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January 15, 1999


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The Rediff Interview/J Jayalalitha

'Two-party scenario for India is just wishful thinking'

Tell us about the formative influences on your life and the reason behind the development of you as a public persona.

The major influences in my life have been my mother, then MGR who was my political mentor, the books I have read, my school teachers, particularly my head mistress, Mother Celine who is no more, Swami Vivekananda and to a great extent the people belonging to the working classes, to the weaker sections of society with whom I have come into direct contact.

I do not come from a political background, and as a child, as a teenager, I never ever thought of a career in politics. This is something which I can only call destiny or fate. All my life I have been accustomed to working very hard. I can remember being free and carefree only until the age of four. After that, my schedule was strictly regimented. I had to get up at five in the morning, have a classical Carnatic music lesson, then, of course go to school and in those days school lasted from nine in the morning till 4.15 in the evening and I was given strict instructions not to stay back and play with the other children.

There would be two dance teachers waiting for me (at home). There would be an hour's training in Bharata Natyam and after that there would be a second dance teacher to give me another hour's training in other classical dance style such as Kuchipudi, Kathakali, Kathak. By the time all this was over, I would be exhausted. There would barely be enough time for me to complete my homework, have dinner and fall into bed.

As I grew older, the hours of dance practice became longer. My mother could sing beautifully, she could play the veena and the violin. But she never got an opportunity to learn classical dance, so she had an obsession with classical dance. She wanted to make me another Bala Saraswati, another Kamala Laxman, another Yamini Krishnamurthy. So once I was 16, I was propelled into the film industry. Then again it was hard work. I worked even six shifts a day. All through my film career. I never had any time to rest or sleep. It was work, work, and work all the time.

: With your traditional background, how did you join films?

I never planned to join the film industry, neither did my mother really wish for me to become an actress. She wanted me to be a classical dancer and trained me on those lines. I had just completed my matriculation. One of the films in which my mother had acted had celebrated its 100th day and the function was held at New Woodlands Hotel (in Madras). I accompanied my mother to that function. It was the first time I wore a sari and immediately after the function, the producer of the film offered me a leading role in his next Kannada production.

At the time when my first Tamil film was offered to me, I had also received a scholarship from the government of India. I was always a brilliant student, always stood first in the class and I had matriculated with distinction. So it was a choice between an academic career and a career in the movies. It was my ambition to be a lawyer. If I had been allowed to study and have my way, I would have been up there in the legal firmament, along with the likes of Nani Palkhivala, Ram Jethmalani, F S Nariman and so many other eminent lawyers. But then family circumstances were different and I had to join films.

My grandfather had just retired from service. We had my aunt and her children with us and my brother was still in school. So I had to shoulder the responsibility of looking after the family at the age of 16. My mother said, "There are so many girls who would give anything to get this sort of opportunity in films. But everything is being offered to you on a golden platter, so why not accept it and the family will also benefit by this." Since it was explained to me that my earnings were also necessary for the family, I had to join films.

Of course, it is not surprising that you became very successful because you are a professional.

I must say that basically I am an introvert. I am a very very shy person. In the beginning, I was terrified of meeting strangers, going out amidst a large crowd. But fate or destiny has propelled me into two high-profile careers, one the movies where you are in the public eye all the time and another politics, where you are even more in the public eye all the time, there is no escape from it.

After my mother's death in 1971, I eased my self out of the film industry. It was then that I found more time to read and reflect. I had always kept up with what was happening in the country. I always kept myself informed of what was happening in the country. But I never ever thought of actively involving myself in politics. But I used to feel a lot of pain whenever I noticed any glaring injustice and I used to feel that someone should do something about this. It was at this time, about 1980, that MGR invited me to join his All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazagham. I took some time to make the decision and I took the plunge in 1982. And after that I think you know the rest.

You know politics is a career which is very clubby and we are still a male dominated society. What kind of resistance did you encounter when you broke into this club?

There was resistance all the way right from the beginning. I entered politics as a wide-eyed innocent, not knowing what to expect, I did not know what it entailed. I was hesitant in the beginning but MGR insisted. He said, 'I need your help, I cannot trust the persons around me, I want someone on whom I can depend 100 per cent'. When he put it like that I could not refuse. I entered politics full of good intentions and goodwill towards everyone. All of a sudden I was plunged into the rough and tumble of politics and power politics, real politics.

Many people began to view me as a threat because I was readily accepted by the cadre and the masses, since I had already been a film star. But I never thought of myself as a threat to anyone. I never wanted to fight anyone and anything. But then when you are pushed to a corner like Abhimanyu, when you are surrounded by people brandishing all sorts of weapons, you cannot just lie back and allow yourself to be annihilated. You have to fight back and that I did. I have been a success of my political career. It is not over yet. There is still so much more I want to do.

