Jayalalithaa’s erstwhile friend-turned-foe Subramanian Swamy predicts doom in a December 6 interview to a news channel.
Power shifts in Tamil Nadu usually take place around the funerals of the state’s larger-than-life politicians. On December 24, 1987, it was J. Jayalalithaa, then 38, the AIADMK’s propaganda secretary, who stood, in a white sari in Chennai’s Rajaji Hall by the body of her mentor, former chief minister M.G. Ramachandran. Pushed off the bier by MGR’s wife’s family and prevented from attending his funeral at the Marina Beach, a humiliated Jayalalithaa had vowed to return. She did so, first by snatching the party away from his widow Janaki Ramachandran and then straddling Tamil Nadu’s collective imagination, colossus like, for nearly three decades. On December 5, 2016, her body lay in state in the same hall, flanked by her closest aide, protege, confidante and caregiver Sasikala Natarajan, 59, who stood silently in a black sari. Sasikala’s family members ringed the coffin, evidently a sign of things to come in the post-Amma years, even as the late CM’s companion performed the final pre-burial rites.
A new moniker had been minted long before Amma checked into the Apollo hospital on September 22-party workers reverentially refer to Sasikala as ‘chinnamma’ (aunty). Power has been transferred from the authoritarian Amma to her shadow Chinnamma in penny packets – Sasikala gave out the party tickets for the April 2016 assembly elections. As Jayalalithaa’s life ebbed away on her hospital bed, the transition was completed.
Legislators were called in individually to give their written assent for choosing Ottakkara Panneerselvam, 65, as the new leader of the legislature party and later, the chief minister. This was required under the Constitution to avoid a political vacuum and ensure a smooth succession. It also cemented a new duopoly, of Sasikala Natarajan and Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam, which will run the state until the assembly elections in 2021.
Journalist-novelist Vaasanthi calls Sasikala Natarajan “more enigmatic than Jayalalithaa”. That’s because the former homemaker, born to a poor family of agriculturists in Mannargudi near Madurai, has rarely ever spoken out. Little is known of her early life or how she came into such close proximity with Jayalalithaa. One account has it that a rapport was established in the early 1980s when Sasikala ran a video parlour and her husband M. Natarajan was a press officer in the state government. He introduced his wife to the AIADMK’s propaganda secretary. The bond was cemented when Sasikala moved into Jayalalithaa’s home in 1989 and her extended family, mainly her brothers and nephews, began exercising considerable clout during Jayalalithaa’s first five-year term in government, beginning 1991.
Over the years, Sasikala became a co-accused in nearly every corruption case the CM was accused of, from the 1995 wedding extravaganza of her nephew Sudhakaran to the Tansi land scam, and finally the disproportionate assets case that landed both of them in jail last year. Over the years, Sasikala has weathered storms and exile. In 2011, she was banished from Jayalalithaa’s inner circle and the party. The exile ended with her public apology six months later. Sasikala was back, but without the extended family. Even so, there were whispers of the ‘Mannargudi Machine’ humming silently behind the scenes, a reference to a cabal of loyalists and family members from Sasikala’s hometown who exercised power. Aloof and insular, Jayalalithaa ran the party with a firm hand and kept the government-ministers and bureaucrats-on a tight leash. But in recent years she increasingly relied on a twosome to run the party and administration-Sasikala and chief advisor Sheela Balakrishnan, a retired chief secretary.
Given her penchant for behind the scenes machinations, Sasikala is bound to tighten her grip on the levers of power. But Chinnamma’s first challenge clearly will be to keep the AIADMK flock together. It’s an onerous task considering that for nearly three decades, the party was a one-person show under Jayalalithaa.
There was, fortunately, none of the violence and arson that accompanied MGR’s death. Tamil Nadu grieved silently, perhaps giving the new AIADMK duopoly the time and space to consolidate its hold on the party and government. The smooth succession may not hold for long as there are others, who feel they have better potential than Panneerselvam, waiting in the wings.?
