Well, very rarely you thrash a journalist of the stature of Karan Thapar that royally. This one happened 01 Oct 2004. RIP Madam.
KT: Hello and welcome to HARDtalk India. My guest today is the Chief Minister of India’s southern state of Tamil Nadu. Just over three years ago her party won an astonishing 80% victory in the state elections, just over three months ago her party failed to win a single seat in the National elections. How does she explain this astonishing reversal of fortune? Is the Chief Minister misunderstood or has the Chief Minister made mistakes. That in a sense is the core question that I shall put today to the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, J. Jayalalitha. Chief Minister, how do you explain that humiliating outcome in May, not a single seat for your party?
JJ: I don’t think it was a humiliating outcome at all. The results show that we have retained our vote bank. We got more than a crore of votes on our own which I think was a very good performance.
KT: But you got no seats.
JJ: Yes, but that is because we go by a simple majority system here.
KT: So the voting pattern of the country and the voting system went against you?
JJ: I would say that we retained our vote bank. There was no erosion in our vote bank. We did very well but there was a formidable alliance ranged against us.
KT: Let’s talk a little about the image the press has built up about you which many people believe has gone against you this time around. Over the last three years the press has variously described you as undemocratic, as irresponsible. They’ve even talked about you as irrational, vengeful and maybe even irresponsible. Are you misunderstood or have you made mistakes you can admit to?
JJ: I’m not irresponsible at all. That is totally removed from the truth. Yes I am misunderstood. As for all these tags that is because the media have been against me, not just for the past three years but ever since I came to politics. Perhaps it is because the whole world is a stage and everyone is acting all the time and I tend to be straight to the point. Hypocrisy is not my forte at all. That way I must say I’m a bit unconventional for a politician. The rule of the game seems to require considerable play-acting. I have acted in films before the cameras but I’m incapable of acting in real life.
KT: You mean your honesty and straight forwardness goes against you?
JJ: I’m honest. Let me be very honest with you. I prefer to play straight and I prefer speaking the truth. If I appear to be blunt, so be it. Yes, I am misunderstood and the media have a large part to play in this.
KT: Let’s explore that a little. You said that you weren’t irresponsible yet within five days of your party failing to win a single seat at the May general elections you reversed a whole series of decisions that you had taken over the last three years.
JJ: Let me explain. The changes made in May 2004 were termed by the press and the media as rollbacks and they made it appear that these were done in the wake of the results of the parliamentary elections. But that is not really so. What I was attempting was a major calibration of the process of structural adjustment which had to be undertaken after I assumed office in May 2001.
KT: But you did it just after you lost seats rather than earlier.
JJ: No let me explain. I will explain. You must remember that I was bequeathed a shattered economy and total fiscal chaos by the previous DMK government. To put it mildly the state treasury was simply not making payments. I inherited a whole pile of unpaid bills. The fiscal balance had to be restored and these needed structural changes. It was…
KT: (Intervenes) But forgive me Chief Minister the reforms include economic and fiscal reforms which you reversed.
KT: So far from making structural changes you are reversing your own structural changes.
JJ: No I was just explaining that I inherited a whole pile of unpaid bills and fiscal chaos. I had to make the people swallow bitter medicine. By 31st March 2003 all the earlier payments were cleared and by the end of the fiscal year 2003-2004 Tamil Nadu’s fiscal heath was fully restored. As the fiscal situation turned from terminal decline to the pink of robust health I started making these calibrations even from January 2003, well before the parliamentary elections.
KT: Do you know what people say, the press says that Jayalalitha reversed her economic and fiscal reforms such as stopping power to farmers, such as stopping cheap access to easy grain for people earning over 5000 because she wanted easy popularity. She had lost, she was worried she would lose again.
JJ: That is not correct. You must remember that Tamil Nadu has been greatly affected by three years of continuous drought and people, particularly the poor farmers and agricultural laborers had to be insulated against the income shock caused by drought. In such a situation one cannot be dogmatic or opinionated. If change is warranted in a new situation, so be it. It has to be done.
KT: In which case why did you…
JJ: (Intervenes) I’m sure I have done well in protecting the farmers and the landless agricultural laborers and you must remember that Tamil Nadu has been free from starvation deaths and malnutrition deaths which have afflicted many other states.
KT: Chief Minister, why did you then reverse the anti-conversion bill? That was extremely popular when you first passed it.
JJ: That has nothing to do with economic reform.
KT: Yes but it was one of the reversions.
JJ: It was misunderstood and particularly it was blown up by the media.
KT: So in other words you buckled under media pressure?
JJ: No, not at all. It was misunderstood by many people. It was not an anti-conversion law, it was an anti forcible conversion law.
KT: But it was misunderstood for almost two years. You could have repealed it earlier, you didn’t. You only repealed it after you failed to win seats.
