Transfer of loyalty

With Jayalalithaa passing away, the AIADMK’s internal political dynamic left the party with no other choice than her close personal aide V.K. Sasikala, who is only a moment’s call away from becoming chief minister

Updated - December 04, 2021 10:50 pm IST

Published - January 13, 2017 12:15 am IST

Illustration: Keshav

Illustration: Keshav

It has been more than a month since Jayalalithaa, the redoubtable former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, died after a cardiac arrest. Her demise on December 5, 2016 created a leadership vacuum in the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), which was tautly run as a single leader, mass-based party. But within a short period, in what seemed like a choreographed transition, the AIADMK simply replaced the leader who had assiduously cultivated the image of a matriarch, and who was called ‘Amma’, with her long-time personal aide, V.K. Sasikala.

Ms. Sasikala, who has also been given a moniker — ‘Chinnamma’ or younger mother — took over not just as the general secretary of the party but is being tipped to become the Chief Minister, again with well-orchestrated pleas by senior leaders of the party. The AIADMK has been at its obsequious best, extending its devotion from the deceased Jayalalithaa, who had a long public record as a party activist, Chief Minister and political leader, to Ms. Sasikala, who barely has any public record in governance or party leadership.

Devotion to the leader


Public displays of sycophancy and shows of one-upmanship by senior partymen to outdo each other in devotion to their supreme leader are not uncommon in the AIADMK. That the AIADMK has always been dependent on a single mass-based leader around whom the party’s structure and its electoral fortunes were built is also not unique among political parties in India. But what has been distinctive in the party’s approach this time, following its second serious leadership setback (the first being the death of party founder-leader M.G. Ramachandran), is the handing over of its keys to a political novice of sorts.

While the AIADMK’s leaders seem to have come around to Ms. Sasikala’s leadership rather quickly , there seems to be no such final acceptance from the party’s cadres. This is partially because of Ms. Sasikala’s chequered past as an aide of the late Chief Minister. Her extended family is known to have had an influence in the AIADMK and in power circles, acting as a buffer between the inaccessible and sheltered Jayalalithaa and the party’s cadres.

Some of its members, including Ms. Sasikala for a brief while, had been publicly asked to stay away from the corridors of power. Yet the striking presence of Ms. Sasikala’s family members during Jayalalithaa’s funeral pointed to their return to eminence under full public glare. Why did the AIADMK’s leadership warm up so easily to the idea of Ms. Sasikala’s leadership and the consequential foregrounding of her extended family’s influence despite the lack of unanimous acceptance from its cadre or support base? The answers to this question lie in the structure of the AIADMK and its political core.



Concentration of power

The party has always been structured in this manner: power flows from the image of its chief leader and a steady second rung of leadership is deliberately avoided. This structure is legitimised by the AIADMK’s performance in government as a party that is committed chiefly to fostering patronage and welfare. In fact, the politics of patronage and the construction of a messianic leader — in the case of Jayalalithaa, the elaborate emphasis of her status as a mother figure to the people of the State — is a consequence of this structure.

To have a client-patron relationship of this kind helps when the party lacks a typical organisational structure of leadership at various levels — assorted mass and class organisations catering to people on the basis of their economic or occupational interests. After all, the AIADMK, unlike the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), was constructed on the basis of the popularity of its founder-leader MGR and the presence of his fan associations across the State.


Maintaining status quo

At the same time, the AIADMK, as much as the DMK, has tried hard not to upset the dominant caste-class relations that have been set in Tamil Nadu since the 1960s. The Dravidian movement and the two parties’ presence in power for the last five decades saw the rise of land-owning Other Backward Classes to prominence. The AIADMK, despite its appeal as a party that reached out to all, is represented both in the party and in the government largely by the traditionally land-owning dominant OBC communities — the Mukkulathors (popularly known as the Thevars) and the Kongu Vellalars (Gounders).

Proximity to power and an undisturbed social landscape in an otherwise fast urbanising economy in the State helped leaders from these communities go beyond their agrarian roots to become new entrepreneurs. Several leaders from these communities have also sought to enhance their political presence beyond caste patronage — by owning and running educational institutes, for instance. It is no wonder that leaders from these communities enjoy greater power as compared to representatives from other sections. Fourteen of the 48 elected MLAs (of a total of 135) from the Mukkulathor and Gounder communities are Ministers in a 32-member Cabinet. Several of them are senior Ministers, including the Chief Minister, O. Panneerselvam.


Jayalalithaa, who did not belong to these communities, helped the party paper over the internal power dynamics among these communities as the matriarch. That she did not upset the power equations and was content to let these communities’ dominance persist helped them retain their elite status within the party and the government, even if they had no mass leaders to carry the entire party or its support base beyond select pockets of influence, especially in the southern part of the State.

Jayalalithaa’s death brought the possibility of a tussle between these communities for leadership — the Mukkulathors are over-represented in ministries (nine versus five for the Gounders) even if they have fewer MLAs (20 as compared to 28). This could well play out in the medium term, but AIADMK leaders were not keen on upsetting the apple cart this early in the party’s tenure, merely seven months following Assembly elections in May 2016.

Yet, in order to retain a semblance of the structure that Jayalalithaa fostered and perfected, the party elite had to find a replacement for her, which was a tall task. The absence of a second rung of leadership has forced the elite to turn to Ms. Sasikala, whose personal loyalty and long-time association with Jayalalithaa were her unique selling proposition. It wasn’t merely enough to turn to the other resident of ‘Veda Nilayam’ (Jayalalithaa’s house) in Poes Garden; the party had to transfer its functional loyalties en masse. Hence the renewed displays of sycophancy towards Ms. Sasikala and the elaborate takeover of a similar role by her. This is easy to do as the chain of command, with Jayalalithaa at the helm, had her trusted personal aide routing orders and requests in the background in the past.

It remains to be seen whether this charade of a transfer of loyalties will be as acceptable to the people of the State or even to the party cadre as much as it is appealing to the party’s elite. From the perspective of public interest, it is unfortunate that the current Chief Minister — an elected legislator with considerable experience — is being reduced to a figurehead even as an unelected and a hitherto private citizen with little experience seeks to call the shots.

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