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Seven tectonic shifts in Tamil Nadu politics after Jayalalithaa’s death

The vacuum created by J Jayalalithaa’s death last year has triggered unprecedented changes in the state. Political observers believe that the ruling AIADMK is on the verge of collapse, that too in the centenary year of its founder MG Ramachandran.

india Updated: Dec 05, 2017 10:38 IST
Preparations in full swing for Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa’s first death anniversary.
Preparations in full swing for Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa’s first death anniversary.(PTI)

On Tuesday, it will be a year since J Jayalalithaa died. The six-term chief minister had dominated Tamil Nadu’s political imagination for decades. They say nature abhors a vacuum and in the vacuum that she left behind, Tamil Nadu has witnessed many things that would have never happened if Amma was still alive. To understand the post-Amma state, we look at seven powerful tremors from the last one year.

1. Hearing Sasikala’s voice

Till about a year ago, VK Sasikala remained an elusive myth. The world knew her as J Jayalalithaa’s ‘soul sister’ – someone the otherwise seemingly indomitable leader couldn’t do without. On two occasions, Jayalalithaa did cut off ties with Sasikala and her family but that didn’t last long. For over three decades, when Sasikala shadowed Jayalalithaa almost everywhere, the ‘soul sister’ remained a mysterious companion. Rumours about her far-reaching influence within the party remained just that. Her name was whispered in corridors of power with both awe and contempt. Not many had even heard Sasikala speak.

On 5 December 2016, everything changed. Less than 12 hours after Jayalalithaa’s death, Sasikala put together an alternative government in place by appointing O Panneerselvam as chief minister for the third time – the first evident sign of her clout. And on December 31, when Sasikala officially took over as AIADMK’s general secretary, the world first heard her speak. It was an event. Her speech became the subject of discussion for local channels with expert comments on the content, tone and tenor. Meme creators also had a field day.

If Jayalalithaa were alive, we would have never got to hear Sasikala speak in public or see her in active politics. “She never aspired for high office but enjoyed the support of the cadres and the party. All of us wanted Amma’s legacy to continue. Sasikala (madam) was the only one privy to Amma’s ideology and style of functioning,” says Apsara Reddy, spokesperson for AIADMK’s TTV Dinakaran camp, the faction led by Sasikala’s nephew.

“Their relationship was very strong. In Amma’s own words, Sasikala replaced her mother,” adds Reddy.

But Marudhu Azhaguraj disagrees. Azhaguraj is the former editor of Dr Namadhu MGR, AIADMK’s mouthpiece till recently, which is also owned by Sasikala and her family. He was ousted by Dinakaran in August 2017 after he wrote a poem critical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Azhaguraj says that Sasikala squandered away a golden opportunity in the last year. “There are two things that Jayalalitha held very close as the party’s basic tenets. The party was avowedly anti-DMK and it never encouraged family rule. Jayalalithaa had a visceral hatred for the DMK. But Sasikala and Dinakaran threw both to the winds. They have a tacit understanding with the DMK and by appointing Dinakaran as the party’s deputy general secretary, Sasikala betrayed Amma,” he says.

2. Jaya TV criticising AIADMK

Jaya TV was launched in 1999 and since then has occupied an important place in Tamil Nadu’s media landscape and especially among the AIADMK cadres and ardent fans of MGR and Jayalalithaa. So it felt like blasphemy when on 19 November, Jaya TV telecast an interview with senior DMK leader Durai Murugan about the corruption in the present AIADMK government.

When asked, Jaya TV officials sought to play it down as ‘shedding off the political colours and trying to become neutral’, but the cadres were visibly upset. “How can Jaya TV be neutral?” asks an AIADMK office-bearer on condition of anonymity. “Its USP is that it is Jayalalithaa’s. She couldn’t stand the DMK. This is not done, this is going to dent our image among the public.”

