Uneasy lies the head

Illustration: Surendra   | Photo Credit: surendra

It has been a little more than two months since the demise of Jayalalithaa. The veil of secrecy drawn around her in her final days generated as much angst amongst the masses of her supporters, especially in the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), as it fuelled speculation over the cause of her death, including suspicions of foul play.

Even as she battled for life for 75 days, her nonagenarian rival, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) supremo M. Karunanidhi fell seriously ill. He recuperated, but he’s no longer in the thick of public and party affairs. With the exit of these two titans of Tamil Nadu politics, leaders who shaped the very destiny of the State for nearly half a century, the power vacuum within both parties had to be filled quickly.

For the DMK, a succession plan has been in place for years, and so it was a fairly smooth transition for “Thalapathy” M.K. Stalin to step into the shoes of the “Thalaivar”, his father, by taking over as working president of the party. He now has more than four years to build momentum for his party to bid for power in the next Assembly election. Mr. Stalin’s prospects hinge as much on being able to rally DMK troops across the State as adroitly as his father used to, as they do on getting the DMK to be a smart opposition party, drawing attention to the failings of the AIADMK government.

Questions of timing

This brings us to the travails of V.K. Sasikala, Jayalalithaa’s long-time confidant and presumed backseat influencer, whose foray into the arena of official power has been dramatic yet purposeful.


At the present juncture she occupies an unenviable position in Tamil Nadu politics: she has clearly carved out a niche for herself at the very heart of the AIADMK, yet is regarded with an element of distaste by the wider cohort of party cadres and the general public.

Why, with the impending verdict of the Supreme Court in the disproportionate assets case, did she make a bid for the Chief Minister’s office last weekend? One argument is that if she had attempted this manoeuvre any earlier, her intentions toward Jayalalithaa and Tamil Nadu would have been seen to be suspect and she may have risked strengthening the hands of potential rivals.

Read: V.K. Sasikala: From soul sister to party leader

On the flip side, waiting too much longer would have allowed public opinion to crystallise firmly around O. Panneerselvam, who served as the incumbent Chief Minister until Ms. Sasikala saw fit to claim the throne last weekend. Indeed matters may have come to a head already after Mr. Panneerselvam registered his protest at Jayalalithaa’s memorial on Tuesday night.

Leaving aside the risky gambit of seeking the chief ministership when a judicial axe could cut that ambition short in a matter of days, Ms. Sasikala may have also weakened her position by failing to capitalise on last month’s remarkable “jallikattu movement”.

Had she stepped into the fight confidently but humbly, for example through visible pleas to Prime Minister Narendra Modi for an expedient, favourable solution to the stalemate between the proponents of the bull-taming sport and animal rights activists, that may have been a golden opportunity to firm up her credentials with the people of Tamil Nadu, regardless of the judicial outcome.

Instead she squandered that opportunity and has double-faulted on her strategy by being seen to be pre-empting the Supreme Court verdict due next week. If she survives that ruling, Ms. Sasikala’s future would however look immeasurably brighter, with no small thanks due to Jayalalithaa’s parting gift of last May’s sweeping Assembly election victory.

That win would bestow Ms. Sasikala with more than four years to accumulate political capital and the goodwill of Tamil Nadu’s electorate, the logical next step after she consolidates intra-party support. It cannot be overlooked that in the short span of time since Jayalalithaa’s death on December 5, 2016, Ms. Sasikala worked assiduously to ensure that the highest few rungs of the AIADMK were won over to her side.

Building bridges

This was particularly salient for leaders of the Gounder caste who may have potentially been engulfed by insecurity about the direction in which policy and resource allocation would tilt under a Thevar Chief Minister.

Among these leaders, K.A. Sengottaiyan, a member of the AIADMK since the time of M.G. Ramachandran, a staunch Jayalalithaa loyalist, and a widely respected leader of Erode district, was apparently upset about being excluded from the Cabinet headed by Mr. Panneerselvam. Having been side-lined earlier by Jayalalithaa, he hoped to return as a Minister after her death. Upon learning of his dissatisfaction Ms. Sasikala convinced him to back her, and in a deft move she thus neutralised the biggest stumbling block to her aspirations.

Ms. Sasikala also benefitted from serendipitous shifts of mood with some prominent AIADMK leaders, such as Lok Sabha Deputy Speaker M. Thambidurai. A Gounder and veteran party man, he had hoped to step into Jayalalithaa’s shoes. When that did not happen, he chose to dislodge Mr. Panneerselvam by openly pleading with Ms. Sasikala to take over as Chief Minister.

In certain cases, however, Ms. Sasikala will have to carry on the campaign to blunt criticism by her colleagues. K.P. Munusamy, a Vanniyar leader from Krishnagiri district, is one such AIADMK leader. Ms. Sasikala appealed to him to remain in the party despite his dissatisfaction over his position, and he initially relented. Yet he went on to become the first open challenger to her rise when he hit out at her brother and husband for interfering in party affairs. She has thus far refrained from acting against him.

The down-side of these Machiavellian machinations is a hardening of the public perception of Ms. Sasikala and her family as manipulators, which is perhaps undeserved in some respects.

First, almost all successful Tamil politicians, including Jayalalithaa and Mr. Karunanidhi, have in some shape or form engaged in what may be termed as “manipulation”. If not, why do judicial cases and the police machinery turn adversely against a leader who has lost an election to a bitter rival? Why do political opponents and dissenters sometimes suddenly go quiet? Have no Tamil politicians enriched themselves personally while in office?

The highest irony of this state of affairs is that the Tamil Nadu electorate has often indulged its leaders these excesses from time to time, even as it has punished them on occasion with a crushing swing defeat in Assembly elections.

Caste and welfare policies

From a political economy perspective, what makes Tamil Nadu unique is its penchant for empowering leaders who quickly centralise political power in their own hands, either through sheer force of the personality cults that they build around themselves or based on party discipline and organisational prowess.

The deeper factor driving this trend is the State’s caste distribution, which is highly dispersed, which implies that, historically, only centralised political power has ensured that resources earmarked for mass welfare schemes, the mainstay of governance in Tamil Nadu, are effectively allocated down the line of an efficient bureaucracy, instead of getting frittered away as “rent” to political factions and local bosses.

In that regard the self-elevation of Ms. Sasikala is perfectly in line with the history of Dravidian party leadership, as is the consanguinity-based rise of Mr. Stalin.

Indeed, she lacks the formal governance experience of many other capable leaders around her, yet she will have to reckon with winning a seat in the State Assembly within six months of being sworn in as Chief Minister, and will then have time to build up her credentials in that regard.

Equally it is a valid criticism that she likely ruled from the shadows during the years of Jayalalithaa’s reign, and it is not known how rapacious any government helmed by her would be.

However, the fact that she is no worse than so many other Tamil leaders who’ve sought to rule the State should give pause to those who seek to demonise her in these early days. That she fits the profile of Tamil Nadu’s past leaders, each of them a powerful, centralising figure, much more than the genuflection-prone Mr. Panneerselvam, cannot be overlooked.

The last thing that the State needs is the persisting cloud of uncertainty that now hangs over Fort St. George. The willingness to carry on playing Musical Chairs in politics should be measured against the risk of instability in a State that is still coming to grips with the string of shocks that it has faced in recent times.


The article was edited for a factual error. It had erroneously mentioned Mr. M.K. Stalin as an acting president of the DMK. It should have been working president.  It had also wrongly referred to Mr. K.P. Munusamy as a Gounder leader. He belongs to the Vanniyar community.

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Printable version | Jan 19, 2021 10:05:03 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/Uneasy-lies-the-head/article17242923.ece

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