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ORIGINAL QUESTION

After a very long time, Tamil Nadu’s political elite seems to have suddenly woken up to a problem which they would have otherwise condescendingly dismissed as a purely “intellectual discourse” of a former Indian foreign service officer, and a Brahmin at that. The bone of contention is an article, “As Indian as they come”, written by the Congress member of parliament, Mani Shankar Aiyar, who represents the Mayiladuthurai constituency. The person to summon him to the witness box is none other than the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader and Tamil Nadu chief minister, J. Jayalalithaa.

What Aiyar had not expected was that something he had written more than a year back (The Telegraph, September 12, 2002) should cause ripples now in far-away Tamil Nadu, and that the matter should end up in his being allegedly attacked by AIADMK men in Pondicherry following his participation in a government function presided over by Jayalalithaa in nearby Nagapattinam. Yet if the police inspectors, meticulously taking down every word spoken at a public meeting organized by the Tamil Nadu Congress committee in Chennai to condemn the attack on Aiyar, are anything to go by, it is no longer a minor incident which is being “blown up” by the opposition, as Jayalalithaa had alleged.

For, as Congressmen were quick to observe, by openly daring Aiyar to “repeat” his opening remarks about her in that article, Jayalalithaa had, just a month before the assembly elections in five northern states, reopened the debate on the foreign origin of the Congress president. After all, Aiyar had been invited to the official function as a local area MP. Given that the Cauvery delta is once again facing a crisis this year due to insufficient water, his voters would have taken him to task had he chosen not to go to Nagapattinam to present the people’s grievances straight to the chief minister.

By openly challenging Aiyar to repeat his by-now-infamous remarks about her (“When J. Jayalalithaa became chief minister, she donated a baby elephant to the Guruvayoor temple. When I become CM, I intend donating Jayalalithaa to the Guruvayoor temple”), Jayalalithaa sought to expose the Congress doublespeak. She herself however did not desist from reasserting her candid views on Sonia Gandhi and her foreign origin. There lay the catch. Aiyar, not wanting to “politicize” the function, left the venue and was later accused by Jayalalithaa of being discourteous. But the deed was done. Jayalalithaa had managed to refocus attention on the Sonia-question and soon all TNCC factions were together at a meeting to express their solidarity to the party and its president.

It is clear that more than the Congress MP, Jayalalithaa’s target had been Sonia Gandhi. This was the refrain of most of the TNCC leaders at the public meeting which brought together the warring faction leaders, the state committee president and vice-president, S. Balakrishnan and E.V.K.S. Elangovan, respectively on the one hand, and the AICC secretary, G.K. Vasan, son of G.K. Moopanar, on the other. Their bright yellow posters bristled with the names of every known Congress leader in Tamil Nadu, identified with one group or the other.

“Beware, it (the Nagapattinam fiasco) seems part of an RSS-sangh parivar design to target Sonia Gandhi to throw Congressmen into a disarray,” warned the senior TNCC leader and former MP, Peter Alphonse. The warning was reinforced by a catchy metaphor that reminded Congressmen that, “for the loss of a Shepard (Sonia Gandhi), the flock will be lost.”

Some of Aiyar’s friends came to his rescue by positively interpreting his remarks on Jayalalithaa, besides denouncing the assault as a symbol of the growing AIADMK intolerance for any view that opposed the Amma and the threat this tendency posed for democracy. “After all, offering oneself to the Lord is the highest form of offering in Hindu tradition,” mused Balakrishnan to drive home the point that the Congress MP did not mean anything derogatory to Amma. He even referred to the practice of thulabaram, popular at the Guruvayoor temple, in which one weighed oneself on an iron scale against fruits or any commodity of one’s choice which is later given to the god.

However, this defence did not detract Aiyar, who, speaking last at the public meeting, explained that the raison d’etre of his article had been Jayalalithaa’s tirade against Sonia Gandhi last year, when she had declared that a naturalized Indian should not become prime minister. On the eve of Independence Day last year, Sonia Gandhi had drawn a mammoth crowd in Madurai, where the erstwhile Tamil Maanila Congress and other breakaway groups had formally merged with the parent Congress. This had rung the alarm bells for Jayalalithaa.

The merger meant the consolidation of the traditional 20 per cent vote-bank of the Congress in the state, reasoned Aiyar. Fearing “imminent electoral defeat” should the Congress vote get transferred en bloc to some other party in Tamil Nadu, Jayalalithaa, in August 2002 “came to New Delhi and addressed a press conference only to pour scorn on Mrs Sonia Gandhi” by raking up the latter’s foreign origin issue, said Aiyar. And this was just three years after Jayalalithaa had herself written to the president, expressing her party’s support to Sonia Gandhi becoming prime minister, he pointed out.

Hence, the “dates on which I wrote the article and it was published were very significant, as it was my duty to defend my leader after Ms Jayalalithaa had spoken so abusively of the Congress president,” fumed Aiyar. But “I never thought I would find a translator for it in Ms Jayalalithaa herself after a year, and that too at a function to highlight developmental problems,” he quipped.

The crux of the issue, as Aiyar tried to present, was that the “foreign origin issue” was a bogus one. Quoting from an essay written by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Aiyar said that Gandhi had said that upon India getting independence, “Englishmen don’t have to leave the country.” They could even have a place in Parliament, just as in an earlier period Dadabhai Naoroji had represented Indians in the British House of Commons.

Speaking in halting Tamil, Aiyar said, “I was born in Pakistan, so was my wife. But are we not Indians'...Bobby Jindal, an Indian, is going to become the governor of Louisiana in the US...So let us eschew this foreign origin bogey,” thundered Aiyar, “Anybody chosen by the people could become the prime minister.”

Jayalalithaa has again flagged off the foreign origin controversy in yet another pro-Hindutva move. But perhaps only time can tell if Congressmen in Tamil Nadu will bite the bullet on this issue in the run-up to the next Lok Sabha polls. However, the assault on Aiyar seems to have visibly snapped the last possibility of the Congress renewing its poll ties with the AIADMK in the state.

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