It is quite true that Jayalalithaa took the matter of flushing out the LTTE very seriously and the organisation did become weak and started withdrawing from Tamil Nadu – according to her, under the direct orders of the LTTE chief Prabhakaran. “But we are not complacent because of this,” she added. “The intelligence agencies tell me that the danger is still there. The difference is, the militants had a free hand before. Today there is fear in them because this government means business. The government will not tolerate antinational activities anymore.”

Looking back at her forthright comments on various issues concerning the relationship between the Centre (with whom the party had an electoral alliance) and the state, including the casual approach of the Centre to the LTTE – that should have been viewed as a national menace and not as pertaining only to Tamil Nadu – Jayalalithaa comes across as a seasoned, well-meaning and committed politician. Considering that she had had little experience in governance, this was, indeed, amazing.

Whether it was the Cauvery water dispute with Karnataka or restoring Katchatheevu in order to help Tamil Nadu fishermen or the reservation policy, she did not mince words when her views were at variance with her ally, the Congress.

“If I stand up for the rights of the people of my state, it does not mean that I am embarking on a course of confrontation with the Centre. The upcountry papers have accused me of indulging in Tamil chauvinism. That is the comment, particularly in reference to the Katchatheevu matter. I will only say it is a comment made by armchair commentators from their air-conditioned offices, who have no knowledge about the true state of affairs in Tamil Nadu and no concept about Rameshwaram fishermen. Why don’t they make a survey?

When I say India must retrieve Katchatheevu, they distort my statement and say Jayalalithaa demands Katchatheevu for Tamil Nadu. I never made such a statement. I only said it must be retrieved for India...They point to the 1974 agreement as though I was not aware of it. Under the agreement our fishermen should enjoy full rights to dry their nets, visit the church and attend the festival without visas. But all these exist only on paper. What is the reality?

Whenever our fishermen approach the waters – and they have to go there because there is only shallow water all round and this area is rich in prawns – they are threatened and shot at by the Sri Lankan navy. Their boats are confiscated; they are beaten up, captured and taken away, tortured and sent back only when the Sri Lankan Navy chooses. And these poor fishermen do not know any other trade. What should they do for a living?

After eight years of suffering and torture our fishermen are turning increasingly restive. It is the state government which has to deal with their demands. To provide security for them involves a lot of arrangements for which we do not have the resources, which is why I took up this question with the Centre.”

She boldly stated:

“Centre has let us down badly in the Cauvery water dispute. We have every justification to feel aggrieved. After a long-drawn battle, Tamil Nadu got an interim award from the Tribunal which was still short of our expectations. We accepted it with grace but both Karnataka and the Centre have tried to deprive us of the benefit of the award.

What is the purpose of constituting a Tribunal – it was done by the Government of India under its own act of 1956. If the award of this Tribunal is not honoured, there will be no place at all for any Tribunal in future in the Indian scheme of things. I am only fighting for the legitimate rights of Tamil Nadu because it is a question of life and death. Cauvery is our only lifeline.”

Soon after, when there were riots in Karnataka, and the Tamils were targeted because the Cauvery Tribunal gave an interim award that Karnataka thought was favourable to Tamil Nadu, she went on a fast as a mark of protest for three days, right on the Marina Beach, quite dramatically, near the statue of Mahatma Gandhi.

The Opposition party and her detractors called it a stunt. But the common man was moved. She relented when the Centre intervened and admonished the Karnataka state government for not honouring the award and creating a crisis.

Her views on reservation (to preserve the 69 per cent reservation that was in practice in Tamil Nadu as against the 50 per cent stipulated by the Supreme Court) were again considered a ploy to create a confrontation with the Centre. She said: “It was not out of any desire for confrontation. But for social justice. If that is construed as confrontation, so be it. After all, we are not preaching what we are not practising.”

Coming across as being ambitious and lofty and in a hurry, she spoke in the interview of her plans for Tamil Nadu: to make it an industrialised state; to empower the panchayat unions with a self-reliance, self-help scheme called Namakku Naame Thittam, launched in 1997–98 (renamed Self Sufficiency Scheme in 2002), with one crore rupees earmarked for basic amenities.

“We have taken a cabinet decision and I have let all the departments know that during our first year in office, the main thrust will be on the provision of basic amenities to the people. The panchayat unions will utilise the funds to provide drinking water, roads and street lights.”

Jayalalithaa also spoke of a significant project: a proposal to let the private sector participate in power generation. She said that because of the assembly session, she had not been in touch with industrialists. “We have set the goal of making Tamil Nadu the number one industrialist state in the country and we will sustain the interest of the entrepreneurs in achieving this.”

Excerpted with permission from The Lone Empress: A Portrait Of Jayalalitha, Vaasanthi, Penguin Books.