POLITICS in Tamil Nadu is in the throes of a major transformation. Barely a month after the death of Jayalalithaa, there is palpable uncertainty in both the government and the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) with Sasikala Natarajan taking the reins of the party. Its principal rival, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), has also undergone a leadership change with M.K. Stalin, 65, party treasurer and son of its supremo M. Karunanidhi, taking over as working president. The two leaders now at the helm face daunting challenges.
Sasikala Natarajan, who now signs her name as V.K. Sasikala, entered politics soon after Jayalalithaa’s demise, just as the party founder M.G. Ramachandran’s wife, V.N. Janaki, did in 1987, soon after his death. Janaki, who was sworn in as Chief Minister, barely had any acceptance among the people and was seen as a usurper. Jayalalithaa, too, was not well received across the rank and file of the party after MGR’s death. But the leaders around her were smarter and had more grass-roots appeal. They were able to make her claim appear more legitimate. Jayalalithaa managed to create the impression that MGR had actually handed over the party to her with just one image that was plastered all over Chennai and Tamil Nadu—that of MGR handing over a sceptre to her.
Sasikala, who combines elements from the experiences of both Jayalalithaa and Janaki, comes with the crucial handicap of an overambitious and overreaching family which Jayalalithaa herself had denounced as unworthy. She brings to the AIADMK a kind of instability that the party has not witnessed since its inception. Jayalalithaa had not anointed her as heir, nor is there any image that can be evoked to press Sasikala’s claim to Jayalalithaa’s legacy. She was a close associate of Jayalalithaa and managed her household.
However, at an extraordinary general council of the party on December 29, 2016, Sasikala was unanimously chosen to lead the party. She has since shown that she is not a tentative starter. She has been meeting district representatives of the party and taking on the DMK when needed. She even inaugurated India Today ’s South Conclave on January 9: it was her first public event outside of the party. Fawning party leaders who revered Jayalalithaa as “Amma” are quick to shift their allegiance to “Chinnamma”.
But although almost all of the party’s functionaries, legislators and Ministers are with Sasikala, there are rumblings from within and outside. A few of its cadre have spoken against her publicly. In private conversations that this correspondent has had with both cadre and members of the public, no one approved of Sasikala as the head of the party.
“Just because the god is missing from a temple, can a priest take his place?” asked a cab driver who said that he had voted for both Dravidian parties in the past. A daily wage earner said: “She was taking care of the household. What qualifications does she have to run the party or the State?” At least one online survey, published in The Hindu , contended that the cadre did not want her at the helm, neither in the party nor in the government.
There are other problems too. Reflecting on a public interest petition over the treatment given to Jayalalithaa at Apollo Hospitals, Justice Vaidyalingam of the Madras High Court said on December 29 that he, too, had doubts about the former Chief Minister’s death. In an open-court remark, he even spoke of exhuming the body for an inquiry. “I personally find in case if I have doubt I may order exhumation of the body of deceased and you have not told anything when she was alive,” he said.
On January 9, Apollo Hospitals said that it was willing to submit in court in a sealed cover details of the treatment given to Jayalalithaa and added that her family was free to access the details. The judge issued notices to the State and Central governments and posted the matter for hearing on February 23. The expelled AIADMK MP, Sasikala Pushpa, has demanded a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probe.
This slow whispering campaign that Jayalalithaa died an unnatural death has been gaining momentum. It had begun soon after her death, but there seems to be a concerted effort now to recirculate “video evidence” that there was a lot going on in the hospital before her death.
Another problem, if a minor one, is Jayalalithaa’s niece, Deepa Jayakumar, who is claiming a share of her aunt’s property as well as her legacy. She seems to have gained some traction, but not enough to give Sasikala sleepless nights. The party had split soon after MGR’s death. One faction was led by Janaki, who went on to lead a short-lived government. Jayalalithaa led the other faction and went on to become the second-longest serving Chief Minister. The situation today is similar in that once again there is tension in the party following the death of a serving Chief Minister. Yet, there is no talk of any split in the party. Murmurs arose only after Deepa Jayakumar started making her claims. But these remain mere murmurs because not many people had even heard about Deepa Jayakumar before Jayalalithaa fell ill and she was not a part of the departed leader’s household.
