Filling the shoes of an iconic leader is never easy. Especially someone like J. Jayalalithaa, the late chief minister of Tamil Nadu, who ruled the state with an iron fist between 1991 and 2016, for a total of about 14 years over five terms. She was the unquestioned power centre in her party. The party was her and she was the party. Sadly, she did not anoint any clear successor. Hence, the power struggle for her mantle was inevitable and it has been played out in full theatrical style.
The AIADMK has been here before: when M.G. Ramachandran died in 1987. This time, the tussle is not between a wife and a protege, but a dutiful stand-in CM, Jayalalithaa’s replacement every time she was in trouble, and her long-time friend, aide and companion. One is a former
chaiwallah, the other a former video cassette parlour owner. One is a tried-and-tested administrator, who most recently faced the twin challenges of Cyclone Vardah and protests against the Jallikattu ban. The other is a woman who has moulded herself in Jayalalithaa’s image, performed her last rites, and is doing everything to keep Amma’s aura intact.
I was fortunate to meet both O. Panneerselvam and V.K. Sasikala recently at the India Today Conclave South in Chennai. Sasikala spoke sparingly but was clearly overcome by the images of Jayalalithaa we had mounted as a tribute. Panneerselvam was a surprise, speaking slowly but surely of his vision for the party, the state and the people. But it was clear that both owed their place to Jayalalithaa. She was their Amma, as much as she was the Amma for the AIADMK cadres. The Amma they forgave for her alleged corruption. The Amma who had forsaken everything for them.
Sasikala is now the Amma-in-waiting who will struggle to cast herself in Jayalalithaa’s image and carry the legacy forward. Whether she will be accepted in the same way by her party and the people of Tamil Nadu is an open question. She has spent three decades in close proximity to the charismatic Jayalalithaa and was devoted to her from the moment she recorded her Cuddalore rally on video in 1982. She became the head of the family brains trust that controls the party. She was indicted along with Jayayalithaa in the disproportionate assets case by a Karnataka special court, later acquitted by the high court, and now awaits the pending verdict from the Supreme Court where the case went for an appeal by the DMK and the Karnataka government.
Fortunately, Tamil Nadu is a wellrun state, thanks largely to an efficient bureaucracy—which has been shaken by the events of the last week and seen a spate of resignations. But, according to Deputy Editor Amarnath K. Menon, who wrote the cover story and is a long-time observer of Tamil Nadu politics, it is in the interests of the BJP at the Centre to keep the AIADMK intact. The latter’s 135 MLAs and 49 MPs can help the NDA government garner support in the electoral college for the next President and Vice President’s election this year. This may explain the Centre’s somewhat murky role in Tamil Nadu. The NDA-appointed governor is in absentia at this critical juncture, his behaviour creating a suspicion of the Centre meddling in state politics. With the SC judgment hanging over Sasikala’s head, dissidence by the Panneerselvam group, the DMK smelling blood and political disillusionment among youth evident in the Jallikattu protests, the state is in for turbulent times.