'OPS vs. Sasikala' | Dents in democracy

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Even as the political developments in Tamil Nadu are glazed over by a shroud of mystery, they reveal systemic discrepancies within India's style of Representative Democracy.

O. Panneerselvam and V.K. Sasikala were both presumably in the late Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa's inner circle. Is this a déjà vu of a battle between heirs or pure politics? | V. Ganesan

It has all the makings of a blockbuster or political thriller — the intrigue, the drama, the twists and turns that are bizarre and breathtaking at the same time, even as it draws us to the edge of our seats.

Except that it’s not fiction. It’s real. Very real. Even as Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous State, goes to the polls, the shenanigans of Tamil Nadu's political elite have managed to usurp the headlines from what many pundits would have otherwise referred to as the biggest and most crucial State legislative assembly elections in the country.

As is often the case, the questions outnumber the answers. How did this happen? Assuming Paneerselvam's version of events is accurate, how exactly was he ‘forced’ to resign? What power was wielded over him to coerce him? And what greater power emboldened him to speak out against it a few days later? How could one who had never contested an election, lead a party filled with seasoned politicians? How could someone without any experience in any form of government be considered qualified to be Chief Minister? Would things be any different if the next legislative assembly election was 4 months away, instead of being four years away?

How can any self-respecting politician make a U-turn in a matter of days? Whichever side wins, how much trust can really exist among colleagues? Even after emerging victorious from this trial by fire, is it possible to run a functional government when the Chief Minister looks around the Cabinet room at a bunch of people, some of whom were actively involved in a conspiracy of treachery?

Unless a party is successful in creating a ‘larger-than-life’ leader, it is much harder to win an Indian election and hold onto power with any sort of stability and consequently perhaps, a culture of sycophancy and cult-imagery has always plagued Indian politics.

 

We will never know the truth. We have already heard a few different versions of it and, in the days to come, we may well hear a few more. Conspiracy theories are junk food for the brain — fun but not conducive to fruitful deliberation. As tempting as it may be, it is pointless to indulge in conjecture, without basis.

So what do we know? Based on spot polls conducted online and on social media — which can be indicative and not always definitive — it wouldn't be unreasonable to assume that a majority of Tamil Nadu's electorate believes that Paneerselvam has a more legitimate claim to form government. The support from Sasikala has been almost exclusively from within sections of her party. Of course, the pro-Sasikala camp would say that online polls are not indicative of the true mood of the electorate because only one in three citizens has access to the Internet, or that the sample is not sizeable enough, or too skewed and not representative enough — and these are, statistically speaking, valid concerns.

But these polls aren't a quantitative exercise which even needs to stand up to academic rigour — they are at best, a dipstick to indicate the mood of the electorate. The real fact of the matter is that politicians are exceptionally skillful at discrediting any information that doesn't flatter them. When the results of online polling are as resounding and unequivocal as they have been, the pro-Sasikala camp has had little choice but to attribute the findings to a conspiracy, or to discredit the process.

As was the case with MGR when he was alive, or even with Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party, elections are usually swayed by the popularity of individuals projected to lead the government. I suspect that much of the ire and opposition to Sasikala stems from the fact that many who cast their vote for the AIADMK in the last election, were in their minds, voting for Jayalalithaa. And therein lies a systemic disconnect.

The systemic disconnect

Our parliamentary system of government demands that we vote for an MP or MLA. The party with the most number of victorious candidates — and consequently a majority in the House — forms a government. In practice, however, studies have shown that most people vote based on whom they would want to see leading the government. Many voters don't even know the name of the MP or MLA that they will be voting for until they reach the booth. Many forget it soon after.

The strengths or weaknesses of individual candidates don't really matter; perhaps this is one of the reasons why political parties in India have gotten away with fielding as many candidates with criminal records as they have — it’s a nice way of doing a favour to an ally or friend in return for dubious favours rendered, and most voters don’t bother doing background checks on the legislators that they are actually voting for anyway, so there is little to lose.

 

The face of the party, the proposed head of government, however, is the all important ticket to power because voters vote as if they are voting in a Presidential system of government. Unless a party is successful in creating a ‘larger-than-life’ leader, it is much harder to win an Indian election and hold onto power with any sort of stability and consequently perhaps, a culture of sycophancy and cult-imagery has always plagued Indian politics.

