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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.

(Aroon Purie)

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