On the night of September 22, the route from Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa’s Poes Garden residence to the Apollo Hospital on Greams Road in Chennai saw a flurry of activity. Jayalalithaa was rushed to hospital and admitted, with little information given out about her ailment. Over a month has passed and she remains on the second floor of the Apollo Hospital, attended to by international specialists as well as a team of doctors from the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), Delhi, flown in especially for her.
The hospital’s medical bulletins gave only snatches of information away - lung infection, dehydration, fever and so on. The bulletins too have now stopped - no information reaches the people about how the chief minister is doing. Rumours, though, have flown thick and fast and seven people have been arrested by the Tamil Nadu police so far for spreading false information about Jayalalithaa’s health.
For those familiar with Tamil Nadu’s political landscape, this is hardly news. The lack of information under the Jayalalithaa regime is par for the course. What is interesting though, is how tight a ship the headless ruling party is.
On October 12, governor-in-charge C Vidyasagar Rao stated that finance minister O Panneerselvam would take over the portfolios held by the hospitalised Chief Minister, although she retained the top seat. A few days later, OPS (as Panneerselvam is better known) quietly held cabinet meetings with Jayalalithaa’s photograph prominently displayed in front of him and the chief minister’s seat conspicuously vacant.
The message was clear - it was business as usual.Well, almost. Ministers continue to attend to their duties by day and spend their evenings at Apollo Hospital, although they are unable to meet or even see their leader. Advisor to the Tamil Nadu government, Sheela Balakrishnan, along with chief secretary Rama Mohana Rao play crucial roles in keeping the bureaucratic flock together, while OPS shows his younger colleagues how to behave by example.
“As far as the ruling party, the AIADMK [All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam], is concerned, it has been a party with an authoritarian leadership from the beginning,” political analyst Aazhi Senthilnathan said. “There is only one single power centre in the party. So there will be no change in the party leadership or functioning. [To] date, it continues to be this way, even though their Amma [Jayalalithaa’s moniker] is in hospital,” he added.
The unwavering loyalty of OPS
OPS has been Jayalalithaa’s ‘go to’ loyalist for some years now. When she was forced to step down as the chief minister in 2001 as the courts quashed her appointment, it was OPS who stood in for her. For those six months, he refused to sit in the chief minister’s chair, sitting instead on another placed reverently near it.
In September 2014, OPS ascended to chief ministership once again as his leader was convicted in the Rs 56 crore disproportionate assets case by a trial court in Bengaluru. This time, he, along with other ministers, openly wept at their swearing-in ceremony. OPS did not even occupy the chief minister’s room, preferring to perform his duties from the finance minister’s office itself for the whole eight months of his tenure.
Now OPS is back at the helm, doing what he does best - keeping the AIADMK flock, used to orders from Poes Garden, together and ensuring that no one gets too ambitious from within.
“OPS is known for his quiet, calm efficacy, right from his early days in politics,” a senior AIADMK leader, who did not wish to be named, said. “He is a non-emotional, balanced personality and is able to extract work from his team. Due to Amma’s absence, the ministers too are taking extra care to deliver speedy and effective administration. No department is lagging behind in any way,” he added.
Speedy and effective administration may be an overstatement, but political analysts agree that there are no hiccups on the bureaucratic or procedural front of state government, so far. Considering the widespread criticism faced by the AIADMK regime under OPS from September 2014 to May 2015, with friends and critics alike frowning upon the lack of administration in the state, the current status quo, experts say, is something of a pleasant surprise.
Paving the way for the loyalist?
This smooth handling of a crisis likely has its roots in the run-up to the May 2016 assembly polls in Tamil Nadu. In April, Jayalalithaa released a list of candidates that confounded political analysts - party heavyweights like former electricity minister Natham Viswanathan and former transport minister Senthil Balaji, both seen as sure winners in their original seats of Natham and Karur respectively, were asked to contest Athoor and Aravakurichi constituencies instead. Both of them were pitted against DMK heavyweights - virtually unwinnable seats. Other ministers such as P Palaniappan and Mukkur Subramanian were refused tickets altogether. All of these leaders were seen as small power centres within the party in the previous AIADMK regime.
In light of the developments of the past month, political analysts now feel that Jayalalithaa’s candidate selection could well have been done pave the way for OPS to take charge unchallenged from within the party, considering the potential crisis of the immediate future at hand.