The Panneerselvam factor A few experts have been talking about a rift developing between Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam and Sasikala. Panneerselvam was one of the many foot soldiers whom Jayalalithaa turned to when in need. Yet, the committed follower of the leader is not necessarily an alternative power centre. Herein comes the tricky part. Will Sasikala emerge as the leader in Jayalalithaa’s absence? Paneerselvam, always subservient, acquiescent and self-effacing, has, in public, accorded to Sasikala almost the same kind of respect bordering on reverence that he displayed for Jayalalithaa. He has not even found it fit to respond to questions about stepping down as Chief Minister. Sasikala’s first press release after taking over as general secretary, on December 30, had no mention of any second leader, just as Jayalalithaa’s releases never had.
At the India Today conclave, Sasikala stayed on to listen to the speech of Dr V. Maithreyan, an AIADMK MP who had fallen out of favour with Jayalalithaa, but she left before Panneerselvam’s speech. (Maithreyan spoke on “Amma and her contributions to the development of Tamil Nadu” and wound up with the words: “The void created by her sad demise cannot be filled by anyone. Under the leadership of Chinnamma, we will follow the path shown by our beloved Amma.”)
This apparent gesture of slight towards Panneerselvam sent out a signal that he occupies the position that he does at the pleasure of the party high command. Panneerselvam, on his part, has been allowing M.K. Stalin to meet him with various demands. In a party that sustains itself on anti-DMK sentiment, this is a strict no-no. Sasikala conveyed her displeasure in a way that was characteristic of Jayalalithaa: by not meeting Panneerselvam and not responding to his queries.
The DMK, in fact, has been playing the Panneerselvam card overtly. Not only has Stalin met him twice at the Secretariat, but DMK spokespersons make it a point to bring in Panneerselvam’s name, seemingly in passing reference, in public discussions. The bait is working as news outlets are latching on to the comments and giving their own interpretations on what was said and what was not said.
Ministers and senior functionaries want Sasikala to take over as Chief Minister. A senior mediaperson has advised Sasikala not to take up the job until the Supreme Court pronounces the order in the wealth case against Jayalalithaa. (The Karnataka government had preferred an appeal against the High Court order setting aside the trial court verdict convicting Jayalalithaa and the co-accused, including Sasikala.) The Supreme Court reserved its order on June 7, 2016. If the Supreme Court sets aside the Karnataka High Court order, Sasikala, along with a few of her relatives, will have to go back to serve the remainder of their term in a jail in Karnataka.
In the event of an adverse verdict, Sasikala, unlike Jayalalithaa, will not be able to run the party from prison. Jayalalithaa, before she was unseated for the first time, had already been party leader for over a decade and had purged the party of anyone who was even remotely capable of turning against her. Sasikala does not have that advantage. A conviction is certain to trigger a realignment in the AIADMK with Panneerselvam as its nucleus.
Even now, there is no coordination between the government and the party. The third Cabinet meeting convened by Chief Minister Panneerselvam did not even last 15 minutes: news came in that “Chinnamma” was on her way to the party office and the Ministers quickly acceded to the listed agenda and rushed to the party office on Lloyds Road. Panneerselvam, more preoccupied with proving his loyalty to Chinnamma than with affairs of the State, seems resigned to the fact that he will remain suspect in her eyes. His dilemma is unique: Jayalalithaa chose him when she was admitted to Apollo to hand over her portfolios, not Sasikala or anyone from Sasikala’s clan. On the earlier two occasions when she installed him as Chief Minister, she made it clear to him that he should follow only her orders, according to an informed source.
Soon after Panneerselvam assumed charge as Chief Minister for the first time in September 2001, she chided him for keeping a relative of Sasikala informed of what the government was up to, an informed source said. If he now relents to the persistent demands of self-serving party seniors and gives up his post, he will be reneging on the promise of lifelong loyalty that he had made to Jayalalithaa.
On the government front, Panneerselvam has to keep things moving at a time when the new Chief Secretary is not beholden to the party and hence is not a bridge between the party and the government. The earlier Chief Secretary, Rama Mohana Rao, who superseded 17 senior officers to occupy the post in June 2016, was a useful bridge between the government and the party. A series of Income Tax raids on his house and office did not reveal much in terms of unaccounted income but served the purpose of removing him from the post. A defiant Rama Mohana Rao addressed a press conference and dared the government to take action against him, but there has been no reaction from the State or Central government. Though newspaper offices did not receive any press release, he has been “waitlisted” for now, says the Tamil Nadu Civil IAS list website.