JJ: It has nothing to do with that. If you insist on giving this interpretation I can’t help it.
KT: What about the…
JJ: (Intervenes) As to why the media is biased, that is because I am a self-made woman. Politics has for long been a male bastion. Mrs. Indira Gandhi changed all that, but still you must remember that Mrs. Indira Gandhi had all the inbuilt advantages. She had the advantage of being born in the…
KT: (Intervenes) You’re saying that media picks on you?
JJ: I do think so.
KT: Because you are a woman?
JJ: You are not allowing me to finish anything I want to say.
KT: No, is it because you are a woman?
JJ: I don’t think it’s because I am a woman. It’s because I don’t have a background like other women political leaders of Asia. If you’ll allow me to complete a sentence, Mrs. Indira Gandhi was born into the Nehru family. She was the daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru. Mrs. Srimavo Bandaranaiake was the wife of Bandaranaiake, Benazir Bhutto was the daughter of Bhutto, Khaleeda Zia was the widow of Zia-ur- Rehman.
KT: What’s the point you are making?
JJ: Sheikh Haseena was the daughter of Mujibur Rehman. I have no such background. I’m a self made woman.
KT: And so you are picked upon.
JJ: Nothing was handed to me on a golden platter.
KT: But are you saying that because you are self-made you are picked upon?
JJ: I do not know the reasons. It’s the media who have to explain why they have been so biased.
KT: Okay. You say that you are not irresponsible, you say that in fact calibrated changes…
JJ: (Intervenes) If you knew my routine you would be surprised. I get up at 4 o’clock in the morning and I am awake till one the next morning and all my time, all my attention is religiously devoted to work, work and nothing else but work. I have no time, no time to think of vendetta or think of vengeance against…
KT: (Intervenes) You are saying you have no time… It is interesting that you should pick the word vendetta. You say you have no time for vendetta. The press point out that when you arrested your predecessor you did it at two in the morning, on a Saturday although the case against him had already been filed a day before.
JJ: If you allow me a few minutes…
KT: But can I finish the question and then…
JJ: I know what you are getting at. So, the DMK’s government foisted cases against me and threw me in jail. I languished in jail for twenty-eight days in a case in which I was ultimately acquitted…
KT: (Intervenes) So was it revenge?
JJ: When Mr. Karunanidhi did this the media gave him kudos for throwing me into jail portraying it as a triumph of good over evil. If only they knew the truth, later the people saw through Mr. Karunanidhi’s mean game and they elected me to power in 2001 with a thumping majority.
KT: (Intervenes) But when you arrested him…
JJ: When I became Chief Minister Mr. Karunanidhi was arrested in a corruption case. At that time his family channel Sun TV played a big hoax with a very cleverly edited footage…
KT: (Intervenes) Can I interrupt because I think the important thing Chief Minister…
JJ: (Intervenes) And at that time the entire media was…
KT: (Intervenes) You are reading a statement…
JJ: (Intervenes) I’m not reading. I’m looking at you and talking. You can check it in the camera.
KT: But I want to say…
JJ: I’m looking at you and speaking. I’m not reading.
KT: I’m want to put out a concern to you. People say…
JJ: (Intervenes) You have notes before you. Shall I say you are reading.
KT: I have questions in front of me.
JJ: Alright I have notes in front of me. Nothing forbids me from having notes.
KT: Chief Minister…
JJ: I’m not reading. I’m looking at you straight in the eye. I look everyone straight in the eye.
KT: You arrested a man who was 77.
JJ: Age has nothing to do with corruption.
KT: A former Chief Minister of 14 years standing…
JJ: I too was a former Chief Minister when I was arrested.
KT: So was it revenge? It was vengeance?
JJ: It was not vengeance. He was involved in a corruption case.
KT: You don’t regret the way it was handled?
JJ: I do not regret it at all because what was shown to the people was cleverly edited footage, it was a hoax played on the people. People in the media like you would not have seen through it, you may have taken it on phase value, but the people saw through it.
KT: Okay what about what the press calls your inconsistency and unreliability. They say that her relationship with Sonia Gandhi as an ally is an on-off affair.
JJ: I do not want to discuss Mrs. Sonia Gandhi in this interview.
JJ: I have the choice to pick and choose the questions I want to answer.
KT: You have a choice to pick and choose the questions you wish to answer but don’t you think…
JJ: It’s my democratic right. I don’t have to answer every question you put to me.
JJ: I do not wish to discuss Mrs. Sonia Gandhi.
KT: Except for the fact that people will wonder why you don’t want to talk about someone who was your ally in ’99, who you publicly spoke against as a possible Prime Minister of the country…
JJ: If you have other questions you may ask them. I don’t wish to answer these questions.
