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Saturday, April 10, 2021

Jaya, Alagiri, Sasikala: the long run of Udhayakumar

An ardent J Jayalalithaa loyalist who once refused to wear footwear in her presence, Udhayakumar kept the AIADMK flag flying in Madurai at a time when DMK leader M K Alagiri ruled the region.

Written by Arun Janardhanan | Madurai |
Updated: March 31, 2021 10:40:21 am
The popular ADMK minister claims to know all his 2.76 lakh voters.

With the DMK seen to have an edge over the AIADMK in the Tamil Nadu elections, Revenue Minister R B Udhayakumar is among the few AIADMK ministers who is confident of a win. An ardent J Jayalalithaa loyalist who once refused to wear footwear in her presence, Udhayakumar kept the AIADMK flag flying in Madurai at a time when DMK leader M K Alagiri ruled the region. While Alagiri is a spent force now, Udhayakumar’s popularity has surged, on the strength of the time and efforts he has dedicated to his constituency Thirumangalam.

Past 11 pm on a Monday, Udhayakumar, 49, is in no hurry to wrap up campaigning as his team hands out pamphlets at the Amma Temple compound here, built by Udhayakumar with two bronze statues of M G Ramachandran and Jayalalithaa. The team includes Udhayakumar’s daughter Priyadarshini, who is in-charge of his trust, which is behind several welfare schemes in the area, including 1,000 tuition centres.

A senior AIADMK minister, who is struggling to retain his seat, admits Udhayakumar is a sure winner along with CM Edappadi K Palaniswami. “He started his poll campaign at least two years ago. He must have met every voter several times by now.”

Udhayakumar says it is not an exaggeration to say he knows every one of the constituency’s 2.76 lakh voters personally. Go and ask anyone in the 324 villages, he says. “Gold for Marriage Scheme, old age pensions, Covid cash relief… I personally make sure that all 1.10 lakh families benefit.”

Ramesh M, 35, a Thirumanagalam resident who works as a security guard, says he will vote for Udhayakumar as he is not Alagiri. The 2009 Thiruman- galam ‘cash-for-vote’ controversy — in what came to be known as the ‘Thirumangalam formula’ devised by Alagiri —haunts voters.

But as much for what separates him from Alagiri and his work, Udhayakumar is known for his acts of devotion towards Jayalalithaa. “I started as a booth agent of the AIADMK in 1984. As I was given party posts, she started noticing my work. Even when Alagiri was so powerful in Madurai, I would organise huge receptions for her.”

He says when Jayalalithaa asked him if he would win, before giving him a ticket to contest, he had replied he was not afraid, that he would win from Antarctica if he canvassed in her name.

As a minister, he came to the Secretariat barefoot saying it was a temple as he considered Jayalalithaa a god. “She (Jayalalithaa) called me, said it was unwarranted, and instructed me to wear a chappal the next day.”

However, Jayalalithaa also removed him from the Cabinet once when he took his devotion so far as to erect tubelights along a stretch of 8 km to mark her visit, at a time when the state was facing a power crisis. “She got furious… I told her Amma is my god and god cannot be passing through in dark. It was all on generators, not power supply,” he says. He repeated the same argument when she summoned him, and within the next three days, he was dropped as IT Minister.

About how he would still wait for her car, hands folded, to welcome her, Udhayakumar says, “In the AIADMK, those who were dropped didn’t know how long those inside would survive, and those inside knew that the dropped ones might come back anytime. Nothing was permanent when Amma was alive.” Udhayakumar himself was reinstated after six months.

About what is different now, Udhayakumar says they didn’t have to take Jayalalithaa’s permission for every little thing. “And if things went wrong, the punishment was severe… Now we ask everything (to CM Palaniswami)… and if something goes wrong, it is pardoned,” he laughs.

About whether Palaniswami has proved a more efficient CM, he says the CM is doing everything Jayalalithaa would have wished to do. “So we see him in her position. He is Amma only.”

However, there is one topic which is off limits: V K Sasikala. Asked about the former Jayalalit- haa confidante who had been turned out by AIADMK, Udhaya- kumar says: “No comment.”

But he defends the decisions taken post-Jayalalithaa by the party, including to align with the BJP. “We needed a leader after Amma’s demise… In such a scenario, accepting the dominant opinion was the only option because the priority was to save the party, retain the government, keep the show running.”

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