The flip side of cult imagery and iron-fisted leadership is an occasional, albeit inevitable crisis of legitimacy and authority — specifically, when the head of government dies, or has been the victim of a mutinous coup, or is unable to finish their term for whatever reason after having won the election and secured a term in power for his or her party. Tamil Nadu has seen such power struggles before and will, no doubt, encounter such situations in the future as well. Jayalalithaa herself took control of the party after an intense power struggle to establish her legitimacy as MGR's political successor.

Politics works on perception and perception doesn't require proof. Unfortunately, in the public eye, reputations can be crucified by innuendo and slain by slander.

 

Perhaps India's parliamentary system of democracy is out of sync with the prevailing voter mentality and voting patterns. Presidential democracy has its own problems and inherent systemic flaws, so there aren't any easy or perfect solutions, but perhaps the time has come to debate and maybe even re-evaluate the framework of our democracy.

Contrasting corners

After Jayalalithaa’s death, based on online polling data, it would be reasonable to assume that Panneerselvam's CV — career politician, Finance minister and a loyal caretaker Chief Minister in the past — seems to be more acceptable when compared to the candidacy of a lady whose proximity and access to power was never really understood or explained, a lady who remained a looming, mysterious figure, simultaneously enigmatic, ruthless and fearsome. Politics works on perception and perception doesn't require proof. Unfortunately, in the public eye, reputations can be crucified by innuendo and slain by slander.

Sasikala's name was associated with many of the controversies and trial proceedings that Jayalalithaa was involved in. They were both co-accused in a few cases. Yet, based purely on conjecture, hearsay and innuendo, Sasikala is often perceived or portrayed as the villain, the mastermind, while Jayalalithaa’s perceived transgressions were more easily ignored or forgiven. Unfair? Yes. Inconsistent? Yes. But then, no one ever said that public life was fair or consistent.

Perhaps the brazenness of the visuals and their symbolism angered voters and some sections of the AIADMK — like the clips of Sasikala waving to party cadre from the balcony of the AIADMK office, wearing Jayalalithaa's trademark green saree, or even the fact that she now lives in the house that Jayalalithaa built in her mother's name — the very same residence that Sasikala was expelled from a few years ago when she fell out with Jayalalithaa.

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam sits in a posture of meditation in front of late Jayalalithaa's burial site at the Marina Beach in Chennai on Tuesday. | PTI

In contrast, O Panneerselvam, even as Chief Minister, kept a low profile, in keeping with the public perception of his personality. In spite of occupying Jayalalithaa's chair, he made no attempt to channelise Jayalalithaa's authority, personality or dominance. An attempt to invoke or pay homage to Jayalalithaa's name is recognised as a plausible political tactic, whereas an attempt to reincarnate Jayalalithaa is a much riskier proposition and could backfire. Irrespective of how this power struggle ends, perhaps Sasikala will reflect on some of those decisions with regret.

Even as she fights hard, with everything to lose, she maintains an admirable sense of confidence and assured poise in her interaction with the media. Her actions, however, speak another language. There are rumours of MLAs being sequestered, held against their will, even as the Sasikala camp insists that they enjoy almost universal support. There were reports of Sasikala herself joining her MLAs in their sequestered resort in an attempt to stem the flow of defection to the Paneerselvam camp. It is premature and perhaps even unfair to make comparisons, but it is hard to imagine Jayalalithaa rushing out to a resort in the wilderness in damage-control mode.

Trusting the bandwagon

Defection is a bit like a panic-driven Bear Run in the stock market. Once people notice a trend, they will jump on the bandwagon, to make sure they aren't stuck on the losing side. They will assume that others who have jumped before them must have had strong reasons for doing so and that there is strength in numbers. In the jungle of political life, there are no prizes for courage and loyalty if you end up on the losing side.

Irrespective of the outcome of this titanic battle, the memory that will stay with me is the image of Panneerselvam 'meditating' at Jayalalithaa's memorial. Perhaps he needed to give his aides time to assemble the media. Perhaps, his aides needed a time window to make a few phone calls to lobby for support before the news story broke. Or perhaps, it was an attempt to create a dramatic, emotional image that would find favour with the electorate. Or maybe, just maybe, it was a window of time, a precious few minutes before his life would change forever. I do not know what emboldened him — whether there were assurances and promises of support, or whether he is a pawn in a larger game of chess, but I can easily sympathise with a man, known to be a risk-averse loyalist, trying to eke out a few minutes of respite, to calm himself and prepare himself for the biggest gamble of his political career.

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