Icons and outsiders

The story of the transformation of MGR’s AIADMK into Jayalalithaa’s, and at least for now Sasikala’s, party.

Published : Dec 21, 2016 12:30 IST

Chennai, December 24, 1987: Chief Minister M.G. Ramachandran lies in state. Jayalalithaa was at the head of the body for the whole of December 24 and 25 from the time the body was brought to the start of the funeral procession.

Chennai, December 24, 1987: Chief Minister M.G. Ramachandran lies in state. Jayalalithaa was at the head of the body for the whole of December 24 and 25 from the time the body was brought to the start of the funeral procession.

THE deaths of political icons in Tamil Nadu bring with them a public outpouring of grief that invariably is associated with suicides and violence. Testimony to this was the “frenzied” mourning following the deaths of the stalwarts of the Dravidian movement, C.N. Annadurai in 1969 and M.G. Ramachandran, or MGR as he was widely known, in 1987. Some 32 mourners travelling atop the Janatha Express from Madurai to Madras for the funeral of Annadurai met their end in a freak accident when the train passed over a bridge across a river at Vallampadugai near Chidambaram. In fact, nearly 15 million people attended his funeral, according to reports.

In the case of MGR, law and order became the major casualty as mobs resorted to violence that forced the police to open fire in several places. But Jayalalithaa’s funeral was a relatively quiet affair, with the grieving multitudes taking part in her final journey in an orderly and peaceful manner after many more had filed past her mortal remains earlier with minimum fuss.

However, the sobriety could not hide the fact that the period she was at the helm of affairs of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) or the State government was arguably the most turbulent and strident in an era of Dravidian parties’ domination of Tamil Nadu politics. A Tamil Brahmin, she took control of the party almost two years after MGR’s death following a bitter battle with her detractors within the party and outside it, made all the more difficult by the fact that her mentor had not officially named her as his heir apparent though he had made her the party’s propaganda secretary and later Rajya Sabha member.

The vacuum created by MGR’s death did not precipitate a crisis of leadership then as there was no dearth of leaders in the party. A succession struggle ensued between an ambitious Jayalalithaa and a phalanx of senior leaders such as R.M. Veerappan. But at no point of time was an outsider allowed to interfere in the intra-party squabbles and manoeuvres, nor were there any stage-managed shows of loyalty as one witnesses today around a single person. Today, in the aftermath of Jayalalithaa’s passing, the situation is very different as the AIADMK faces the worst leadership crisis in its history, with many second-rung leaders resigned to or meekly accepting the anointment of Jayalalithaa’s close friend and confidante, V.K. Sasikala, as the party chief. Acknowledged as an extraconstitutional power centre for several decades by many in the party, Sasikala is now emerging from the shadows and seeking to use her proximity to Jayalalithaa to exert influence over the party and the government.

Unflinching loyalty Unflinching loyalty to the leadership has been the cornerstone of the AIADMK’s success as a party. Dissent was actively discouraged. “No one could raise their voice. No one would dare to even suggest any decision about the party, which was run like a fiefdom,” said a senior politician who was with the AIADMK and migrated to the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) after MGR’s death. MGR did face dissent in the 1980s when Nanjil K. Manoharan and Subbulakshmi Jagadeesan quit. But he did not flinch. He preferred it that way, though one should not forget the fact that he was genuinely loved and respected by people across the State. In this type of personality-driven politics, bereft of any ideology, organisational supremacy is directly proportionate to the popularity of the leader. Jayalalithaa, though popular but no match for MGR in popularity, had to resort to an image-building exercise that kept the people and party cadres in awe of her persona.

She ran the party and its government imperiously, and the rank and file adjusted to this style of functioning of their new leader. Not surprisingly, the senior leaders of the party followed suit—many of them who were senior to her in age and experience thought nothing of even falling at her feet. On her part, she did not feel the need to groom a successor. The party has a single-point agenda —remain in power and gain the benefits that would accrue from it. That is also the main unifying factor from top to bottom in the party. The minds that have shaped the party into the cohesive unit that it is today are also well aware of it.