KT: Okay can I put one quote to you? The press say that she turned against Sonia Gandhi in 2003 to ingratiate herself to the BJP; today she is saying nice things about Sonia Gandhi because she wishes to ingratiate herself with Congress.
JJ: I have not said any such nice things. All that I said was I did not make any personal attacks and I have no reason to make any personal attacks. What happened during the parliamentary polls was an electoral confrontation and not a personal confrontation.
JJ: (Intervenes) Now I’m looking you straight in the eye and you are reading from your notes.
KT: I’m reading a quotation of yours so I don’t get it inaccurate. In ’98 you said it would be a national shame if that foreigner comes to power. In 2003 you said it will be a crime shame and moral bankruptcy for the Congress to project Sonia Gandhi as Prime Minister.
JJ: My feelings on the issue of a person of foreign origin ruling the country are well known.
KT: And unchanged?
JJ: My statements are on record. There is no change in my stand.
KT: So you remain by your position?
JJ: Yes I’m quite consistent.
KT: That Sonia Gandhi should not become Prime Minister of India.
JJ: Not just Sonia Gandhi. Not just Mrs. Sonia Gandhi, any person of foreign origin.
KT: Let’s switch to another concern the media has. They say that Jayalalitha is undemocratic. In fact they go further. They say you are dictatorial. How do you respond to that?
JJ: I think people are the best judges.
JJ: The media has never had good things to say about me. And you didn’t allow me to finish what I wanted to say earlier.
KT: Why do your M.L.As …
JJ: You’d be surprised to know my routine I said. I spend all my time devoted to work. I don’t do anything else. I work all the time for the development of Tamil Nadu, for the good of the people of Tamil Nadu.
KT: I accept that completely. But why do your M.L.As and your Ministers in public prostrate themselves in front of you?
JJ: They prostrate before other political leaders. They prostrate before Mr. Karunanidhi too. His MLAs and MPs do that all the time.
KT: But they are people…
JJ: Except that you choose not to notice it. Whenever there is any small incident involving me it is blown up beyond proportion. It is an Indian tradition to seek blessings from elders.
KT: In this fashion?
JJ: Yes it is an Indian tradition. I think you are an Indian. I think you know enough about Indian tradition and culture.
KT: But is it fitting for ministers of the state…
JJ: I have asked them not to do it.
KT: They don’t listen to you?
JJ: They do listen. They don’t do it nowadays in public.
KT: It’s been stopped?
JJ: It’s been stopped.
KT: When you say they don’t do it in public…
JJ: (Intervenes) I’ve given many statements to this effect. I have given public statements asking my party men and MLAs and Ministers not to prostrate in public. They don’t do it. They’ve not been doing it for the last three or four years.
KT: The media also points towards the fact that in slightly over three years you have reshuffled your cabinet, as the Deccan Chronicle points out, over fifteen times.
JJ: That I’m allowed to do, for administrative convenience.
KT: You mean to say that you need to do it so often for administrative convenience?
JJ: I know what I need to do for the good of the state.
KT: The press says…
JJ: If certain persons are appointed to certain posts and if their performance is not satisfactory, for the good of the state, for administrative improvement I have to make a change. I cannot refrain from making a change simply because their will be carping criticism from persons in the media like you.
KT: Except for the fact that the media all the way across the country says that Jayalalitha does it to keep them insecure, to keep them dependent on her.
JJ: If they keep on making such unjustified remarks I have nothing to say.
KT: Let’s talk a little about you. Your party the AIADMK is formally a part of the Dravida movement. The Dravida movement…
JJ: Not formally part of the Dravida movement, it is still part of the Dravidian movement.
KT: Except that the Dravidian movement is a rationalist, atheist, iconoclastic movement. Where do you personally fit into that?
JJ: It’s not an atheist movement, it’s not an atheist movement. You are totally wrong. You haven’t read Dravidian history.
KT: Periyar was an atheist…
JJ: Anna said, ‘ondre kulam oruvane devam’, that means there is only one God. So Anna recognized the existence of God, so it doesn’t mean atheism.
KT: Are you embarrassed by your belief in numerology and astrology?
JJ: Who said that I believe in astrology and numerology? You say it, people in the media say it. What is the proof you have of that?
KT: Don’t you chose…
JJ: (Intervenes) Why should I be embarrassed?
KT: Don’t you choose auspicious hours when you do things?
JJ: Many people in India do that. Have you asked this question of Mr. Vajpayee, Mr. Advani, many other leaders?
KT: I asked identical questions of Vasundhara Raje Scindia. The press says that Jayalalitha spends a lot of time propitiating gods, she spends a lot of time choosing auspicious hours. Are you superstitious?
JJ: I am not superstitious and I must say I am rather disappointed with the tone and tenor of this interview. You seem to preface almost every sentence, every question with the word the press says or the media says so. The press and the media have always been making uncharitable, unfair, unjustified remarks, comments without any basis. What do you expect me to say to all this?
