”

I was stumped. I couldn’t believe what I’d heard. Indeed, I stared back in silence, not knowing what to say. “Well,” she said, smiling, her eyes twinkling with mirth, “aren’t you going to say something?”

“I wasn’t sure you wanted to meet me,” I stammered. “Have you forgotten our last meeting?”

“Of course,” she said and laughed. “In fact, isn’t it time for another?” But before I could answer she turned to Naveen and asked how he was. I took this as my cue to leave.

Excerpted with permission from HarperCollins

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Printable version | Sep 23, 2022 11:52:09 am |