There appears to be no threat to this unity even in the absence of Jayalalithaa, at least for now, as discontent means a loss for everyone even as the government has barely completed seven months of its five-year term. But with no successor named, sly attempts are being made to grab the leadership mantle by those who are seen to be no more than housekeepers. Indeed, Sasikala has emerged as a clear successor to Jayalalithaa through back-room manoeuvres from Jayalalithaa’s cherished house, Veda Nilayam, in Chennai’s Poes Garden neighbourhood.

How does one explain the support a senior leader like Panruti S. Ramachandran, schooled in politics under MGR, extends to Sasikala (now being referred to as Chinnamma, which roughly translates as “second mother”)? These leaders have their reasons to see her as their supreme leader. Among them is the claim that Jayalalithaa had stated publicly on more than one occasion that Sasikala was her “sister though not born along with her”.

“The message from our Amma was very clear. After her, it was Chinnamma [who is to lead us],” said a senior party functionary. “Why not? It was she who took care of our Amma all these years. Who else could be a better choice to lead the party at this hour of crisis other than her?” asked K. Thambi Durai, the party’s senior Member of Parliament and Deputy Speaker of the Lok Sabha. In these leaders’ estimation, Sasikala has the “intelligence and skill” to lead the party.

True to type, they wasted no time in brazenly exhibiting their loyalty to the emerging power centre. Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam said in a statement that he was convinced that Sasikala alone could “fill the void created by the death of Amma and run the party with military discipline”. For them, the blood relatives of Jayalalithaa are aliens since their leader “had never ever mentioned about them even once”. Long-time party loyalist K.A. Sengottaiyan, who is claimed to be leading the MLAs belonging to the Kongu Vellalar caste against a perceived domination of Mukkulathors, a Most Backward Class group comprising the Kallar, Thevar and Agamudaiyar castes, within the party, was among the early birds to plead with Chinnamma, who belongs to the Kallar caste, to take over the mantle.

The present leadership impasse in the party can be traced to the feudal manner in which MGR, a cult figure, ran the party he established in a State known for its many achievements on the social welfare front. MGR carefully built his political image on the strong foundation he had in the film world. He blended the social justice tradition of the Dravidian movement with his movie star image as the liberator of the downtrodden. He successfully transported his on-screen radical image on to the real world, thus blurring the line between fantasy and reality in the collective psyche of Tamils.

MGR’s unrivalled charisma gave him an aura of invincibility, although a few political observers found it illogical and inexplicable. But the fact remains that he built on this in the absence of any opposition in the DMK, to which he was attached then. Both MGR and the DMK benefited mutually—he used it as a platform to translate his cinematic image into political popularity while the party made political gains from his pro-poor image on and off screen. This is what the well-known sociopolitical commentator M.S.S. Pandian, in his seminal work, The Image Trap: M.G. Ramachandran in Films and Politics , terms as “constructed biographies”, which he further adds are popular narratives that ingeniously present the cinematic as real.

Former Union Minister Shashi Tharoor wrote in The New York Times in 2003: “So great and so enduring was MGR’s popularity as Chief Minister that when he suffered a debilitating stroke, his party could not afford to let him relinquish office. At rallies that drew millions, the speechless and nearly immobile movie star would be propped up on a high stage in his trademark wool cap and dark glasses....” For a leader who is not chained down by any ideology, populism was a means to achieve supremacy.

Era of sycophancy But Jayalalithaa took Tamil Nadu politics to the next level, one of unbridled sycophancy. Its bottom line has been that the boss is always right. At the level of the masses this was sustained with the culture of distributing freebies, something that the DMK too engaged in whenever it was in power. While MGR gained with his midday meal scheme, Jayalalithaa put women at the centre of all her schemes. These schemes, along with Amma canteens, Amma water, free rice, free fans and mixies, free gold for newly wed women, sanitary napkins for adolescent girls, nutrition packages for new mothers, the cradle baby scheme, and all-women police stations, made her a favourite with women.

