When she appeared in the balcony of her T Nagar house in Chennai on January 8, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) workers gathered outside, discussed how Deepa Jayakumar, 42, bore a striking resemblance to her aunt and their leader J Jayalalithaa or Amma. She had draped her saree just like the former chief minister used to and waved two fingers — a trademark Jayalalithaa greeting at political rallies denoting the party’s symbol of two leaves — at the crowd.
The optics and the symbolism did not end there. Soon enough, posters of the aunt and niece appeared across the state. Deepa appeared to have been recast in the image of Jayalalithaa, who died on December 5.
Then on January 17 in Chennai, the day the AIADMK observed its founder MG Ramachandran’s birth anniversary, Deepa announced she would enter politics and laid claim to her aunt’s political legacy — saying she would not tolerate anyone else in jayalalithaa’s position.
But whether she would join the AIADMK or launch a party would be announced only on February 24, Jayalalithaa’s birth anniversary. “I just want to make this landmark change in my life on a very special day,” she said in an interview on NDTV. “The AIADMK cadres are very eager — I don’t think there is anyone else and I have enough proof of it — they want me to become their leader.”
Comfortably in the driver’s seat in Tamil Nadu under Jayalalithaa after winning the 2016 assembly elections for a consecutive term, the AIADMK now finds itself in the midst of a struggle for the control of her political legacy. A struggle that, experts say, threatens to jeopardise the political future of the party.
At the other end of the rope in this tug of war is AIADMK’s newly-appointed general secretary VK Sasikala — Jayalalithaa’s close confidante of 33 years. Those years by the leader’s side gave her an insider’s view of the working of the AIADMK and ultimately the general secretary’s position on a platter. On December 31, she took charge in place of Jayalalithaa after the party general council unanimously passed a resolution to appoint her.
With four-and-a-half years to go in government, the party’s decision was seen as expedient to retaining power and smoothly running the affairs of the state.
“Sasikala had pulled off a political coup d’etat with the help of those who want to control power in the party and protect the wealth but the people and the cadres have not consented,” says Chennai-based political analyst Prof Ramu Manivannan. “Neither do they see Deepa as an alternative.”
Amma’s niece vs her aide
The niece at best can amplify the discomfort of the cadres with Sasikala. The tussle between the two may not result in a win for either, say experts, but it could cause problems for the party.
When MGR died on December 14, 1987, the party had witnessed a succession battle between his wife, Janaki Ramachandran, and Jayalalithaa and split into two. Though she became the chief minister, Janaki’s government lasted only 22 days. In January 1989, she ceded space to Jayalalithaa and quit politics. The latter had been groomed by MGR since 1982 when he first brought her into the party.
“She had worked with MGR in the field and had her own presence, her own appeal,” explains Manivannan. Jayalalithaa used her intelligence to transcend from being a matinee idol to becoming a mass leader. Neither Sasikala nor Deepa enjoy that appeal.
Similar power struggles
Just across the street from Jayalalithaa and Sasikala’s Poes Garden residence, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) supremo K Karunanidhi’s family home Gopalapuram was in the grip of a similar power struggle a few years ago. But, the DMK patriarch settled the issue by anointing MK Stalin his successor. Initially, the elder son MK Alagiri showed signs of rebellion, but once he was relegated to Madurai, things fell in place.
But Jayalalithaa died intestate, not just without leaving a will but also without naming a political heir her followers could relate to, say experts.
“Succession is a problem in personality-led parties. Nominating a successor while the leader is still in command can solve that problem,” says Prof Bhupinder Brar, political scientist.
He cites the example of the Shiromani Akali Dal whose chief Parkash Singh Badal chose his son, Sukhbir, over the more erudite nephew, Manpreet, forcing the latter to part ways with the party and clear the way.
“Manpreet was seen as more competent but he is now in the Congress,” says Brar, drawing parallels between the SAD and Shiv Sena in Maharashtra where the cousins, Raj and Uddhav Thackeray, fought over Bal Thackeray’s political legacy.
The struggle ultimately ended in the formation of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena led by Raj which is still competing for the same political space as the Sena under Uddhav. With siblings dotting the political firmament, legacy war are clearly here to stay.