When Ms.Jayalalithaa was hospitalised, I prayed for her recovery. When the Apollo bulletin mentioned that she was critical, I prayed for a miracle. And even went on national tv to express hope. When she was officially pronounced dead, I tried hard to fight back tears. But I couldn’t keep away a lump in my throat. And I wondered why. The former Chief Minister was obviously not related to me. After I left mainstream television journalism, I wasn’t even meeting her regularly. For that matter, there were no interactions with the media. Her death was not sudden but was announced after 75 days of hospitalisation. And rumours galore. Yet, there was something that touched a chord. From the image of the most powerful woman in the State, flanked by black cat commandos moving in her convoy to ‘mortal remains’ lying at Rajaji Hall. From party workers worshipping her, prostrating and screaming ‘Puratchi Thalaivi‘, to a sea of mourners. From the ‘Iron Lady’ to a memorial with a picture sporting a mystic smile. Death may be a great leveller but that transition is still hard to digest. I have always been absolutely apolitical and fiercely independent in my previous avatar as a television journalist and editor. Objectivity in my work did not necessarily preclude a personal rapport with political leaders across the divide.
As I was dusting my study room recently, I noticed a Tamil Nadu Government Media Phone Book with Jayalalithaa’s picture on the cover. Then there were files with her replies to some of my correspondence. And a rack of DVDs of my news stories on her on the NDTV network for close to a decade and a half. The flashback was poignant. It’s these memories that still leave me moist eyed.
In the late nineties when I first joined NDTV which used to produce the Star News Channel, I had to extensively cover Ms.Jayalalithaa. The Cauvery issue was in focus. And there was that fragile alliance with the BJP led National Democratic Alliance, to which she ultimately withdrew support, causing the government to fall. Covering a Jayalalithaa event, especially at the AIADMK Headquarters, invariably meant jostling with a massive crowd and security personnel who would sometimes fiddle with your rib cage (quite like stringing a harp!) if they felt you would break the security cordon. I had to bear the brunt of this treatment as I inched forward in a bid to ask Ms.Jayalalithaa a question on the constitution of the Cauvery River Authority. A security officer pulled me back holding on to my belt. Sensing my discomfort, Ms.Jayalalithaa immediately ordered them to allow me to come forward so that I could interview her without any hassle. “Are you hurt? Are you alright?” she asked me in a tone that showed genuine concern. It was probably the first time she noticed me but that was my first impression of her.
A clear reflection of her convent education was how she would always wish you back, even if it was a crowd and you were not visible. She would look in the direction from where the ‘Good Morning Ma’am’ emanated and warmly acknowledge it. The same courtesy was evident in the way she handled her correspondence. Almost every letter that I wrote to her elicited a reply. They were not in the round robin cut-copy-paste format but with a personal touch. (See Pic) Emerging from her hotel in Trichy in 2011, bang in the middle of an election campaign, she made it a point to acknowledge my request for an interview. “Got your letter. Thanks.” Little did I realise that within an hour, as I was shooting a Piece To Camera for NDTV’s flagship election show ‘Follow The Leader’, the AIADMK Chief would stop her convoy to give me a few exclusive sound bytes. (See Pic)
There were many decisions of hers that we had criticised on the channel – from the dismissal of over a lakh government employees to the slapping of defamation cases against journalists. For that matter, I used to cover her arch rival – the DMK extensively and I still have good friends in that party. Not once did it alter the way she treated me. If I’m not mistaken, I was the first journalist to ask her about her Prime Ministerial ambitions. “No comments. But thank you for the compliment” was all that she said with a smile. When even single MP parties had managed Ministerial berths at the Centre in the past, a leader of her stature with 37 seats in the Lok Sabha in 2014 could have easily played King Maker or, even become the Queen herself in a coalition government, had the BJP not won a comfortable majority.
A journalist is expected to play an adversarial role. Quite. But calling a spade a spade involves also giving credit where it was due – be it the Rainwater Harvesting Scheme, the elimination of the Veerappan menace, the handling of the Tsunami or the Chennai Deluge of 2005, where I witnessed her wading through ankle deep water on an inspection of the city’s inundated areas. R.Nataraj, the then Commissioner of Police and now the Mylapore MLA was part of her convoy.
After a meeting with BJP partriarch and former Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani at the Secretariat in 2012, I was taken aback when Ms.Jayalalithaa called out to me. “ Where’s Pinto? Sanjay Pinto.” It was to thank me for putting out a fair and balanced review of her year in office. That post press conference interaction went live. My former NDTV colleague and the then Media Advisor to the Prime Minister Pankaj Pachauri sent me a text message to ask why the Chief Minister had asked for me. I did not put that clip out in the public domain. However, after her demise, I posted it on the social media not to score brownie points but to show the world the humane side of the ‘Iron Lady’. The video went viral.
If you’re wondering if these gestures were a pure PR exercise to keep journalists in good humour, wait till you read this. Well after I left NDTV to plunge into legal practice, I was chatting with my friend, the then Additional Commissioner of Police (Chennai South) Rajesh Das near her Poes Garden residence. As her convoy drove up to the gate, the top cop had to say a hurried bye and moved forward to salute her. I retreated. On seeing me, she stopped her convoy and signalled to me. “Yes, Sanjay. I don’t see you nowadays. How are you? How is your family?” It was then that I informed her that I had quit journalism to become a lawyer. “Oh lawyer”, she asked as her eyes lit up (she had nursed an ambition to become one herself). “I was not aware. But why?” I then told her how I wanted more time with my family. And to earn more money! She smiled and wished me well. “We’ll meet soon.” That was the last time I had met her, although I saw her at her swearing-in and the Global Investors Meet, to which her office sent across special invitations. The envelopes read: “Sanjay Pinto, Former NDTV Editor. Now an Advocate.” So it was never the tag. It was the person.
I just don’t feel as emotional when I think of any other deceased public figure whom I had covered. Except interviews, I never asked her for any favours. But I knew that if I ever needed her help, I could reach out. Ms.Jayalalithaa, I will always miss you. As do millions of others.
(Sanjay Pinto is a Lawyer at the Madras High Court, a Columnist, Political Commentator, Author, Public Speaking Mentor & Former Resident Editor – NDTV 24×7)