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FITTING farewell

The president, the prime minister, the vice-president of the principal opposition party, chief ministers of seven states, cabinet ministers: they all were there to pay their final respects to the departed leader. J Jayalalithaa – loved, hated, liked, adored, admired, feared all in equal measure while she was alive – received the kind of farewell that not many in recent memory have got. 

There were several standouts in the funeral. 

First was the size of the turnout.  Massive is the only word for it. Men and women of all hue lined up there. Contrast it with the few thousands who turned out for the Mufti’s funeral a few months ago. Next the chief minister was buried, not cremated, in a stark departure from Brahmin custom. And then Sasikala Natarajan led Deepak Jayakumar in performing the final rites. In Hindu customs, women do not perform final rites.

But these are not what surprised me. What surprised me and pleasantly so, was the remarkable efficiency of the government of Tamil Nadu and the extraordinary decorum with which the people of the state conducted themselves, in the funeral.  Not a single untoward incidence of any consequence. There was no wailing, no breast beating and no hair tearing. 

I think three things that they did went right. This should become cop book practice for future when a leader with mass appeal departs. 

One, the decision to announce the death in the middle of the night. It came at a time when offices weren’t working and people weren’t on the roads. There could therefore be no disruptions. A couple of hours earlier the crowd in front of Apollo had been quietly dispersed. Two, withdrawing the bus transport service across the state. This meant that every Rama, every Krishna and every Govinda wouldn’t be turning up at the funeral. To that extent the crowd would be less and manageable. The fact that streams of people queued up despite this only proves the correctness of the administration’s judgment. Three, was the decision not to keep the body for multiple days and finish performing the last rites the same day. A masterstroke, indeed. It meant that the chief minister’s body would be gone within 18 hours of her death.   The longer it stayed, the more would have been the chances of unrest. 

She was no ordinary leader

The decorum with which the entire process went through, apart from being a tribute to the foresight and execution skill of the administration, also perhaps shows a certain maturity of mind on the part of the public. After all, whether you liked her or not, she was no ordinary leader. She was a mass leader in the MGR mould. And people south of the Vindhyas are known to be emotional when it comes to politics.  I guess the 75 days long hiatus at the corporate hospital had also prepared the people for any eventuality.

Stalin’s glowing tribute to her was an indication that even in a politically hostile state where rival party men are considered enemies, there was scope to show dignity and grace in a moment of deep sorrow.  One wishes that this display of maturity and grace should continue into day-to-day politics as well.

The transition of power has so far been smooth. There was a genuine fear that power struggle will be on full display letting opportunists step in with vulgar display of power. Thankfully, it has not happened. The one sour point in the entire episode has been how the medical health of the chief minister was so jealously guarded and kept away from the public who had elected her. While one does appreciate the fact that the private health of a public figure is her private business, this cannot hold good when it interferes with the functioning of the state. And in that sadly, the courts too failed.

Jayalalithaa did have her faults. But for a lonely woman to have waded through movies and then politics and to have dominated both so spectacularly when she was actually academically inclined, is a tribute to her sheer drive to succeed. The court judgment on her corruption cases will now be left unheard and we may not hear more of it. 

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