Despite a host of accomplishments and having created a mass base of her own, she was still struggling to emerge from the shadows of her iconic mentor and establish an identity of her own, and tried to achieve this by positioning herself as a saviour of women, besides the poor and the downtrodden, something that would help her neutralise gender as a weapon in the hands of men in politics. The Washington Post called her a politician who broke gender barriers and “who rose to power despite India’s deeply patriarchal political system”.

She emerged as a mass leader cutting across social and economic divides. Yet she was a loner, gnawed by a sense of insecurity. This partly explains her dependence on her close aide, Sasikala. The loss of her father at a young age and later her mother when she was in her twenties created a huge vacuum that pushed her to the edge of desperation. She needed to be, as she pointed out in an interview, “pampered, loved and protected”, like any other woman of her age.

Besides, her not-too-secret and beyond-screen relationship with MGR and his subsequent withdrawal from cinema after he plunged into politics full-time isolated her further from the world outside. The fragile nature of her relationship with MGR left her bruised emotionally and reportedly pushed her into bouts of depression. She stopped acting in movies and withdrew from all activities in the 1970s and early 1980s.

“It was MGR who brought her back to the limelight, facilitating her entry into politics at the Cuddalore conference of the party in 1983 and later made her party’s propaganda secretary primarily to keep her engaged,” a party source said.

In fact, not everyone was comfortable with Jayalalithaa’s way of functioning. Even MGR frowned upon it once he had found out that his protege was not immune to the myth-making exercise around her. At one stage, he started distancing himself from her, which she loathed, and asked her to resign from the party post and told party cadres not to have any truck with her. He kept her at a distance until his death barring brief but emotional meetings at the Secretariat, recalled P. Kannan, one of her staunch loyalists and a former MP from Salem, a few months before he passed away. Thus, their friendship and subsequent estrangement remains a mystery.

Jayalalithaa’s desire to dominate cut both ways. Those who defied her were given the cold shoulder, while those who deified her were richly rewarded. She ensured unflinching loyalty from her functionaries and cadres, virtually turning them into political vassals. She never winced when her Ministers, MPs, MLAs and party seniors, much older than she, fell at her feet. She saw to it that her cadres were kept in a frenzied state through a constant barrage of image-building exercises that made her immortal in their minds. At one stage, she too started believing that she was a goddess.

The cut-out culture since 2011 projected her as Amma (mother), which she was very fond of. “This mother is sacrificing her life for her children [meaning the people of the State]. I, as a mother, can understand your needs and sufferings. I am living for you and what I am today is because of you ( makkalal naan, makkalukkaga naan ),” she would say ad nauseum. It worked magic for her.

Her previous titles, Anni (brother’s wife since MGR was called brother) when she stepped into politics and later Puratchi thalaivi (revolutionary leader), made her uncomfortable since they equated her with MGR. “Amma,” as the sociologist V. Arasu pointed out, “touches not only the emotional chord but commands respectability. She is the Thamizh Thai (Tamil mother).”

The result of all this was the growth of extreme sycophancy in the party she ran.

She loathed criticism from any quarter, even from a responsible media. She never allowed any leader or Minister to have a sense of permanency in their postings. This state of uncertainty was one way of earning their unflinching loyalty. She only made occasional allies on her road to power.

She knew that power once attained could not be shared because sharing would tempt others. She had left behind the actor in her to emerge as a feared leader of a party and a State. “These leaders to construct their image within the party and among the masses use both the party organ and political platform with telling effect. They depoliticise the people and retain them in their domain by carefully and consistently evoking the mystic impression around their image,” said C. Lakshmanan, Associate Professor, Madras Institute of Development Studies.

