Ryszard Kapuscinski, the great Polish journalist, begins his classic Travels with Herodotus with a story. In a suggestive lesson that he imparts to a fellow Greek dictator, Thrasybulus of Miletus walks him through a field of crops. Without uttering a direct word, every time he sees an ear of grain standing higher than the rest, he lops it off. The best of the crop is thus destroyed leaving behind the mediocre and average.
Jayalalithaa, who passed away on Monday night, was known to be an avid reader. One is not sure if she had read Herodotus. But there is little doubt that she practised Thrasybulus’s lesson perfectly. In contrast to her mentor M.G. Ramachandran (MGR), who attracted a bevy of talent disillusioned with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) under M. Karunanidhi, Jayalalithaa shuffled party hierarchy with the quickness of a child bored with her toys. What does her death portend for the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), the party founded by MGR and revived spectacularly by Jayalalithaa after a vertical split following his death?
First among unequals
In party propaganda Jayalalithaa was referred to as ‘ niranthara pothu cheyalalar ’ (the permanent general secretary) — the AIADMK never had a party president in keeping with C.N. Annadurai’s conviction that Periyar E.V. Ramasamy alone qualified to be ‘ thalaivar’ , president. Unlike in the DMK which until not too long ago conducted bitterly fought inner-party elections, the AIADMK went through the motions only to keep to the letter of the Representation of the People Act. Over the years, the DMK’s district secretaries became hereditary regional satraps, but in the AIADMK itself, they held power during the will and pleasure of the general secretary.
Jayalalithaa’s unchallenged control over the party underpinned her not infrequent ideological pendulum swings. From her original abhorrence of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and its separatist demands to May 2009 when she promised the Tamil electorate an independent Eelam, there was scarcely a murmur in the party.
While her political opponents fumbled to rationalise their decisions, Jayalalithaa could switch positions without batting an eyelid. Alliance partners loved this as it ensured near-complete vote transfer. No party functionary dared defy her decisions. Another fallout was the avenues for upward mobility for cadres lower down the line. Who really remembers the names of district secretaries or even ministers from the AIADMK!
That Jayalalithaa belonged to a caste with a numerical minority gave her a liminal position; she could win support across castes and communities — this despite the disproportionate share of political power she delivered to dominant castes such as the Mukkulathor and Kongu Vellalars. Yet she could break many of the pieties of received wisdom. When she divested the respected Ayyaru Vandayar of his ministership within weeks, nobody even noticed. She could also field a Dalit candidate (‘Dalit’ Ezhilmalai) in a general constituency and ensure his victory.
What is the future of a party after such an unquestioned leader?
In search of a leader
If the people at the head of Jayalalithaa’s funeral bier is any indication, Sasikala and her large extended Mannargudi family are in control at the moment. What political ambitions she, her estranged husband, and the many nephews and nieces nurture is not known. Will the family’s hold continue?
O. Panneerselvam has been anointed, for a third time, as Chief Minister. On the first two occasions he reinforced rather than tried to dispel the view that he was little more than a makeweight. At this moment, however, he is a studied choice. Evidently no one wants to upset the applecart. By sticking to a choice made by Jayalalithaa herself in 2001, and repeated in 2014, tongues will not wag.
Over the last two decades, the AIADMK has come to be dominated by Mukkulathors and Kongu Vellalars. The closely fought May 2016 elections, which gave Jayalalithaa a historic win, were decisively swung by the western belt of Tamil Nadu dominated by the Kongu Vellalars. The community has felt shortchanged but who will dare show any sign of displeasure to Amma? It is unlikely that they will keep mum now.
It is barely six months since the AIADMK was returned to power. The victory margins were low, and what divides the ruling party and the opposition is a thin majority. The anti-defection law can be trusted to keep horse trading at bay. No one wants another election so soon. These conditions will ensure the status quo is maintained. But how long can this continue? There is little danger of a split now. But the question that the AIADMK will have to face very soon is: who will be its crowd-puller and vote-catcher?
At this moment the biggest asset is the twin leaves symbol. Any force that wants to inherit Jayalalithaa’s mantle would have to retain this goose that has a history of laying golden eggs. A split would therefore have to be avoided at all costs. And splits are no intra-party matter.
Opportunity for the Opposition
In possibly an augury of a welcome change in Tamil Nadu’s political culture, DMK leaders M. Karunanidhi, M.K. Stalin and Kanimozhi have acted with great dignity at this moment. But political struggles will soon begin. The DMK believes it snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in May and is still licking its wounds. It is not likely that it will be a mute spectator as the AIADMK sets its house in order. While Mr. Karunanidhi’s experience will count a great deal, the challenge will also test Mr. Stalin’s political skills.
In the drama that unfolds, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) may not exactly be the Prince of Denmark. But any analysis that does not factor the BJP’s ambitions is surely off the mark. Over the 75 days that Jayalalithaa was in hospital, the government of Tamil Nadu changed its stance on issues ranging from the National Food Security Act to the National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test. One cannot discount the BJP’s hidden hand. Without a majority in the Rajya Sabha, the BJP is still dependent on the AIADMK. A pliable AIADMK will suit Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s interests admirably.
More importantly, Tamil Nadu remains the last bastion that Hindutva is unable to breach. An ideologically driven BJP will look to capitalise on the political vacuum resulting from Jayalalithaa’s absence. In a striking parallel, the Congress was in an analogous position in Tamil Nadu following MGR’s death in December 1987; it bungled. Jayalalithaa, for all her nationalist leanings, served the cause of the Dravidian movement by wresting and then consolidating MGR’s legacy. The BJP undoubtedly senses an opportunity. Will a leader emerge to stop the BJP in its tracks? The political future of Tamil Nadu now hinges on one question.
Will the AIADMK implode? If yes, when and how? If not, why?
A.R. Venkatachalapathy is a historian of the Dravidian movement.