Tamil Nadu on the edge
As Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa has not put any arrangement in place, it triggered doubts whether people with access to Jayalalithaa were running the State through proxy, which does not bode well for democracy, says the writer Anita Saluja
AIADMK supremo J Jayalalithaa has pushed Tamil Nadu to the edge, even as she is undergoing treatment at the Apollo Hospital in Chennai. Easily the most flamboyant, powerful and controversial leader, Jayalalithaa is a virtual demigod in her own lifetime. She commands a loyal and highly emotionally-charged fan-following, ranking next only to late AIADMK founder and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M G Ramachandran, popularly known as MGR, under whose mentorship Jayalalithaa rose, to the pinnacle of her popularity in politics, just as she did in films.
Amma for her fans and followers, Jayalalithaa is one of the most enduring symbols of hero-worship. Amma Canteens offering quality food at subsidised rates for the benefit of not only the poor but even the middle-class, coupled with bottled water, medicines, etc., has created Brand Amma, who is literally adored by her fans and followers.
Now, there is apprehension that her frenzied fans could go berserk, if anything happens to her. In fact, when a Special Court in Bengaluru convicted and sentenced Jayalalithaa to a four-year jail term in the Disproportionate Assets case, nearly 16 of her fanatical followers are believed to have committed suicide.
In the wake of her hospitalisation, tension started, as there was no credible information about the actual health condition of Jayalalithaa. While privacy of a patient is sacrosanct, the same cannot be true of a Head of State government.
Who is in command of the situation and running the government? This is the question that is puzzling the people.
It is against this backdrop that Tamil Nadu Governor Ch Vidyasagar Rao did well to authorise O Paneerselvam to preside over the State Cabinet meetings, besides allocating all the portfolios handled by Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa to him. In fact, O Paneerselvam was twice TN Chief Minister when Jayalalithaa had to temporarily step down.
There is a precedent to justify the action of Tamil Nadu Governor Ch Vidya sagar Rao. During MGR’s hospitalisation in 1984, the then TN Governor S L Khurana had similarly authorised V R Nedunchezhian to preside over the State Cabinet meetings during the period of MGR’s treatment.
Even at the Centre, there was a similar precedent. When the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was to undergo by-pass surgery in January 2009, since he would be under anaesthesia, he authorised his No 2 in the Cabinet, Pranab Mukherjee as the in charge.
All along, Advisor Sheela Balakrishnan and State Chief Secretary P Rama Mohan Rao are believed to be calling the shots, with Jayalalithaa’s friend Sasikala doing the political management. Vidyasagar Rao’s latest move will at least help to dispel such an impression.
What, however, is not certain is the claim that the present arrangement, which is to continue till she resumes her duties, has been made “as per the advice of the Chief Minister.” Is Jayalalithaa, who is ostensibly on the respiratory support system and whose health condition requires prolonged stay in the hospital, in a position to recommend such an arrangement to the State Governor?
The question that arises is why the illness or the health condition of someone running the Government is kept as a State secret? The AIADMK claimed that Jayalalithaa has been holding frequent meetings from her hospital bed in Chennai on the Cauvery issue. There was a directive to AIADMK MPs to meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the Capital on the Cauvery issue. The State Government announced Rs 476 crore as a bonus for PSU employees, as well.
These attempts to show that the Chief Minister is in command of the situation only served to trigger more doubts on who actually is calling the shots. The Apollo Hospital has made it clear that Jayalalithaa needs a longer stay in the hospital and is making gradual progress. This shows that the Chief Minister’s health condition is indeed a cause for concern.
The absence of credible information about her actual ailment and the line of treatment sparked rumour-mongering in the social media. When she was admitted to Apollo Hospital on September 22, 2016, she was said to be suffering from fever and dehydration. Now it is said that she is being treated for infection and is put on respiratory support. A photograph of a woman in intensive care unit, circulated as a photograph of Jayalalithaa, went viral on social media platforms, sparking rumours about her health condition.
When some Tamil TV channels ran scrolls asking people not to believe rumours about the health condition of Jayalalithaa, it only served to fuel doubts in the minds of the people. While her admirers visited temples, mosques and churches to pray for her speedy recovery, her political adversaries moved the High Court, seeking more information and some photographs, which, however, threw out the petition.
Soon, the Opposition DMK started making noises for information about the health condition of the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister. On September 30, DMK supremo M Karunanidhi demanded that Tamil Nadu Government should put an end to rumours regarding the health condition of Jayalalithaa.
The next day, Tamil Nadu Governor Ch Vidyasagar Rao visited the Apollo Hospital to see Jayalalithaa. He was briefed about her health condition by the team of doctors attending on her. Later, he put out a statement that Jayalalithaa was recovering well.
When Congress President Sonia Gandhi fell ill in 2011 – at that time she was also the ruling UPA Chairperson – necessitating surgery abroad, the Congress party came out with cryptic statement, “Sonia Gandhi has been recently diagnosed with a medical condition that requires surgery. On advice from her doctors, she has travelled abroad and is likely to be away for two to three weeks.” It was not even revealed as to which country she had travelled.
As a result, it triggered speculation. Unconfirmed reports that she had cervical cancer and that she was treated in Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Centre in New York gained currency. It was wholly avoidable, if only the Congress chose to be more upfront about the health condition of Sonia Gandhi. However, for running the party affairs during her absence, Sonia Gandhi did name a four-member panel, comprising of Rahul Gandhi, A K Antony, Ahmed Patel and Janardhan Dwivedi.
In the case of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa, since there was no such arrangement put in place, it triggered doubts whether people with access to Jayalalithaa were running the State through proxy, which does not bode well for democracy. Now, at least there is a credible political face managing the State affairs.
(The writer is a senior journalist based in Delhi. She is former Political Editor, The New Indian Express)