A veteran Left leader, while criticising the pompous wedding of her foster son Sudhakaran in 1995, said it was Jayalalithaa who ushered in a new culture in the campaign style by coming in a 1,000-car convoy. She was behaving like a feudal queen, he said. “An extraconstitutional power centre has been created through the Chief Minister’s surrogate sister, Sasikala,” he said then.

Birth of ADMK When MGR launched the ADMK (which became AIADMK later), breaking away from the DMK, he was joined by many senior leaders although his supremacy remained unquestioned. Leaders such as K.A. Krishnaswamy, G.R. Edmund, Munu Adhi, C. Aranganayagam, DMK MLAs S.M. Durairaj (Tiruvallur) and P. Soundarapandiyan (Krishnarayapuram) and a few others joined him when he formed the ADMK on October 10, 1972. And many others followed them. In fact, most of them were with him until his death. But, for many of them the AIADMK of Jayalalithaa was different from that of MGR. This trait of unpredictability in her character left a deep scar on her administration too. Barring the Cabinet formation in 2016, which surprisingly had a blend of new and old faces, with 12 Ministers of the previous Cabinet finding berths, her previous reigns saw frequent shuffling of Ministers to such an extent that even a psephologist would find it difficult to remember. “Just imagine, by the end of the five-year reign, barring the Chief Minister and a couple of Ministers, the rest would be new faces,” said a former senior leader who was ousted and readmitted within a span of 12 months.

It was no secret that she studiously removed from the organisation those who were close to MGR. Leaders like K. Kalimuthu, S.D. Somasundaram, K.A. Krishnaswamy, C. Aranganayagam, Panruti S. Ramachandran, H.V. Hande, K. Rajaram, R.M. Veerappan, G. Vishwanath and others, who were MGR loyalists, were systematically sidelined, though they accepted her leadership later. It was V.R. Nedunchezhiyan who could retain his No. 2 slot in her Cabinet until his death. The next man she trusted outside Poes Garden was O. Panneerselvam.

Similarly, S. Thirunavukkarasar, one of the few MLAs who encouraged her to take command over the unified AIADMK after the demise of MGR, parted to form his party called MGR ADMK after Jayalalithaa expelled him in 1990. Seniors like S. Raghavanandam, S.S. Rajendiran, G.R. Edmund and Y.S.M. Yousuff supported him. But he merged his party with the AIADMK in 1996 only to quit after some time when she did not recognise him. Somasundaram, Veerappan and Krishnaswamy too suffered similar treatment at her hands. But the indisputable fact remains that she kept the party intact for 26 years after MGR’s demise.

Sasikala’s influence Now that she is no more, that role is sought to be appropriated by Sasikala, the widely acknowledged extraconstitutional authority within Jayalalithaa’s house, something that Jayalalithaa herself was well aware of. “Of course, she knew. She resorted to checks and balances but in vain. Our leader was helpless,” said Sasikala Pushpa, the expelled AIADMK MP who is facing the wrath of Sasikala and her family for defying them.

However, it would be childish to claim that Jayalalithaa was not aware of the indulgence of the Mannargudi clique, as Sasikala and her extended family were known. “Our leader, sadly, was in an emotional trap from which she could not extricate herself, emboldening the Mannargudi clique to resort to a brazen display of power. It threw an impregnable ring around her, both during her lifetime and even after her death,” she told Frontline .

The family’s brazen attempt to emulate and re-enact what Jayalalithaa staged during the death of her mentor would never serve the purpose for which it was intended, political analysts said. Sasikala’s family, they added, was neither related to the AIADMK leader by blood nor did they have a say over party affairs by law. But Sasikala would always position herself behind their leader, subtly seeing to it that she could not be ignored. As her message was clear, the party functionaries had no other alternative but to accept the family.

Even during MGR’s time Jayalalithaa was a leader of stature within the party and among cadres. She successfully campaigned for the party in the 1984 Assembly elections when MGR was convalescing in New York. But Sasikala and her clan have no credible background in politics. “The cadres did not endorse the move to bring in MGR’s widow, Janaki Ramachandran, by a few seniors to upstage Jayalalithaa’s popularity,” said a former Minister in MGR’s Cabinet.

