The Stand-in Stands out
Every time he was elected MLA, beginning in 2001, Ottakarra Panneerselvam stood in for the AIADMK supremo, J. Jayalalithaa. In times of crises for her, as chief minister, and during the second term—2006 to 2011—as leader of the Opposition in the legislative assembly when all AIADMK MLAs were suspended from the House. So, after her death, when anointed the AIADMK legislature party leader on December 6 last year, he had hoped to continue as chief minister through his fourth term as MLA until 2021.
Nursing similar hopes, V.K. Sasikala, who first took charge as AIADMK general secretary, was determined not to give in. Sensing he is only a stand-in, Panneerselvam protested privately at first, offering to resign as chief minister in early January, but Sasikala persuaded him to continue while waiting for what her astrologers described as the opportune day— February 9. But Panneerselvam threw a spanner in the works.
In a sideshow on the night of February 7, after meditating in silence for about 40 minutes at Jayalalithaa’s grave on the Chennai seashore, Panneerselvam declared: “Only someone who has the support of all cadre of the party and the mandate of the people should take charge as CM. Only someone who can run the party efficiently and as per Amma’s wishes and keep up the good name should lead.” Sasikala, bracing to play the two-in-one role, lost no time in divesting him of the charge of AIADMK treasurer.
Having served as the nightwatchman in cricket, Panneerselvam drew sympathy not as much from the AIADMK MLAs as from others watching from outside the party. He has forged ahead shakily, revolting against Sasikala, without naming her, hoping to stage a show of strength. This, even as his narrative, redflagging Jayalalithaa’s death and appointing a judicial commission after he had resigned, sounded like the belated opportunistic moves of a classic backroom politician who had finally decided to come into his own.
At the same time, apprehensions abound. A widespread whisper campaign asserts that Sasikala upstaged Panneerselvam, has not contested an election and, therefore, the propriety of making her chief minister is questionable. “Do we have any defined qualification for a person to become the prime minister or a chief minister?” asks Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi leader Thol. Thirumavalavan. “Sasikala has been duly elected by the party MLAs.”
Nevertheless, Sasikala faces unusual opposition. Jayalalithaa’s niece Deepa Jayakumar, also a novice in electoral politics, has set her aunt’s birthday, February 24, as the deadline to announce plans to claim the political legacy. She may lead a group of those disenchanted with Sasikala after a campaign tour of the state. Observers argue that if Jayakumar is moderately successful, the DMK stands to gain.
TO REMAIN THE CHIEF MINISTER, Sasikala needs to win the popular mandate from a constituency within six months. She is unlikely to choose the obvious one—R.K. Nagar in Chennai from where Jayalalithaa was elected and from where Jayakumar intends to contest— or one from her home turf in the Cauvery delta region. The DMK will be unsparing in its targeting of Sasikala and her coterie. Moreover, the party is better organised and stronger in most urban areas than the AIADMK. Sasikala is likely to opt for a safe constituency in the state’s south, Usilampatti in Madurai or Andipatti in Theni district, where electoral fortunes are determined by the dominant Thevars.
Many political analysts are sceptical about Sasikala’s prospects. “The state as a political institution and government as representative mechanism will lose their credibility with such blatant and unapproved occupation of power,” says Ramu Manivannan, head of the political science department at the Madras University. “She could have done much more without assuming power as CM, but she wanted to enjoy and celebrate the opportunity of power by coercive tactics. Due to poor credibility, she can never convince the people.”
Elections to local bodies, due this summer, are another major challenge. Even before that, Sasikala may face a real hurdle in the legislative assembly, where a formidable DMK lineup could keep embarrassing her. Like Jayalalithaa in her early days, Sasikala may operate through a proxy like Panneerselvam as the leader of the party in the assembly. “An even greater challenge will be keeping her family members and their friends under check from interfering in the daytoday administration and policy decisions, and the unhealthy competition among them could be her real problem and undoing,” says Moorthy.
As the recent proJallikattu protests in Chennai revealed, Tamil Nadu has bigger worries. Disillusionment is high among the youth, which may result in a more rebellious stance and protests on various issues. As DMK MLA Palanivel Thiagarajan suggests, “only a seasoned leader with a proven track record” can take on the challenges ahead. Sasikala may well be biting off more than she can chew.