July 9, 2001


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Dilip D'Souza

Ticket to Madras, By George

George Fernandes, I notice, scurried to Madras at the head of an NDA team investigating the midnight goings-on recently. You know, the way Karunanidhi was slapped, pushed around and bundled off to jail. George being the literate man of the NDA, I suppose, is regularly dispatched on such errands, made to write various reports that say just about what his PM wants to hear. Thus he was in Orissa after Graham Staines's murder, in Bihar after assorted caste massacres, and now in Madras after Jayalalithaa decided that becoming CM meant open season on Karunanidhi.

Power to George as he submits yet another report saying what his PM wants to hear, this one decrying the shameless doings of the lady of Tamil Nadu. But I wonder if George remembers scurrying to Madras before? Just two or three years ago, when he was defence minister and Jayalalithaa was a vital part of his government? So frequent were those trips George made, those spells spent waiting for the large lady to grant him a few minutes to plead his case, that R K Laxman even produced a delicious cartoon suggesting that the defence ministry might better be situated at Poes Garden. Jayalalithaa's home.

Funny how times change, eh George? In 1998, the woman's tantrums drew you to Madras like a moth to a flame, over and over again. Then, you had to pander to her whims, appease her every demand. You had to, because her party was a major partner in your coalition and it was politically inconvenient to displease her. No doubt all your reports reported just that: give her what she wants, keep her happy. Too bad it was all in vain. In April 1999, she pulled out of the coalition anyway and pulled down your government.

In 2001, another of the same woman's tantrums draws you to Madras again. Now, it's because she has chosen to arrest -- and, while arresting, assault -- a major partner in your present coalition government. She seems to believe it is her duty as CM of TN to visit revenge on a hated political opponent, that man Karunanidhi. No doubt this report you've submitted reports just what is politically convenient this year: she's done a horrible thing, let's claim the moral high ground, what can we do to stop her?

A strangely familiar feeling, George, writing a report on a trip to Madras? Except, let me guess, it's somewhat different this time?

Think about it some more. In 1998, remember, there were special courts that Karunanidhi's government in TN had set up, to try a whole sheaf of cases against lady J. Since she was a partner in power in A B Vajpayee's central government, her tantrums were really aimed at getting George and his PM to slow down those trials to the point where they would not even move. No doubt that's what she impressed weightily on the defence minister in those Poes Garden trysts. That's why Vajpayee set his attorney general, Soli Sorabjee, to argue for months in the Supreme Court that the special courts were unlawfully constituted.

Of course, all that changed when she left that coalition and Karunanidhi joined the new one. Suddenly, the special courts were just fine and had to be left to do their work. And in fact, in recent months they have even handed down a judgement or two indicting the lady. Which is just the point, actually. When Jayalalithaa returned to power this May, she had only one item on her agenda: revenge. For his relentless pursuit of those cases in those special courts, Karunanidhi had to be taught a lesson. Thus the sudden blossoming of the flyover scam, the midnight arrest and the slaps administered by compliant police officers.

And thus the most recent Madras mission for George F.

Kind of full circle, wouldn't you say? Karunanidhi charges Jayalalithaa with corruption, sets the legal process in motion against her. Fernandes, Vajpayee and company work hard to delay and hinder it. Jayalalithaa ditches them -- they didn't work quite hard enough, we must suppose -- and Karunanidhi comes on board. Fernandes, Vajpayee and company stop working to hinder the cases against lady J, and a while later the courts pronounce judgement against her. Karunanidhi loses the TN assembly election to Jayalalithaa. She charges him with corruption and claps him in jail. What next, Fernandes, Vajpayee and company?

They forget, of course, that had they not actively delayed the cases against her three years ago, by now she might just have been put away where she belongs. In jail. I don't say that with conviction, but it was at least a possibility.

What gets me in this whole sordid episode is hardly the rough treatment of a frail nearly-80-year-old Karunanidhi. Nobody wants to see an old man beaten, but our police were never known for their kid gloves anyway. And after all, if the man is found to be involved in this flyover scam, give him the severest possible punishment.

No, what is truly galling is Jayalalithaa's belief that she can use the law-and-order machinery of the land as she pleases, whenever she wants, to further her own interests. Then, to stall the proceedings against her. Now, to attack Karunanidhi. More galling is that she is hardly the first Indian politician, nor will she be the last, to behave in this fashion. From Advani to Thackeray to Laloo, they are all experts in subverting the law. And most galling is that such men as Fernandes and Vajpayee take the moral high road, even pretend outrage at Jayalalithaa's antics. After all, it is their connivance that helped her get to where she is, sitting pretty without worry over trivial things like charges of corruption.

One evening some months ago, I found myself in the front row of a Calcutta audience. Up on stage, a retired colonel and a very prominent Delhi politician with an equally prominent bindi on her forehead took turns to whip the crowd into an anti-Pakistan frenzy. One thing they both mentioned, separately but in nodding agreement, was that our neighbour to the west is a "little chit" of a country, a half-baked failure. In comparison, we are a "mature" nation, ready to take our rightful place in the world, ready to look past mere chits. Judging from the wild cheering and applause all around me, these were popular things to say that evening.

And that's why I recalled that evening when I heard the news from Madras. I wondered what "mature" nation acquiesces in a large lady's evasion of the law to the extent that she can actually take office as a state CM. I wondered what this "maturity" means if the wheels of justice move only on the dictates of political convenience.

Like the colonel and the politician, like the best of them in that Calcutta audience, I want to believe that we are a strong, wise and mature country.

Except, I keep remembering the trips to Madras George Fernandes has made in the last few years.

Dilip D'Souza

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