When former U.S. first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt said, “a woman is like a tea-bag – you can’t tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water,” she could well have meant Jayalalithaa Jayaram, born more than six decades after her on the other side of the globe.
For confirmation, one only needs to ask any of the chief ministers of the southern states, from the 1990s onwards, who experienced the doughty fighter in Jayalalithaa, particularly when it had to do with water, a perpetually precious commodity for Tamil Nadu.
The fighter in Jayalalithaa appeared sterner when she crossed swords for water: With Andhra Pradesh for a share of the Krishna river waters, and with Karnataka for the Cauvery waters. With Kerala, her posture was sterner still – she wanted a share of the Periyar waters as well as a bigger storage in the Mullaperiyar dam.
She wouldn’t mind going to any length to get what she thought was her state’s legitimate share of inter-state river waters. It never mattered to her if Kerala was starved of the truckloads of vegetable and provision supplies from her state every time there was a skirmish on the Kumily-Cumbum border in connection with a Mullaperiyar-related argument.
When rain-drenched Kerala and water-starved Tamil Nadu battled for water, it was always difficult for Kerala to convince the wider world of its own need for water, and the need to keep water level in the Mullaperiyar dam low to avoid a breach that can turn disastrous for tens of thousands living downstream.
Water was an all-season reason for Jayalalithaa to adopt an aggressive posture. When she wasn’t fighting Kerala, she would take on Karnataka. On occasion when she thought Karnataka was unjustly depriving her state of the Cauvery waters, she would undertake a fast for a few days on the Marina, complete with a stage, a thick mattress, half a dozen pillows for extra comfort and fans all around. She calculated she could also pull the weight of national television channels behind her cause.
On the rare occasion that she failed to get what she wanted, she would denounce the very concept of the river water authority, referring at one time to the Cauvery River Authority as a “toothless wonder.”
In her early years as chief minister, she put enough pressure on then Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao for him to send the water resources minister, V.C. Shukla to Chennai to assure Tamil Nadu of its share of Cauvery water, and in her final years as chief minister, she clashed with former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for not responding to her demands on the Mullaperiyar issue.
As for the chief ministers, it hardly mattered to her whether it was Kerala’s Oommen Chandy or Karnataka’s H.D Deve Gowda on the other side. For a ‘fair’ share of water, steamrollering was Jayalalithaa’s avowed strategy.
One of her biggest successes on the water front came in 2014 when the Supreme Court allowed raising the water level in the Mullaperiyar dam from 136 feet to 142 feet. While Kerala flinched, Jayalalithaa soaked in the warmth of thousands of farmers who organized a grand felicitation for her at a ground in Madurai.
When the Jayalalithaa era passes, Tamil Nadu’s neighboring states must logically breathe easier. They will miss her passionate displays to get as much water as possible for Tamil Nadu, but will also feel far more assured in the battles for their own water rights.
After all, it is the male chief ministers in the south who have been repeatedly dipped and doused in hot waters for a quarter of a century by a lady who would not take no for an answer.
Photo credit: Feroz Khan Photography via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA & Prince Mathews Thomas