The Stand-in Stands out

India Today - - COVER STORY - O. Pan­neer­sel­vam at Jay­alalithaa’s me­mo­rial in Chennai be­fore the re­bel­lion, Feb. 7

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.

JAI­SON G.

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