A leader who failed to lead

Print edition : September 15, 2017

THE problem with hindsight is that it gives a brutally honest perspective for those who want to see it. Sometimes it is aided by events that have no relation to the one that is being reflected upon and scrutinised.

The Kannada pride agitations in Karnataka since May—first over Hindi name boards in Metro stations, the unfurling of a Karnataka flag, the Lingayat conclave, and the making of Kannada compulsory in schools—and the decent response it received in many parts of the State are perhaps an indication of what could have been in Tamil Nadu. Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah has not lost any opportunity to convey the message that he stood for Karnataka, Kannada pride and culture.

Tamil Nadu’s moment came in January with the jallikattu agitation. All it needed was a leader willing to come forward boldly, and stake it all, even as the entire State had come to a standstill, and was fighting for “Tamil pride”. O. Panneerselvam, who was the Chief Minister at that time, and a person who was perceived by people to have a clean image, was found wanting and ended up taking the “safer” alternative: agreeing to a policing solution to an essential problem of identity and aspirations.

Looking back, many things acquire newer perspectives: A year suddenly feels like a very long time in Tamil Nadu politics. Three Chief Ministers were sworn in under a year, and the State nearly had a fourth one, too. One Chief Minister died in office, another was ousted because he was getting too popular, a third Chief Minister-elect did not find favour with the Governor and was not sworn in, and the fourth is now in office. Through these tumultuous events, Tamil Nadu shared a Governor with Maharashtra, and the National Democratic Alliance in New Delhi has not thought it fit to have a full-time Governor to handle the increasingly complex problems confronting Tamil Nadu.

After the Jayalalithaa-led All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam was voted to power in May 2016 for a historic second consecutive term (a feat attained by M.G. Ramachandran in 1984), amidst allegations of widespread bribing of voters, it seemed like business as usual: Jayalalithaa’s first few signatures were populist and intended to cater to the core AIADMK base.

Riding on the slogan makkalal naan, makkal u kkagavey naan (by the people, for the people), Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK managed to secure a mere 0.1 per cent of the votes more than the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) but won 134 of the 232 seats.

By the end of 2016, two political stalwarts, Jayalalithaa and M. Karunanidhi, both of whom had redefined the Indian polity in their own inimitable styles and held centre stage in Tamil Nadu politics, were suddenly not around. The DMK tried to get its act together with the appointment of a “working president”, M.K. Stalin, after making suitable amendments to the party’s constitution.

The AIADMK initially put up a brave front. A few hours after Jayalalithaa’s death was announced on the night of December 5, Panneerselvam, who was the party’s treasurer, was sworn in as Chief Minister with an unchanged team of Ministers. He was commended for his work on many fronts: after the Chennai cyclone he was able to bring life back to normal in the city in quick time, and he showed remarkable ability in negotiating and getting water for Tamil Nadu from Andhra Pradesh.

Just when it seemed that Tamil Nadu had a stable government, AIADMK general secretary V.K. Sasikala’s badly felt need to cut Panneerselvam to size and project herself as the heir to Jayalalithaa pushed the State into uncertainty again. On the morning of February 5, even as Panneerselvam was examining the Ennore oil spill, he was asked to reach the AIADMK party headquarters on Lloyds Road. He resigned and was among those who proposed Sasikala’s name for the Chief Minister’s post. Two days later, on February 7, Panneerselvam reached the Jayalalithaa memorial at 9 p.m., for prime-time television enlightenment, which ended about 40 minutes later with him denouncing Sasikala.

Several opinion polls subsequently showed that he was the most popular politician in the State. Panneerselvam’s inability to rise above and lead and take charge as the State was looking for a leader to fill Jayalalithaa’s void cost him his place in history. The instability that the State has been witnessing since Jayalalithaa’s death shows no signs of abating. This appears to be the new norm in Tamil Nadu. And, Panneerselvam, perhaps the only person who could have averted that fate, ended up contributing to it.

R.K. Radhakrishnan