KT: Can I ask you why did you believe in…
JJ: If people believed all that the media have said about me, have written about me, I couldn’t have won a single election, I wouldn’t be sitting where I am now.
KT: Except for the fact in 2001 suddenly you…
JJ: I’m sorry I agreed to do this interview. That’s all I can say.
KT: In 2001, Chief Minister, you changed the spelling of you name. Can I ask you why? You added an extra ‘a’.
JJ: It’s my prerogative to do so. I don’t have to explain. I don’t have to explain anything to you for that matter.
KT: No but I asked for a simple reason. As Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, you set an example…
JJ: I changed the spelling of my name before I became the Chief Minister again. That is my prerogative. Did you ask Vaiko why he changed his name to Vaiko from Y. Gopalaswami? Go and ask him that.
KT: So when the press depict you, as I began this interview by saying…
JJ: (Intervenes) You are doing a good job of it again now.
KT: No I’m putting a question to you. When the press depict you as irresponsible for reversing your policies…
JJ: (Intervenes) I’m not irresponsible. I spend all my time working. I deny it totally.
KT: When they say you are vengeful you deny that?
JJ: I deny that.
KT: When they say you are inconsistent, you deny that?
JJ: I do deny it.
KT: And when they say that her attitude to astrology, numerology suggests she is irrational, you deny that as well?
JJ: I deny that also. I’m a perfectly rational, sensible, sober, very responsible leader. I can say with confidence that no other Chief Minister in Tamil Nadu’s history has worked so hard for the development and progress of the state as I have been doing and as I am doing.
KT: Then let me put this to you. You face state elections in slightly under two years time in May 2006 at the latest.
JJ: Yes I am perfectly aware of that.
KT: Are you worried that after the problem you faced in May at the general elections when your party did not win a single seat that you will lose the state elections?
JJ: (Intervenes) I am not worried at all.
KT: But won’t this press image that is widespread across the country, not just Tamil Nadu, work against you?
JJ: It’s irrelevant.
KT: You are confident that you can reach out to the people above the press and convince them of the real Jayalalitha?
JJ: As I told you earlier if the people took seriously what the media persons have been writing about me and saying about me, I could not have won a single election.
KT: Except that you lost in ’96 and you didn’t win any seats at the national elections in 2004.
JJ: What about the ’98 that came immediately after ’96? What about the general elections then?
KT: But this is what I am saying. Your career in the last ten years, and particularly in the last three, has seen amazing roller coasters.
JJ: This is true of every political leader. It’s true of life itself. Life is full of ups and downs. The political career of any leader is full of victories and defeats. No one is consistently successful, no one is a consistent loser.
KT: You’ve also faced cases in court. Does it worry you that now you have to go to court not just in Tamil Nadu but…
JJ: I have been facing a number of cases since 1996. All these cases were foisted on me. I have never run away from facing these cases. I’ve been acquitted in 12 cases so far. What does that show? That the cases were false.
KT: In one of the cases, the Tansi case, where you were acquitted and exonerated by the Supreme Court, the same court, in its verdict said it asked you to ponder on whether you have done the right thing in breeching the spirit of the code of conduct…
JJ: (Intervenes) I never comment on any judgment of the Supreme Court. I have never done so so far, I will not do it now.
KT: Except for the fact that many people felt, not just the press this time, but the court was actually saying that legally you were innocent but morally you had a case to answer at least to yourself personally.
JJ: I told you I do not comment on any judgment of the Supreme Court, whether the judgment involves me personally or any other matter of public importance. I never have commented on any judgment of the Supreme Court, I will not do so.
KT: You are a very tough person, Chief Minister.
JJ: People like you have made me so.
KT: You said that you were misunderstood.
KT: Do you think that you are badly treated by the press?
JJ: I do not wish to say anything more on this. Anyway your interview is not doing anything to help matters.
KT: My aim, Chief Minister, was to get to the core of the misunderstanding. You said that the press…
JJ: Your aim seems to have been to put as many unpleasant questions as possible and try to provoke me.
KT: Not to provoke you but to put to you the questions that have been discussed for the last three years and which in many ways may be responsible for the electoral adversity…
JJ: Haven’t you asked all of your questions? Have you got anything more to ask?
KT: I have come very close to the end of this interview, I have only one last question. Are you confident that you can see your electoral low point over with, and that you will win in 2006?
JJ: Wait and see. I told you already I don’t believe in astrology. I can’t predict what will happen in the next elections but you will be around I suppose. Wait and see what happens.
KT: Is that a yes, you will win?
JJ: I said wait and see.
KT: Chief Minister, a pleasure talking to you on HARDtalk India.
JJ: I must say it wasn’t a pleasure talking to you. Namaste