The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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The Telegraph must thank Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa for having made the paper a household name in Tamil Nadu. By picking two lines from a year-old “Mani Talk” and transmitting her Tamil translation of it through Jaya TV to every home in the state, she has given The Telegraph so high a profile in Tamil Nadu that it is perhaps time to immediately start up a Tamil edition. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam mouthpiece, Dinakaran, decided that two lines were not enough — and so went ahead and translated all its one-thousand-plus words. Except that somewhere along the line, the translator gave up in despair and confessed that it was impossible to convey in sweet Tamil the “hard-hitting” language of the original; indeed, parts of the column were simply left un-translated.

So much has already been reported about the incident that there is no need to tediously recount what has been in the public realm these last three weeks. What has fascinated me is the public reaction — because it turns on its head many of the perceived failings of our democracy. All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam spokesmen in my constituency had issued thunderous denunciations of me, threatening dire consequences if ever I attempted to enter the constituency again. They had also organized several street-corner meetings at which I was abused in such severe terms that my chaps refused to enlarge my limited Tamil vocabulary by sharing with me the words used, let alone explaining what they meant. There was, therefore, understandable concern about my insistence on going back there soonest and travelling as extensively as possible through at least the main centres. Deepavali came as a ready excuse to stop me from doing so immediately. Party colleagues said they did not want to find themselves in the jug, they wanted to spend the festival with their families. So, once we had Deepavali behind us, I began raring to go. I have just returned from a whirlwind tour which took me through a wide swathe of the constituency. Here is my report on reactions to the episode.

The streets I travelled through during close to 20 hours on the road are streets I have known and frequently toured over the last twelve years. Never before have the people come out in such large numbers to greet me, to enquire anxiously after my health and to make it clear that whatever the niceties and proprieties of the dispute, the key point is violence — they want none of it. Democracy has space for disagreement; indeed, democracy thrives on differences of view and the clash of opinion. But there is no place in a democracy for violence. It is disapproval of violence to settle political scores that is the single-clearest message reverberating through the constituency and elsewhere in Tamil Nadu. Many thousands of those who greeted me are not going to vote for me come the next elections. They have their reasons for supporting Jayalalithaa and she is “Amma” to them, as her party hoardings proclaim. But political support to the AIADMK and its leader is one thing; approval of her display of muscle power quite another. Gandhi got it right. This country does not approve of violence.

This country also does not approve of deception. Instead of deploring the violence (especially if, as she claims, she and her party had nothing to do with it), Jayalalithaa had issued a statement in her own name sneering that Congressmen in Tamil Nadu are in the habit of tearing each other’s clothes and breaking the windows of their own cars. No one is buying that line — not even her most ardent associates. They believe the evidence of their eyes and see no reason why I should be beaten up because the Lady does not like my cracking jokes at her expense. I am sure many regard my joke as tasteless, if funny. Tastelessness, however, hardly warrants the unleashing of her Rowdies Raj. In any case, given the tastelessness of almost everything the AIADMK says about the DMK and other opponents, and the tastelessness of Jayalalithaa’s own remarks about Sonia Gandhi, the general attitude seems to be that it is all a lot of hoo-ha over the pot calling the kettle black. Harsh words, insults and personal remarks are all part of the vocabulary of politics — and if it is the genteel atmosphere of a tea-party that is sought, then politics is not the realm for it. For, as Richard Nixon famously said, “If you can’t stand the heat, you’d better leave the kitchen.”

Nor, it would seem, are there many takers for her argument that I have violated her religious feelings. The wonderful thing about my constituency is that it has, so it is rumoured, some 38,000 temples — and has chosen to elect an atheist as its representative. The crack may have been offensive to the Lady (for in this I am certainly the Tramp) but no one believes it was a crack at her religious beliefs. I assert this because the real surprise of this visit has been the outpouring of sympathy from the women. Not only have they overcome their social and cultural inhibitions to come right across the threshold to greet me as my carcade passed by, the usual shying away from direct eye contact has been entirely absent: they have wanted me to know that they are with me. And most moving of all has been the number of veiled Muslim women who have smiled through their eyes in relief that I am unhurt and in sympathy that I should have been subjected to so unwarranted an assault.

Which is why when I pointed out in a series of street-corner gatherings that I had raised strictly development issues when invited to speak in her presence at Nagapattinam — the desilting of the tanks at Tiruvali and Perunthottam that will irrigate 4,000 acres of rich agricultural land now rendered barren; the payment, if possible before Deepavali, of dues of more than Rs10 crore to sugarcane farmers by the local sugar cooperative; the fishing harbour at Poompuhar; the woes of the silk handloom workers — to which she had replied by bringing up elephants, the crowd roars with laughter and seems to think that while I had done my duty, she had merely compounded pique with vicarious violence.

What seems to have most infuriated Jayalalithaa is that she believes it was she who won me my last election. I do not know about that. I thought I had some small hand in my victory. But of one thing I am absolutely sure. She has certainly won me my next election. For which, grateful thanks!

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