Debating India


A question of survival

Saturday 13 February 1999, by SUBRAMANIAN*T.S.

VISITS to Chennai by Samata Party leader and Defence Minister George Fernandes have become a periodic political ritual. For the Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition at the Centre, Fernandes’ missions to mollify All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam general secretary Jayalalitha have been a matter of survival. Although Fernandes and the other special emissaries from Delhi, Jaswant Singh and Dilip Ray, have managed to placate Jayalalitha on several occasions, this time she appears to have exacted her price.

First, she boycotted the February 2 meeting of the Coordination Committee of the BJP and its allies in New Delhi. In fact she called the Coordination Committee "a mere eyewash which the Central Government does not take seriously". She, however, authorised AIADMK Member of Parliament and Union Law Minister M. Thambi Durai to participate in the meeting as an observer. Then she refused to sign the Coordination Committee’s joint statement, which was faxed to her without a covering letter.

The joint statement had enjoined the BJP and its allies to follow "scrupulously the tenets of dharma of coalition", such as not airing opinions in public but speaking only at Coordination Committee meetings. Jayalalitha, however, had other plans. She was unhappy that the Centre had decided on January 28 to increase the prices of essential commodities without consulting the BJP’s coalition partners. She asked: "What was the compelling reason to hike the prices of essential commodities in such haste, even before the Coordination Committee meeting scheduled for February 2 could take place?"

Unlike occasions in the past, Jayalalitha did not threaten to deliver the "knock-out blow’’ to the BJP-led Government this time. On February 3, she merely announced that she would take "an appropriate decision at the appropriate time’’.

However, Jayalalitha’s public protestations made it imperative for Fernandes to visit Chennai. He had a 45-minute meeting with Jayalalitha at her Poes Garden residence on February 5 but failed to persuade her to sign the statement. Making light of the situation, he said that "it is not important" for her to sign it. He explained: "She had no fundamental objections, but only reservations... Mere expression of reservation should not be read as confrontation."

The joint statement, Fernandes said, was "only a declaration of intent" that the BJP and its allies would not project their own agenda or air their views publicly. Taking it upon himself to defend her actions, he said: "She was not present at the meeting. There is no remote-signing device." When asked why he flew in as a trouble-shooter whenever she created trouble, he said that the question was "unfair" both to him and to her.

L. Ganesan, general secretary of the Tamil Nadu unit of the BJP, said that a coalition partner had every right to express dissent and he believed that all Jayalalitha wanted to do was to record her protest. He was confident that "nothing special will happen" and her "support to the BJP-led Government will continue".

In a statement, Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC) leaders D. Sudarsanam and S. Peter Alphonse accused Jayalalitha of "double-speak" because AIADMK Ministers were present at the Cabinet meeting when the decision on the price increase was taken. They said that if the AIADMK was sincere about the issue its Ministers should quit the Government.

According to sources, Jayalalitha’s refusal to sign the statement was part of a strategy to pressure the Government to dismiss the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) Government so that she could extricate herself from the corruption cases against her. But she was chary of withdrawing support to the Vajpayee Government without an alternative in its place. The sources added: "She is worried because the Tamil press is publishing in detail the cross-examination of witnesses in the corruption cases. Her intentions will be suspect if she did not create problems now and then."

See online : Frontline


Vol. 16 :: No. 04 :: Feb. 13 - 26, 1999

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