Jayalalithaa could not defeat DMK leader M Karunanidhi, who was to emerge as her bitter political rival. But she had checkmated Janaki Ramachandran in the fight to gain the MGR legacy. The poll outcome forced Janaki out of the race and propelled Jayalalithaa into the center stage of Dravidian politics.
As her friend V K Sasikala gets battle-ready, the ongoing turmoil in the AIADMK stirs memories of that 1988 split in the AIADMK, the tumultuous days that followed and the subsequent merger. When Jayalalithaa threw down the gauntlet to fight for her ‘rightful place’ in the AIADMK, the party was rocked by its first big leadership battle. Not much of a comparison really. Jayalalithaa had just turned 40 then. Whereas, Sasikala is blowing the war bugle at 70 after a four-year prison term in a corruption case that restrains her from contesting an election for another five years at least and with little or no significant support within the AIADMK.
The present sense of turmoil was similar to what was felt after the death of AIADMK founder M G Ramachandran on December 24, 1987. Jayalalithaa, then a Rajya Sabha MP and the party’s propaganda secretary had little support within the party. Ninety-seven of the 132 AIADMK MLAs backed Janaki. “Besides, Janaki had more union secretaries, more district secretaries and more ministers too on her side,” said Congress leader S Thirunavukkarasar, who had thrown in his lot with Jayalalithaa. But Jayalalithaa had more sympathy and more cadre and public support.
Before Janaki came into the picture, 55 MLAs backed Jayalalithaa. But that number quickly dwindled once Janaki was propped up by senior leaders and close MGR associates R M Veerappan, C Ponnaiyan and S Madhavan. How could anyone oppose MGR’s wife? There was also a feeling among the second line leadership that bringing in Janaki would get leaders to fall in line. Only two senior leaders, including Salem Kannan, who was a member of Parliament, and a minister, Sounderarajan, were on Jayalalithaa’s side. Then acting chief minister V R Nedunchezhiyan, who was keen on continuing in the post, chose to go with Jayalalithaa.
On January 2, 1988, Tamil Nadu governor Sunder Lal Khurana announced Janaki’s appointment as chief minister. The government lasted 22 days. Then PM Rajiv Gandhi dismissed the Janaki government invoking Art 356 of the Constitution after pandemonium broke out in the TN assembly during the vote of confidence. TN was brought under President’s rule and it remained so for a year until the January 1989 assembly election.
“Janaki never wanted to enter politics,” recalled senior AIADMK leader and now party organising secretary Ponnaiyan, who was in the Janaki faction. “Party leaders felt that until an acceptable solution was found by the executive committee, Janaki should hold the party reins. Jayalalithaa was not an issue then,” he said. Janaki resisted the moves to make her the chief minister or the party chief, said Ponnaiyan.
“She told us she could not withstand the political stress, strain and travails,” said the AIADMK leader. “She said if we are to win over the DMK, a popular person should be projected. It was Janaki who suggested Jayalalithaa’s name. Initially everyone was opposed to it,” he said. Eventually, the split helped Jayalalithaa win the leadership race. The poor showing by the Janaki faction saw her supporters shifting loyalties overnight.
For Jayalalithaa, it was a chain of victories. In the 1989 Lok Sabha election, the AIADMK won 38 of the 39 seats in alliance with the Congress. DMK drew a blank. In the 1991 assembly election held after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, the AIADMK-Congress alliance swept the polls. For more than two decades after that, Jayalalithaa and the AIADMK recorded dramatic scripts in TN politics.
Few may remember Janaki Ramachandran and her mild flirtation with politics. And, fewer still may know that the AIADMK headquarters on Lloyd’s Road in Chennai was the property purchased by Janaki with her earnings as an actor. She gave it to MGR when he launched the AIADMK and used the property to build the party headquarters. Though Jayalalithaa purchased the famous Safire theatre complex on Mount Road in Chennai to turn it into a new AIADMK HQ, she never did. The Lloyd’s Road property promises to be the scene of political conflict.
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