A reporter recalls her interactions with the late Jayalalithaa, including the chief minister’s encounter with former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee over the Cauvery issue.
New Delhi: Covering the sharing of the Cauvery waters before the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal declared its award was not an easy task for a reporter based in New Delhi since it was a highly emotive issue for the riparian states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala and Puducherry. The major players – Tamil Nadu under chief minister J. Jayalalithaa and Karnataka – were cagey about giving information to the press. For that matter, even the water resources ministry was opaque about the matter because it wanted to appear ‘objective’ in its role as a referee.
But for reporters it was essential to get authentic details since important statistics related to the storage in dams, water releases and water received were involved. While the Karnataka lawyers and information officer shared details and their responses were widely published, the Tamil Nadu lawyers simply said that a statement would be issued in Chennai.
In New Delhi, Jayalalithaa was much more forthcoming with the media. She held the occasional press conference or stopped her SUV to talk to the press before leaving to catch a flight back to Chennai. If she recognised any reporter in the crowd, her smile would widen a wee bit more. However, she was not on first-name basis with anyone.
At her press events, the security would be tight and the media would be kept at a safe distance. Her written statements were meticulous and detailed. If she was ready to take questions, she would be most happy to talk about political issues such as when she attacked Congress president Sonia Gandhi in 2002 to put to rest speculation of the AIADMK’s tie-up with the Congress.
Once after a press conference as Jayalalitha walked out of the hall while the media was kept at bay behind a cordon, I wanted to ask her a question on the Cauvery dispute. My colleagues discouraged me saying that the security would take action. Undeterred, I shouted, “Excuse me Jayalalithaaji,” and to everyone’s surprise, she stopped and turned back. “What will be your next step on Cauvery?’’ I asked. “We will move the court,’’ she said and turned to walk away. Strangely, since then whenever she visited Delhi – which became increasingly rare – and spotted me in the crowd of reporters, she would signal the driver to stop her vehicle and briefly take a question or two.
In August 2002, during Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s tenure as prime minister, Jayalalithaa visited the capital to attend a meeting of the Cauvery River Authority that was convened by Vajpayee with the concerned chief ministers to resolve the issue of water releases. However, in the middle of the discussions when she realised that things were not moving forward, Jayalalithaa got up to leave the meeting. The prime minister called after her, requesting her to stay. Call it arrogance, courage or political acumen, Jayalalithaa did not turn back.
Once again, with millions of people beseeching her to return, she has left to never turn back.
Gargi Parsai is an award-winning senior journalist based in New Delhi.