“She was unwell and also the DA verdict is pending in Supreme Court,” analyst Senthilnathan said. “So she could have tried to ensure that the path is smooth for OPS in case he had to take over as chief minister again. But you must also not forget that she did not actually dump these strongmen totally - she simply changed their constituencies, thereby sending out a message that they are not totally out in the cold,” he added.
The DMK too agrees. “OPS is the most dependable person amongst the lot,” laughed TKS Elangovan, Rajya Sabha MP and spokesperson for the party. “But this is how the AIADMK functions. The rare people in the party who are capable of good administration - like Panruti Ramachandran and Ponnaiyan [former ministers in the late chief minister MG Ramachandran’s cabinet] - with good experience and skills have been sidelined. So has Sengottaiyan, another former minister who is a capable administrator. Those who are capable of performing within the current administration do not want to perform, because they feel that they will be out of favour if they do,” he said.
Elangovan added that the party’s style of functioning - of keeping its lens on a single face and brand, that of Jayalalithaa, is likely the reason for such manouevres. “I think people at the helm of affairs do not want people who are capable of performing in ministerial posts,” he added. “The reason is that they may come up and come to the limelight or may become popular,” he explained.
So OPS it is. The senior AIADMK leader says that Jayalalithaa is speaking now and is able to consume semi-solid food. “The intensive physiotherapy being given by two lady physiotherapists from Singapore is really helping her,” he said. “She would like to go back home for some rest, but doctors are advising her to rest at the hospital itself for another week or a fortnight,” he said.
The verdict on an appeal in the Supreme Court against Jayalalithaa’s acquittal in the DA case in the Karnataka high court, following a conviction in the trial court, is awaited. It is expected that the orders will be pronounced next month, although no date has been specified. If the verdict goes against Jayalalithaa, she faces a jail term of four years and a fine of Rs 100 crore, as pronounced by the trial court originally. Lawyers say that bail, this time, would be much tougher to get. It would also mean that she would have to relinquish the post of the chief minister once again. OPS, the most loyal of them all, would once again likely have to take over the reins, as stand-in CM, if this scenario comes to pass.
An opposition with no battles
With a headless ruling party, politics usually comes into play after the initial murmurs of sympathy. The DMK though, according to experts, appears to be floundering for issues, even as the AIADMK holds its flock together.
The DMK’s heir apparent and Leader of the Opposition in the Tamil Nadu assembly, MK Stalin, issued an appeal to all parties to meet to show solidarity in the boiling row with neighbouring Karnataka over sharing of Cauvery river water. The meeting took place on October 25, but apart from a few fringe political parties, most other mainstream parties in the state did not attend. Vijaykanth’s Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK), S Ramadoss’ Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) and Vaiko’s Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) gave it a miss. Thol Thirumavalavan’s Viduthalai Siruthaigal Katchi (VCK) as well as the Left parties too did not attend, although Thirumavalavan sent Stalin a letter expressing his regret at not being able to do so, stating that political compulsions kept him away. The Left parties sent representatives from their farmers’ wing to the meeting.
“It was not an all-party meeting,” Elangovan said. “Even some of their own allies did not participate.”
The DMK denied that their Cauvery meeting was a damp squib.
“The entire Opposition of the state government has taken part,” the senior DMK leader said.
“Almost all farmer associations have participated. This was a meeting for farmers. It cannot be called a failure. The other parties don’t have much of a role in state politics. That has been proven in the last election,” he argued.
The DMK and its allies form the Opposition, with a total of 98 MLAs in the House.
Political experts though say that with the AIADMK in power with a comfortable majority - 133 out of 231 seats (bypolls are scheduled in 3 more seats) - political realignment is not likely to take place in the near future at least. “As far as the DMK is concerned, the power equations remain the same within the party,” Senthilnathan explained. “That is a party with multiple power centres and it has its pushes and pulls from within. Other parties feel that there is no point in attending an all-party meeting convened by the DMK since the party and its politics remain the same.”
The last laugh for now, perhaps, is from a seemingly strong ruling party, which, although headless, marches on quietly, guided by the biggest loyalist of them all. “They [the DMK] can do nothing,” Elangovan said firmly. “Even when MGR was hospitalised, the government and party functioned smoothly. Amma is in better health than MGR was at that time. We are the largest party in the state with 1.5 crore members and with a branch in every hamlet. Our presence is huge and we are very popular. No political party can give a challenge to us,” he said confidently.
Famous last words? Maybe. But then again, maybe not.
(Published in arrangement with GRIST Media)