Rivals may be talking about her health and her absence from public view but as far as her party is concerned, Jayalalithaa remains as much in control as ever. The list of AIADMK candidates announced Monday, for example, was the result of a screening process she personally conducted over four hectic weeks.
During the time actor-politician Vijayakanth’s wife Premalatha raised questions about Jayalalithaa’s health and alleged she had undergone in a “makeshift surgical room” at her Poes Garden home, Jayalalithaa was actually meeting 600-odd candidates from across the state, giving each two to 20 minutes, on the first floor of her home.
From early March, hundreds of MLA aspirants, each of whom paid a fee of Rs 11,000, had been thronging the Poes Garden streets. Many could be seen in tears, some even reportedly saying they didn’t want to contest as their greatest dream had been fulfilled when they spent a few minutes with ‘Amma”.
Aspirants would come out of the interview sessions with her portrait showing through their transparent shirt pockets. In a party where seniors in their sixties or seventies often stretch on the ground to touch her feet, where “Amma is the only leader and cadre”, they stress how democratic their structure is, how even ordinary sympathisers could manage an appointment despite local leaders’ efforts to block aspirants.
A party source spoke of an interview of a party worker from Oddanchatram near Dindigul: “The first question was about R Chakrapani, DMK MLA for three terms.” Jayalalithaa wanted a reason for Chakrapani’s popularity. The interviewee said unlike other DMK leaders, Chakrapani is not corrupt. “Then she asked him about local AIADMK leaders. He was reluctant to reply but she forced him to reveal that the local leader is not accessible,” said the source. A few hours later, Tamil channels were flashing news of the local leader being removed from his post.
The source said the interviewee left the room in tears, overwhelmed by the meeting. A former AIADMK minister said despite being inaccessible to even seniors, she had done this earlier too. “It was a meeting in 1996, after her defeat, at Kolapakkam when she interacted with people this manner. She made them criticise her, other leaders and her previous government in that general body meeting, she was seen encouraging cadres to criticise leaders in front of them,” he said.
An aspirant who won the ticket after his interview agreed to speak under the condition of anonymity. “I admit people are upset due to corruption, due to floods and her absence from public view,” he said. “But how is this different from the DMK? They too are corrupt, and only their corrupt leaders can sustain. In AIADMK, nobody is above the party. Even Sasikala’s husband Natarajan was ousted and arrested by her police, Sasikala herself was thrown out once. And in which party can people like me meet her without any recommendation?”
Another anecdote came from a senior from Sriperumbudur. Jayalalithaa asked about his family and he replied his son is preparing for studies abroad. She wanted to know if he would return or settle abroad. He replied his son would return and be her follower even after his death. “She said that shouldn’t be the way to prove his loyalty,” said a party source. “She said both she herself and the aspirant would be dead after a few years, only the party would remain. She asked him to make sure his children and grandchildren were loyal to the party.”
A former MLA, a veteran from MGR’s time, had expected she would have forgotten him. “But the moment she saw him, she called him by name, asked him about his hair loss, why he looks so old, as if she were addressing an old friend. She complained about not being invited to his son’s wedding, and reminded him to invite her for his daughter’s wedding, and promised a gift,” said a source.
Every aspirant held a plastic file prepared with his or her plans for the seat. “We will read it out or she will do so herself,” said one.