Jayalalithaa's Response To My Questions Remains Her Last Answer To A Journalist

Published: December 09, 2016 11:56 IST
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When I asked Chief Minister Jayalalithaa a question two years ago, little did I realise that it would be her last-ever response to a journalist.

It was the evening of June 29, 2014, when I was covering the terrible tragedy of a building that had collapsed in Moulivakkam, nearly 20 kilometres from Chennai. The 11-storey building that was being constructed had come down, killing 11 people. 20 had been rescued. More than 40 were still trapped.

The families of those who had yet to be located were desperate for news. But suddenly, the operations stopped. The heavy-duty earth-moving machines that were being used to rummage through the debris turned silent. 
 
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Reporting from ground zero at the site of the building collapse in Moulivakkam

In contrast, there was a sudden spurt of activity a little further away along the road leading up to the site. Chlorine was being sprayed on the roadside for disinfection, and weeds were being pulled at manic speed. All signs that a VIP would soon arrive. I quickly discovered that the Chief Minister was expected. Clearly, officials were shifting their focus from rescue to receiving the Chief Minister.

Soon she arrived, inspected the place and addressed the press. She began explaining what went wrong and detailed the rescue efforts. 

To highlight that her visit appeared to have disrupted crucial efforts to uncover those still trapped, I politely asked, "Ma'am, over the last few hours, rescue work has almost to come to an an end. Do you think authorities could have avoided this?" She turned red and said "These are mischievous questions, these are politically-motivated questions. I'm not prepared to answer such questions. If you think that the rescue operations are over, I invite you to stay here and watch the rescue operations till they are over" and she moved to her car.
 
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Late Chief Minister Jayalalithaa briefing the media at the site of the building collapse in Moulivakkam

Soon after she left, a senior NDRF (National Disaster Response Force) officer met me privately and said "I'm happy you asked this question. This shouldn't have happened". 

Ms Jayalalithaa never addressed any press meet nor did she interact with reporters thereafter. In September that year, she had to quit office over corruption charges which led to her jailing for 22 days. She maintained a no-interaction-with-the-media policy even after her acquittal.

(Sam Daniel is NDTV's Bureau Chief, Chennai)

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