In Tamil Nadu, ‘after Jayalalithaa who’ is the question that is keeping the nation hooked on to the state’s colourful and sometimes stormy politics that is peppered with film stars, celebrities, orators and screenplay writers who spice up the political arena in a manner not done anywhere else in the country.
For close to four decades it is people connected with films who have ruled this key South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, from where the Congress was ejected way back in the late 60s. First it was MG Ramachandran, a hero who built his image as a do-gooder assiduously, who became the chief minister, wresting the post from his one-time friend and party colleague M Karunanidhi, who was a film script writer.
After MGR’s death, his political legacy was carried forward by Jayalalithaa, a celebrity in her own right and who was groomed by her hero and mentor, MGR.
After the Congress was defeated in 1967, neither it nor any other national political party could make a dent into the Dravidian politics and had to rest content with piggy riding either of the two formations – AIADMK or the DMK. Both these parties have partnered the two national parties on different occasions.
Although the current ground situation in Tamil Nadu, that went to polls only last May, guarantees a comfortable situation for the ruling AIADMK of Jayalalithaa or Amma as she is fondly referred to her countless admirers and devotees as the term of the present government, headed now by Jayalalithaa’s tried and tested stand-in chief minister, O Panneerselvam.
It was a midnight coup, overseen by a senior central government minister, that brought OPS, as he is known in Tamil Nadu, into the CM’s chair on a relatively more permanent basis – albeit with the support of Sasikala Natarajan, longtime companion of Jayalalithaa and the power behind the AIADMK throne.
OPS, all his cabinet colleagues, top officials, vice chancellors and the whos who of Tamil Nadu trekked up to the Poes Gardens residence of Jayalalithaa, now occupied by Sasikala, and paid obeisance to her and the party leaders, and cadres have been pleading with her to take over the party. She is now being referred to as Chinnamma (Amma for Jayalalithaa and younger Amma for Sasikala) by the party colleagues, who want her at the helm of affairs as she was the person who stayed closest to Amma and spent the longest time with her since her death on December 5 at Apollo Hospital.
‘Sasikala is the only person who was the closest to Amma and she alone can think and act like Amma’ is the theme song being played out by the AIADMK leaders. She will do full justice to all the policies and programmes of Amma and ensure that all the welfare programmes started by Amma continue and strengthen and expand them as well, said an AIADMK leader and former minister.
Sasikala, who got into the circle of Jayalalithaa as the owner of a video cassette lending library, and her husband Natarajan, a government PRO, then won her confidence and friendship to an extent that Jayalalithaa lodged her inside her own Poes Garden residence, where she lived for over three decades as Amma’s companion. She is also known to have influenced government and party matters to such an extent that she became a power centre in Tamil Nadu.
Incidentally, in Tamil Nadu Sasikala and her relatives who have drawn power by virtue of her closeness to Jayalalithaa are a feared lot and are collectively referred to as Mannargudi Mafia. Jayalalithaa had two years ago, threw out Sasikala from her house but later after few months allowed her to live with her again on the written promise that none of her relatives would be entertained at her house and that she had to give them all up. Sasikala made the promise and moved in.
But after Jayalalithaa’s death, all the persons whom Jayalalithaa had kept at a distance took the centre stage, even at the funeral ceremony. Sasikala’s husband Natarajan was prominently seen and was introduced to the Prime Minister Narendra Modi, AICC vice president Rahul Gandhi and other VIPs who came to pay their last respects to Amma. DMK leader MK Stalin came, met chief minister O Panneerselvam and turned away without acknowledging Sasikala’s presence.
The cadres and the common people do not want Sasikala, but it is the party leaders who are insisting, and she can be chosen as the party’s general secretary at a formal meeting of the general council that could be held within December itself.
With many party leaders owing allegiance to Sasikala personally, it is not surprising that there is a clamour for her to take over the reins of the party and steer it through the turbulent times when Amma is no more and DMK is showing signs of resurgence under its aggressive leader MK Stalin.
It is no secret that most in the party want Sasikala as the leader and may be even as the chief minister, but the cadres on the ground and people in general do not seem to be very enthusiastic about Sasikala.
Even as this political drama is being played out in Tamil Nadu, chief minister O Panneerselvam has begun slipping into the role with a more relative ease, because as sources say, he has the blessings of the central government. But even then, unless he has the party MLAs, most of whom are respectful as also fearful of Sasikala, supporting him, OPS cannot last even for a day. Which is why, OPS has been doing what he does best – mark his attendance at Poes Gardens and taking permission before doing anything from Sasikala.
The Tamil Nadu political scene could very well be an action replay of UPA 1 and UPA 2, with one person as the Prime Minister, being run by remote control by another power centre in Sonia Gandhi, president of AICC. Likewise while OPS is the face of the government, the real power is with Sasikala.
But whatever the situation in the current and short term, the central government and the BJP would want the state government firmly under its control. To this extent, strong messages have been sent to the players to behave, or else….
Corruption in Tamil Nadu has become notorious and the state has become a shocking example in the brazenness and openness of the scourge with none even bothered to pretend they are scared. Such opulent display of ill-gotten wealth by bureaucrats and politicians perhaps may have caused an eyebrow to be raised elsewhere, but in Tamil Nadu people have become used to this. If it is AIADMK this time, then the DMK would be doing it during its turn – remember 2G and telecom scam in which former CM Karunanidhi’s daughter Kanimozhi went to jail for nearly one year before getting bail.
But it is the same brazenness of corruption that has come in handy to the central government to hang a Damocles sword over the TN government’s head. The IT raids against a big contractor businessman with links to the government officials and ruling party – leading to arrest of Shekhar Reddy – and subsequent raids on Tamil Nadu chief secretary P Rama Mohana Rao and his sacking – are all significant messages to the political dispensation in Tamil Nadu to not step out of line.
Though in the short run, the AIADMK does not have any major worry but in the long run, the situation could very well favour the BJP, which has been trying to make inroads into the Dravidian territory for long, but failed. The BJP may find it relatively easy to persuade the AIADMK for a tie-up during elections, as it is heading the government at the centre now.
But at the same time, the opposition DMK is just waiting in the wings to grab any opportunity arising out of a weak government and a ruling dispensation in stress and leadership tussle. Then there are discordant voices, muted at present, but have the potential of growing in the days to come.
There is Sasikala Pushpa, a Rajya Sabha MP who fell foul with Jayalalithaa and Sasikala a few months back, challenging the might of Saikala Natarajan, declaring her unfit to take over Amma’s mantle. Then there is Jayalalithaa’s niece, Deepa Jayakumar, daughter of the brother of Jayalalithaa, who wants to get into politics and take the legacy of her aunt forward.
Jayalalithaa does not have children of her own, so the children of her brother can lay claim to her political legacy as also to the huge properties in Chennai, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. Jayalalithaa’s niece tried her best to call on Jayalalithaa when she was admitted to Apollo Hospital but was never allowed to even enter the hospital by security personnel.
She alleges that Sasikala never allowed any member of her family to even meet Jayalalithaa. Early days yet for Deepa Jayakumar, but she has given enough indications that she has taken the plunge into politics.
All in all, Tamil Nadu presents an interesting case study for students of political science, who can watch an interesting phase in Dravidian politics that will most likely see a credible challenge to the established two Dravidian parties. At the local level in Tamil Nadu, the question is who will inherit the legacy of Jayalalithaa – will it be Sasikala or someone else? Can a rank outsider in Deepa Jayakumar even clear the first round and go the distance? Or the DMK upstages the AIADMK and wrests the state? These are some of the questions that the people in Tamil Nadu are seeking answers for.