Jayalalithaa’s erstwhile friend-turned-foe Subramanian Swamy predicts doom. “I feel the AIADMK will explode after this,” he said in a December 6 interview to TV Channel News18. “Her successor Panneerselvam won’t be able to run the government. Sasikala won’t let anyone grow.” Swamy hints at the caste worries that could also trouble the AIADMK. Both Panneerselvam and Sasikala are Thevars, but only 30 per cent of the AIADMK MLAs are from this community. The remaining might chafe at the Thevar hegemony.
Although Sasikala is believed to have handpicked 60 of the 136 MLAs (12 are now ministers), her fiat may not hold over them or manage to make the others fall in line. Her cabal will stymie the attempts of others to build a ginger or dissident group even as she wards off likely attempts by the rival DMK to poach AIADMK legislators. The AIADMK has 136 seats in the 234-member state assembly, 17 more than required to form a majority. If 45 of its MLAs break away to form a separate group with the support of 98 DMK MLAs, it could bring the government down. With his father and DMK patriarch M. Karunanidhi, 92, unwell in recent weeks and the confidence that yet another assembly poll triumph is a Himalayan challenge for the AIADMK, party second-in-command M.K. Stalin might prefer to mark time and wait for the ruling party to crumble under its own contradictions.
Sasikala is expected to intensify monitoring of the MLAs and ministers, many of whom have personal assistants who owe allegiance to her cabal.The AIADMK cadre perceive Sasikala as a parasite rather than a provider, so she needs someone to secure her interests. A division within the party seems imminent and Sasikala will have to tread carefully before she identifies a unifying force. Sharing power judiciously may be the best plan for now. A rift between the Panneerselvam and Sasikala factions surfaced before the assembly elections earlier this year, but the former is not up to controlling any factional politics. That they belong to the same caste cohort and that a temporary truce is in effect-Panneerselvam will control the government, Sasikala the party-may work for both of them.
The Sasikala cabal has plenty at stake. It has been guarding the gates for a long time and in the process controlling the movement both inside and outside Jayalalithaa’s Poes Garden home. They will do everything in their power to prevent any attempt by the DMK or other forces to unseat the government.
But the cabal suffers a trust deficit with everyone, including Panneerselvam. And with their unedifying record as ‘backroom managers’, they can hardly expect the people to back them. It is likely that in a year they will be tested by the DMK’s intrusions with money and offers to support breakaway factions. Also, any candidate proposed by Sasikala is unlikely to get wide acceptance. Her spouse, Natarajan, cannot be presented as a possible rival to Panneerselvam as there are criminal proceedings pending against him.Both Sasikala and Natarajan are still considered good behind-the-scenes operators. Jayalalithaa drew on Natarajan’s capabilities in the initial years, but feared his ambitions after a while and distanced herself.
For the present, Sasikala’s strategy will be to persist with Panneerselvam and do some backseat driving with select ministers. Her cabal is also unlikely to get the backing of the bureaucracy as it will be apprehensive of falling into a trap and the potential legal consequences springing from charges of corruption. Neither is Sasikala in a position to contest for elected office. The pending cases are also a hurdle. Meanwhile, Panneerselvam, without Jayalalithaa to back him, will be downsized to his past shadow.?One factor working for both is the AIADMK MLAs’ loyalty to power: they may not care where that flows from. Until now they did recognise the source of this power as flowing from Sasikala and therefore revered, or at least feared, her. It’s early days yet, but the fact that she included Jayalalithaa’s brother’s children in the funeral rituals may be a sign that she is keen to avoid trouble.
For the moment, Sasikala’s safest option is the all-powerful party general secretary post-the other office held by Jayalalithaa. But then the Thevar issue will crop up again. The Gounders, the dominant backward caste of western Tamil Nadu, are already griping that they have not been given their due although they are a third of the AIADMK MLAs.?
Vying for the party general secretary post may lead to factional squabbles too. The BJP too is keeping the pot boiling, already evincing interest in the AIADMK’s affairs. Union I&B minister M. Venkaiah Naidu, who has strong Chennai connections, is said to be keen that Sasikala step back-in the light of the disproportionate assets case against her-to allow Lok Sabha deputy speaker M. Thambidurai to take charge. Another aspirant, also a Gounder, for the coveted party post is PWD minister E.K. Palaniswamy.