Expectedly, senior ministers, including D Jayakumar, who is in chief minister Edappadi K Palaniswami’s camp, faulted the channel for becoming a ‘mouthpiece of the DMK.’ Jaya TV retaliated by levelling corruption charges against the ruling AIADMK – again, a first and unthinkable in Jayalalithaa’s times.

3. AIADMK Ministers Breaking Rank

Under Jayalalithaa, the ministers had a gag order that none violated. It was impossible for a reporter to get a quote from any of her ministers. Right from her first tenure in 1996, Jayalalithaa always kept her ministers on tenterhooks. Observers point out how the schemes that came under various ministries were, more often than not, announced by Jayalalithaa. When senior leaders revolt, they do so knowing well that they can no longer be a party member. A classic example is perhaps former MLA Pazha Karupaiah. Jayalalithaa expelled the senior leader from the party in September 2016 after he publicly criticised the ministers.

But since her death last year, AIADMK ministers revel in holding press meets and engaging in verbal duels with detractors ranging from Dinakaran to actor Kamal Haasan. Responding to the actor’s tweets criticising the AIADMK government, revenue minister RB Udayakumar said the actor suffered from a mental disorder. Recently, fisheries minister D Jayakumar said the party would take legal action against Haasan if he continued with his ‘baseless allegations’. “Would any of these ministers dare to be so vocal if Amma was still alive?” asks Apsara Reddy.

“Jayalalithaa surrounded herself with experts from various fields. Ministers in her cabinet existed only because it was required in a democracy. She kept them bridled. Now the ministers are free of bridles and can speak anything,” says Pazha Karupaiah.

4. The Mutiny of Mr Loyalty

The volte-face by deputy chief minister O Panneerselvam was arguably the most interesting of all the dramas unfolding since Jayalalithaa’s death. Jayalalithaa had handpicked O Paneerselvam on two occasions – in 2001 and 2011 – to be the stand-in chief minister when she had to step down due to court cases. On both occasions, it was widely believed that Jayalalithaa was rewarding him for his staunch loyalty. On both occasions, Panneerselvam turned out to be ‘deserving’ of the reward. by being more loyal. Not once did he overstep or assert his ‘power’. Sasikala clearly expected to command a similar loyalty when she made him CM for the third time on the fateful night of 5 December 2016.

In two months time, he was in deep meditation at Jayalalithaa’s memorial, communing with Amma for wisdom. His tirade against Sasikala and her family on 8 February 2017 was not just unexpected, it was explosive. The drama began to unfold days after Sasikala decided to occupy the chief minister’s post, forcing OPS to quit. Two days after the decision, OPS visited Jayalalithaa’s memorial and after a 40-minute meditation, told mediapersons that he had been forced to resign and was ‘humiliated while holding the high office’. He said that Sasikala was ‘annoyed’ by his government’s work during cyclone Vardah.

“He did enjoy considerable public support even after that,” reasons Durai Karuna, a seasoned journalist with three decades of experience covering the AIADMK. “He was still seen as someone loyal to Jayalalithaa. But when he agreed to a merger with the Palaniswami faction, largely seen as influenced by the BJP, he lost it. Despite his obvious lack of charisma, OPS could have led the AIADMK. He had this next-door image about himself and he could have easily won people’s hearts. But he no longer enjoys the goodwill of the public.” Apsara Reddy calls the ‘last-minute U-turn by O Panneerselvam ‘unexpected and unfortunate’.

Tamil Nadu CM K Palaniswami with deputy chief minister O Panneerselvam and party senior leaders pay floral tributes to AIADMK supremo J Jayalalithaa's memorial in Chennai. (PTI FILE)

5. The BJP gets swagger

Since 1998, the BJP has been trying to gain a foothold in the state by aligning with either of the two Dravidian majors. But, aside from a few pockets like Kanyakumari and Coimbatore, the party has not been able to fare well. When the Modi wave swept the country in the 2014 elections, the BJP managed to win only one seat in Tamil Nadu.

