Raja takes a breakfast break
For someone who spent 15 months in jail, A. Raja comes across as surprisingly free of rancour. Rather, he talks about its “calming effect”, and the “discipline” prison life has taught him.
“I am a simple man with simple tastes and jail life made me disciplined. It also taught me to eat less to remain fit,” says the 50-year-old lawyer-turned-politician.
Yes, life in Tihar jail had left a blot on his political career. “But personally, it had a calming effect on me,” he says.
It was Monday morning in Ooty. Elections were still three days away and Raja had just taken a breakfast break from the gruelling campaign in the Tamil Nadu hill station, part of the Nilgiris parliamentary seat that the sitting DMK MP is defending.
The campaign has been tough and Raja says he is back to his strict jail routine: wake up at 5, morning walk for an hour, breakfast at 6.30.
It’s 7.30am and the office is buzzing with party cadres and leaders. The contrast couldn’t have been greater from his Tihar cell that he had all to himself.
“I was out of coverage area for 15 months but it taught me how to lead a disciplined life,” Raja says in between a quick breakfast of idly and upma served by his aides on a banana leaf.
The telecom analogy was hard to miss. Mobile phone jammers have been installed inside the high-security walls of Asia’s biggest prison to stop inmates from using cellphones.
“The simple food in jail also had a therapeutic effect. I am following the same food habits. I don’t touch non-veg at all now,” he says.
After breakfast, Raja had a closed-door meeting with his aides and campaign managers inside a conference hall. On the walls of the party office hang photographs of DMK boss M. Karunanidhi and B.R Ambedkar. Inside a small room, a photograph of Karl Marx stands out.
“Both Marx and the Dravidian movement are for the benefit of the poor. This is why they co-exist here,” he says, before the conversation slips back to his jail life.
Raja remembers vividly his 15ft-by-10ft cell in Tihar, a far cry from his 700sqft office at Sanchar Bhavan before he was forced to resign, and his arrest by the CBI for allegedly masterminding the 2G spectrum scam.
“I adapted to jail life easily as I come from a very ordinary family. Sleeping on the floor comes naturally to me unlike other high-profile prisoners,” says the former minister who was born in a farmer’s family in a remote village, some 250km from Chennai.
He recalled how he played badminton with jail officials every evening. “I played badminton regularly till 1998. But after becoming minister in 1999 during the Vajpayee-led NDA government, I stopped playing… I had no time.” It was only after he was put in Tihar that he started playing again.
Was he in touch with any Tihar official? “Yes, one jail superintendent. He was very nice and we became friends. He recently called me to ask about my campaign and wished me luck.”
Early this month, Raja took permission from the 2G court to take part in the campaign.
He is missing his daughter Mayuri, who studies in Class XI in a Delhi school, and his wife Parmeshwari, also a trained lawyer.
He is also looking forward to badminton games with his daughter in the sprawling garden of his MP’s bungalow.
Right now, however, he is looking forward to a bit of rest. “I am tired after the campaign,” Raja says. “I feel like staying in jail for some time for mental peace.”
The Nilgiris voted on April 24