The AIADMK on Monday reiterated their desire to make Sasikala Natarajan, the newly appointed acting general secretary of the ruling party, chief minister of Tamil Nadu. The renewed calls by Thambidurai, Lok Sabha Deputy Speaker and propaganda secretary of the party, are hardly surprising. Dravidian parties have traditionally maintained a model which necessitates a single source of authority.
When J Jayalalithaa was alive, she continued the trend set by her predecessor MG Ramachandran, and took it to a new level. Demanding slavish loyalty from her increasingly sycophantic party leaders, while propagating herself as Amma, or mother, to her electorate, the late AIADMK chief left behind a party that could not conceive of leading itself without a supreme leader.
O Panneerselvam, the current chief minister, is infamous for his displays of loyalty, and his inability to express any form of authority. The party, equally, faces a crisis of sorts, as, for the last two decades, the ability to rise as a leader in the AIADMK was, ironically, predicated on not displaying any leadership qualities in the first place.
If Sasikala does indeed assume the position of chief minister, little will change in the day to day affairs of the state and its ruling party. But there are a few caveats.
The immediate concern of the party will be in winning over their cadres, many of whom remain, if not openly hostile towards, then at least outright suspicious of Sasikala and her family, derisively known as the ‘Mannargudi Mafia.’
If Sasikala wishes to have a secure and relatively trouble-free four years in power, then dealing with the cadres is essential.
But of equal importance will be the longer-term consequences of such an appointment. Sasikala has never held any public office, or even contested an election. Her dearth of experience will prove to be a liability by 2019, especially in the face of a more seasoned, and equally desperate, DMK, which is also set to make a change in January by appointing MK Stalin as its working president.
Her appointment will also send the wrong signals across a state whose politics has increasingly revolved around powerful caste-based vote bank politics.
The next few years may see the rise of more OBC-based political parties in the model of the PMK, especially amongst the influential Gounders of the western districts, many of whom are dissatisfied with the domination of the Thevars at the highest echelons of power.
While party leaders are confident that Sasikala as chief minister will be able to lead the AIADMK to the heights that the late Jayalalithaa managed, the reality is that, barring a significant calamity, the party is secure for the next four-and-a-half years.
The party cannot afford to rest on its laurels, however, especially with such an inexperienced leader at its helm. Come 2019, it’s highly likely the party will face internal power struggles, if not outright split.
Much will hinge on the fact that Sasikala is a complete political unknown.
As an unconvinced party cadre said on Saturday, minutes after Sasikala gave her first public speech, “She’s good. But will she be a lion like Amma (Jayalalithaa)?”