The feud between Jayalalitha, once a charming film star and later a politician, and the Karunanidhi family, which has made Tamil Nadu politics a family business, goes back far into the past. It reached a peak when Jayalalitha arrested Karunanidhi and sent the police to raid The Hindu, India's best English newspaper in my view. I criticized her in this Business World article of 18 November 2003.
The last time India saw the Jayalalitha government on the rampage was at the early-morning arrest of M Karunanidhi – men in police uniforms dragging a screaming old man down a staircase. That is how Jayalalitha fulfilled an ambition of hers – to make Karunanidhi eat from the same metal plate from which she had to eat while in jail. Here was the machinery of a state being used to take personal revenge.
The men who called themselves police behaved somewhat better when they visited the offices of The Hindu to arrest the top management. They did not scuffle, they did not drag people about, they did not beat or tear clothes. It may have been because it was a newspaper office and cameras were ready to roll: at Malini Parthsarathi’s house, where there were no cameras, they had no difficulty in showing their uncouth side. Nor did they have any compunction about driving into another state and trying to intimidate the editor of the Hindu out of the public eye in Bangalore.
Or maybe they did not have instructions to go berserk. After all, it was not the dignity of Jayalalitha that had been offended this time, it was the dignity of the House of Tamil Nadu. And how was it offended? By graphic reports of the undignified manner in which the members of the House had conducted themselves – and how partisan the Speaker had been in dealing with their infractions.
The press may not report the whole truth – it would take too many column-inches to do so. It may also misinterpret events. But it does not invent. The Hindu’s account of the proceedings in the House has never been charged with inaccuracy. An accurate report may be unflattering. But a Speaker that was mindful of the dignity of the House would have rejuvenated the internal judicial machinery of the House. He would have called the party leaders and tackled the causes of disorder. The Honourable Speaker of the Tamil Nadu House has been looking the wrong way. Instead of hounding journalists, he should have looked within the house. He should have asked it to heal itself. And if he was not capable of it, he should have resigned.
The fracas is not yet over. N Ram fears further hooliganism from the government of Jayaland; he has asked for and got the protection of central security forces. The Honourable Speaker has yet to reply to the notice of the Supreme Court. Full as he is of umbrage, he may well take offence and rashly invite a confrontation with the highest court in the country.
But before he does that, he should take a moment to reflect. Why is it that not even Jayalalitha’s best friends – be it Chandrika Kumaratunga or Narendra Modi – why has none of them spoken a word in support of the Speaker’s action? Why has it met only condemnation all over the country? Surely it cannot be that all of India hates Jayallitha, her party and her state. There must have been many who admired her for the way she cooked the goose of civil service trade unions; why did they not march for her?
Maybe, if he thinks that far, he will make the next leap, and ask himself whether there are not better ways of conducting himself and his House. Maybe he will wonder whether “off with their heads” is the best way to deal with the press. Maybe he will contemplate the possibility of a better, more constructive relationship between politicians and the press.
For in all vigorous democracies, politicians have to live with an obstreperous press. Some politicians do it better, others less well. President Reagan was as clueless about his job as some of our Prime Ministers; he had as extreme prejudices as America’s present President. The press did not let him off when it came to his policies and actions; but personally his Presidency was a cakewalk: the press simply loved the actor in him.
If the Honourable Speaker gets that far, maybe he will give all a fair chance to speak in the assembly. Maybe he will ask the Leader of the House, the great Puratchi Tailavi, to a coffee, and discuss with her how the sartorial appearance of the MLAs can be improved. Maybe between the two they will organize some lessons in public speaking for the members of the assembly. And maybe, maybe, they can lead the House to do its job, which is to monitor the performance of the government, and to prevent injustice, inefficiency and arbitrariness.
And perhaps, while she is in a mellow mood, he might suggest to her: why not use her once-considerable charm upon the editor of The Hindu? Why not enchant the press as she once did the film-goers of Tamil Nadu? She had it in her then; she has it still, if only she would give it a chance.