What would you describe as the highs and lows of your tempestuous but a very productive career in politics?

One of the highs in politics, of course, was the acclaim, and the praise received from my mentor in Karallor, in 1982. I was asked to speak on the glory of womanhood ( pennin perumai) in Tamil and no one had any idea of whether I was capable of speaking in public. I spoke for 30 minutes. Another high was when I was sent to the Rajya Sabha by MGR in 1984 and I created a sensation with my maiden speech. Indira Gandhi was impressed and she grew to be very fond of me.

Then of course there was a low when MGR fell ill and I was sought to be sidelined in the party. At the time the DMK was indulging in a lot of false propaganda that MGR would not come back alive. I went around telling people, no, he will come back. The alliance swept the polls and the Congress came to power at the Centre. MGR came back as chief minister. That was a high.

A big low was when he died in 1987. I was terribly humiliated. I was pushed off the carriage carrying his body. I was not allowed to attend the funeral. That was a low. Afterwards, there was a split in the party, I succeeded in reuniting the party and got back our election symbol which had been frozen.

After you became CM, what were the issues you felt very strongly about?

I felt rather daunted at the enormity of the task. There was so much that had to be done, so much poverty, so much unemployment and one of my basic commitments in my life has been empowerment of women, empowerment of the girl child. It is my firm conviction that a woman should marry only if she wants to raise a family, not simply because she needs a man to support her. To this end, I introduced several schemes. One was giving 100,000 women entrepreneurship training so that they could set up their own small industries. We succeeded in this.

We had a problem of female infanticide in Tamil Nadu in certain pockets. Appeals to the people not to kill their girl babies did not work. So I thought of the cradle baby scheme. I ordered cradles to be placed outside social welfare centres in these areas. And then I made an appeal, if you don't want girl babies just leave them in the cradle outside the centres, no questions will be asked. The government will adopt and bring up these babies. This announcement had a very good effect. A numbers of girl babies were received and adopted by the government. I implemented a scheme whereby for each such girl baby adopted by the government, an amount of Rs 5,000 was placed in a fixed deposit in the child's name and when the child attained 18 year of age, she will receive a Rs 20,000 which could be used either for her marriage or to start her won small industry.

Another popular scheme was the all-women police stations. It had been brought to my notice that women were suffering untold persecution and cruelty in their homes but very often they were reluctant to go to complain to a police station, manned entirely by men. So I first started one all-women police station in Madras. It became so popular that I ended up opening 57 such police stations all over the state. This was a pioneering effort and this was emulated in West Bengal, Kerala, also in Pakistan and in Bangladesh.

In terms of the current political scenario, what do you feel should be the kind of culture that governs relationships between the parties?

In coalition politics, all the partners must be treated with respect and consideration. They must be consulted on all policy decisions, which is something that is not taking place in this government. For a coalition government to function successfully, there has to be a spirit of give and take and a spirit of accommodation.

People are talking about a two-party system in which the Congress is on the one side and the BJP on the other, where the regional players are more or less eliminated. How do you see the Indian polity evolving?

Thinking of a situation where the political scenario would be dominated by two major political parties, is just wishful thinking as far as India is concerned. India is a multicultural society, with diverse cultures and traditions. Practically each state is like a separate country with its own language, its own traditions, its own culture etc. So there are bound to be regional aspirations and a feeling that these aspirations are not being fulfilled.

That was the case when Indian politics was dominated by one major party at the Centre and all powers were centralised. There was a feeling that justice was not being done to various regions and there were a number of legitimate grievances that were left without redressal. This is what has led to the raise of powerful regional leaders and this is what would bring a situation where no single party can win an absolute majority in the Lok Sabha. This is why we now see the emergence of an era of coalition governments. To try to put the clock back is only wishful thinking.

Whoever is in power in Delhi cannot claim to know everything about every region of India. It is humanly impossible, it is only those regional leaders who are familiar with their own particular regions who know what the aspirations of the people of that region are, what has to be done to alleviate the problems faced by the people in that region. Only those leaders who enjoy the support and backing of the people of their region can forcefully present their case to the Centre. I think it is a healthy trend. If there are certain hiccups in the functioning it is only because people in power have to get used to the thought of sharing power, which is always very difficult for the major ruling party at the Centre.

( An excerpt from an interview by M D Nalapat for Editor's Choice programme telecast on DD-2 on January 10, 1999)

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