In Jayalalithaa’s death, the BJP perhaps saw an opportunity to strengthen the party in the state. Leaders like Pazha Karupaiah allege that the BJP uses the ruling party for its own ends.

Marudhu Azhaguraj says the AIADMK (EPS-OPS faction) is now controlled by the BJP. “Till Amma was alive, the BJP was kept at bay. Today, the party is unleashing its authority over the AIADMK.” Observers like him feel that the BJP is using the vacuum created by Jayalalithaa’s death to establish its roots in the state. “The local body elections, whenever that happens, will offer the BJP a chance to strengthen its roots in the state. The AIADMK is offering the opportunity to them on a platter.”

“It is precisely why the BJP doesn’t want someone like Sasikala (madam) to be in power. But she is no pushover,” says Apsara Reddy.

Observers point to the fact that in May 2017, Venkaiah Naidu – then a Union minister – had visited the state secretariat to review the schemes. While Naidu maintained it was ‘apolitical’, detractors called it a challenge to the federal structure of the country. Till she was alive, Jayalalithaa had also actively resisted central government schemes like NEET, UDAY and the national food security Act. Most of these were passed soon after Jayalalithaa’s death.

6. The Governor gets swagger

The inspection of a central government scheme – implementation of Swachh Bharat in Coimbatore – by Governor Banwarilal Purohit is the latest development that strengthens the arguments of the detractors. Except for Channa Reddy in the 1990s, whom she had accused of misbehaving with her, Jayalalithaa had a cordial relationship with most governors during her tenure. Purohit’s predecessor Vidya Sagar Rao took over just before Jayalalithaa was hospitalised.

While the governor’s office offered an explanation, insisting that he would continue to do such inspections since it was not ‘illegal’ and ‘it had nothing to do with the Central government’, Delhi-based lawyer S Prasanna, refutes this. “Implementation of welfare schemes is clearly a government function in which the governor has no role except signing contracts as required on the advice of the chief minister. Every governor is supposed to act under the aid and advice of the council of ministers. The 1973 Shamsher Singh vs State of Punjab case makes it very clear. The circumstances under which he can use discretion as against the advice of ministers are very limited,” he says.

“No Union minister or governor would go about inspecting schemes if Jayalalithaa was at the helm,” argues Durai Karuna.

7. The End of Big, Strong Leaders

Since its inception in 1972, the AIADMK had strong leaders with charisma that could be translated into votes. Backed by a solid film career that helped them reach millions of cinema-crazy Tamils, both MGR and Jayalalithaa enjoyed a sort of cult status in the state. “The AIADMK leaders today think that they still command that vote base, since they have won the two leaves symbol. The symbol has a significance, yes, but you need a face to take it forward. MGR and Jayalalithaa were the kind of faces that struck a chord with the public. They were loved by the masses. You cannot think of another such leader in the AIADMK today” says journalist Karuna.

Marudhu Azhaguraj agrees: “I don’t think either of them – EPS, OPS or Dinakaran – will be able to save this party. We need a new leader. The party needs a miracle and as a cadre, I believe it will happen.”

Karuna is not so hopeful though. He says the vacuum will remain. “Yes, Karunanidhi has also left a vacuum by his inactivity but the leader had a clear plan for the DMK after him. Jayalalithaa, perhaps, did not want the party to survive after her.”

To many observers, the AIADMK seems to be heading towards a disaster. “The party has no clear leadership. I don’t think Edappadi too can make a great leader for the party. The party will probably sustain as long as the government runs. Once the government falls, at least 30 to 40 percent of leaders would either join the DMK or the BJP. It is sad that when the party is celebrating the centenary of its founder MG Ramachandran, it is on the verge of a collapse” says Karuna.

Just 12 months and Tamil Nadu’s political landscape is virtually unrecognisable. And the play is far from over.

(In arrangement with GRIST MEDIA)