Panneerselvam’s government, which had done a commendable job during Cyclone Vardah, was found wanting as farmers in the Cauvery Delta area began committing suicide over crop loss and unpaid loans. In a belated act, the government declared most of Tamil Nadu drought-hit.
DMK on firmer terrain
In comparison with the problems confronting AIADMK leaders, Stalin is on firmer terrain. Having served the DMK in various positions for about 45 years, his accession as working president was only a matter of time. Stalin’s first noteworthy elected position was that of Chennai Mayor in the mid-90s. In 2003, he was named the party’s deputy general secretary. After the DMK was voted to power in 2006, he was made the Local Administration Minister. Two years later, the party elevated him as its treasurer. In 2009, he was named Deputy Chief Minister. It was a post without any constitutional sanction but it clearly marked him out as No.2. In 2016, after the DMK lost its second straight Assembly election to the AIADMK, Karunanidhi made way for Stalin to be named the Leader of the Opposition in the Assembly.
On January 4, the party’s general council, which did not feature a few old faces such as Dayanidhi Maran but had a former dissident NKKP Raja as a special invitee, unanimously elected Stalin its working president after making relevant changes to the party’s constitution. K. Anbazhagan, party general secretary and a long-time associate of Karunanidhi, who has, on several occasions, held that the “DMK’s strength is Karunanidhi; no one but him can lead the party forward”, presided over the meeting.
It was a short general council, lasting barely over an hour and a half. The party’s principal secretary, Durai Murugan, known for his theatrics, used the DMK founder and guiding light C.N. Annadurai’s words to invite Stalin to take up the responsibility. In a short speech, Stalin, recalling a comment made by Karunanidhi distinguishing power from responsibility ( padhavi versus poruppu ), said that the new position was not one of power to enjoy but one of responsibility to live up to.
The working president is equivalent to the president under the newly inserted Rule 18 (4) of the party, which says that in the event of the president not being able to discharge his duties for any reason, the working president will perform that role. Stalin has already started writing a front-page column in the party organ, Murasoli , titled “Ungalil Oruvan” (One among you). For the past 48 years, the front page of the party organ was Karunanidhi’s preserve and carried his “Kalaignar Kaditham” (Kalaignar’s letter).
Karunanidhi, 94, suffers from memory loss and age-related health problems and is unable to lead the party. This was why his son was elevated, step by step. Stalin was completely in charge of the party’s campaigns in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and the 2016 Legislative Assembly elections. The DMK lost, leading some people within and outside the party to doubt his ability to win an election.
While there is no major challenge for him within the party, many outside doubt his efficacy as a leader. Every act of Stalin will be compared with what his father did under similar circumstances. It is not that Karunanidhi did not make mistakes. In fact, many leaders, including a few that this correspondent spoke to, believe that Jayalalithaa was the creation of an impatient Karunanidhi. She was about to retire from politics when her resignation was made public in a Karunanidhi-inspired move. That backfired. The second time she contemplated leaving politics was after the crushing defeat of 1996, when even she did not win a seat. Then, too, it was Karunanidhi’s pursuit of the cases against her leading to her incarceration which revived her political fortunes.
But Karunanidhi’s strengths far outweigh his failures. He held the party together even as his rival MGR won three back-to-back Assembly elections. He was at the helm of the party for over 48 years with a combination of intelligence, wile and plain old-world common sense. He connected with the DMK cadre and leaders with ease and tolerated dissent in the public space. Everyone who ever interacted with him has a Karunanidhi anecdote.
In many ways, Stalin’s transition into leadership, while accepted as a fact, is an even more difficult process than that of the leadership change in the AIADMK. The DMK’s working ethos will change with the arrival of a new leader, for every leader has a distinctive style. But unless this is acceptable to the party’s rank and file, Stalin will not have it easy. The DMK, unlike the AIADMK, has been an “open” party where dissent is out in the open, local rivalries spill on to the roads, and criticism of the leadership is part of the party culture. The AIADMK, on the other hand, has been built up as a one-leader centred party since the time of its inception. This leader has zero faults and is hence beyond criticism. Karunanidhi, on the other hand, was possibly criticised more harshly in general council meetings by his own peers than in any public forum.
This is the essential difference between the two parties. If the current trend of voicing criticism dies down within the DMK, the party will be staring at the prospect of becoming another AIADMK.