Jayalalithaa’s inaccessibility to cadres and functionaries allowed the Mannargudi group to enjoy close proximity to the power centre, which in turn made them highly influential and extremely controversial. “The high command has to be blamed for these issues. No leader in a parliamentary democracy would have preferred to remain in isolation, totally shut off from the people, media and party functionaries as Jayalalithaa did. It has led to many unpleasant things today,” said the party’s former propaganda secretary and MP, Cumbum P. Selvendran, who is now with the DMK. It was an inexplicable equation between the two women, yet to be unravelled and unfathomed as was Jayalalithaa’s with MGR. So many premises and hypotheses were attributed to her relationship with Sasikala. In one of her very few interviews, Jayalalithaa said: “She is the most misunderstood person. She takes care of me and my house like my mother.” This underscored her unwavering confidence in Sasikala.

Sasikala met her in 1979 through the then Cuddalore Collector V.S. Chandralekha, and the duo found a natural harmony that lasted 33 years, barring two brief breaks. When Jayalalithaa was made Rajya Sabha member in 1984, Sasikala moved into the Poes Garden residence and has lived there ever since. She was expelled twice from the residence. On the first occasion, in 1996, immediately after the drubbing in the Assembly elections, Jayalalithaa said she was “distancing herself from Sasikala in response to the sentiments of the general public and party men”. But Sasikala got admitted to a hospital and the patch-up took place immediately thereafter. The second expulsion on December 19, 2011, acquired seismic proportions since Jayalalithaa not only stripped her of her party’s primary membership but also sent out 13 others, all her Mannargudi kin including her husband, V. Natarajan, nephew and former Jaya Peravai Secretary T.T.V. Dinakaran, and her disowned foster son, Sudhakaran.

Jayalalithaa did not stop at that. While addressing the party’s the general council and the executive committee meetings, she told the members that Sasikala and her relatives had been dismissed once for all. She reassured them not to worry about their perceived intimidations to seniors and other functionaries. A few of them, including Natarajan, were arrested on allegations of various offences, and cases were booked against a few.

Many celebrated the family’s exit from their leader’s residence by bursting crackers and distributing sweets. But it was short-lived. The patch-up between the two did take place, and those who went against the Mannargudi clan were “punished”, to which Jayalalithaa remained indifferent.

Sasikala re-entered the Poes Garden residence after a 100-day hiatus on March 31, 2012, after a series of emotive letters that moved Jayalalithaa. In a letter, Sasikala even claimed that she was unaware of her relatives’ alleged “conspiracy to usurp the party and power”. Selvendran, who resigned from the party in protest against the Mannargudi family’s interference in his work, said the party should go for a public referendum as Annadurai did just before the formation of the DMK, to ask its cadres and functionaries to name their leader in a secret vote. “It will help the party stay intact and also prevent it from falling into the hands of undesirable elements and also right-wing nationalist forces,” he said.

Political observers read more into the act of Narendra Modi consoling Sasikala at Jayalalithaa’s funeral. Although the AIADMK and the Bharatiya Janata Party have identical ideologies, as Union Minister M. Venkaiah Naidu recently claimed, Jayalalithaa, understanding the strong secular disposition of Tamils, remained cautious towards right-wing nationalist forces. Any split within the party would invite trouble from these opportunist quarters.

The vacuum caused by Jayalalithaa’s death leaves the AIADMK today at a crossroads. The icons are all gone and the cadres are left with little choice but to accept as their leader a housekeeper untested in politics at the head of a Dravidian party that was born out of love and adulation for a champion of the poor. If the AIADMK is sought to be appropriated by such non-political players, the blame squarely lies with Jayalalithaa, who never allowed any leader with political and administrative acumen to emerge.

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