“Jayalalithaa’s most glaring error in running the AIADMK and government was in identifying overwhelmingly with the Sasikala family, including the sidelining of even her own niece,” says ex-bureaucrat M.G. Devasahayam. “It meant the government was running, especially during parts of her first term and during the long weeks since September 22, under an extra-constitutional authority, leaving the cadre and the voter dismayed at the lack of transparency.”
In Jayalalithaa’s death, the national parties, the Congress and the BJP, sense an opportunity for a poll tie-up in Tamil Nadu. The AIADMK cornered a 41 per cent vote share in the 2016 assembly polls. Despite the successful passage of the GST in the Rajya Sabha without AIADMK support (the party opposed it), the BJP needs the support of its 13 members in the Upper House. The AIADMK’s strength in Parliament and the legislature could also boost the strength of the BJP’s candidate in the electoral college to elect the new President of India in 2017. The BJP also wants the AIADMK to remain united to stymie a possible Congress-DMK tie-up. The Congress, which has had successful tie-ups with Jayalalithaa, will want an understanding before the 2019 Lok Sabha polls to stop the Modi juggernaut.
Panneerselvam is a late entrant to electoral politics. At first, he wanted one dream to come true-become municipal chairman of Periyakulam, which he did in 1996. After a five-year stint, he contested for the legislative assembly for the first time in 2001, to become revenue minister and then interim chief minister the same year. He got ahead of his comrades by sheer dint of his unswerving devotion to Jayalalithaa. He served as CM for 396 days in two spells. In his third, and hopefully for him a longer stint as CM, Panneerselvam’s challenge is to realise the promises made by the Jayalalithaa government. It’s a daunting task. Barely seven months into their five-year term and with Jayalalithaa gone, the third-time CM has to ensure that his entire cabinet chases the elusive goals and attains its specific targets.
What could work for both Sasikala and Pannerselvam is the party MLA’s loyalty to power; They may not even care from where it flows
For a state that earns one-third of its revenue from the sale of liquor, Tamil Nadu is, beyond the Amma model, also a key building block for the national economy. It ranks second among the most economically competitive Indian states in 2016, based on criteria like macroeconomic stability, business and manpower conditions, quality of life and infrastructure development. It is one of the three most preferred states for business investments and the state ranked second behind Maharashtra in GDP. Tamil Nadu is only one of the eight states that recorded poverty alleviation at a rate higher than the all-India average. The state’s per capita income is the third highest, and human development index (HDI) second highest, among large states.
To sustain growth, the state has initiated many innovative flagship programmes. The distribution of laptops to students at higher secondary level is now followed by other states. The special cash incentive of Rs 5,000 per child is significantly reducing dropouts at secondary level. Students in government schools receive four sets of uniform, footwear, woolen sweaters where needed, textbooks, notebooks, schoolbags, educational kits, bicycles, bus passes and the nutritious noon meal introduced by the AIADMK founder and the late chief minister, M.G. Ramachandran, in the 1980s. In the past five years, 74,316 teachers have been appointed, which has brought down the teacher-pupil ratio to 1:25 at the elementary level and 1:26 at the secondary level in government schools, which is significantly better than the national norms.
Panneerselvam’s challenge is in chasing the goals provided for in ‘Vision Tamil Nadu 2023’, in which the government has formulated new strategies to put the state on a trajectory of high growth. The ‘vision’ aims to identify and remove the bottlenecks in development, prioritise critical infrastructure projects and work to propel the state to the forefront of development. It identifies 10 key themes, including economic prosperity, inclusive growth, health for all, world-class infrastructure, improving the quality of institutions as well as governance. If the government does not initiate the work and ensure it progresses vigorously, the state runs the risk of slipping on crucial development indices, which can only be to the detriment of the ruling AIADMK.
In the success of these initiatives lies the success and survival of the Amma legacy.
With Kaushik Deka