The rise of VK Sasikala to the post of the AIADMK general secretary in Tamil Nadu after the death of J Jayalalithaa wasn’t unnatural because the latter had never given any indication who her political heir was. Sasikala appeared to be the de facto inheritor as the party hadn’t seen anybody else mixing so closely with their leader.
The logic was simple: if there’s no “Amma” it must be “Chinnamma”. Politically it will work too, because reportedly “Chinnamma” has been handling critical affairs of the party and dealing with senior officers and ministers for quite some time. The other men and women in the party couldn’t have nursed any leadership ambition because under Jaya, all they had been conditioned was to plea, prostrate, and take orders.
But the new development, in which senior party leaders are upping the ante in Sasikala’s favour, is fraught with big risks, if not existential risks for the party. Some of the leaders now want her not just as party general secretary, but also as the chief minister. According to them, the legacy of Jayalalithaa should not stop with the top party post, but should extend to the head of the office too.
The state revenue minister RB Udayakumar, supported by a few others, openly appealed to her to take on the chief minister’s job as well. Udayakumar, who incidentally also heads a party affiliated organisation named after Jaya, said that all the 50 district secretaries of his organisation supported his proposal. Reportedly, such requests are also coming in from various district units of AIADMK and other affiliate associations as resolutions, and leaders from different parts of the state have been meeting Sasikala to persuade her personally. Sasikala has accepted all the resolutions, but hasn’t said anything yet.
Curiously, the demand for Sasikala’s elevation comes at a time when chief minister, O Panneerselvam, the only known Jaya nominee, is in Delhi. Panneerselvam went to Delhi to demand posthumous national honours for Jaya and to request financial assistance to mitigate the damage caused by cyclone Vardah. While he was canvassing for a Bharat Ratna for Jaya and the installation of a life-size bronze statue of her in the parliament, his party and cabinet colleagues are asking Sasikala to take his position. Panneerselvam chose to keep quiet when reporters in Delhi asked him about this development.
Is this a set up?
Clearly something is amiss. Either the opposition to Panneerselvam, which many thought would erupt when he was made the chief minister, is raising its head now or somebody is deliberately playing up Sasikala. There could be three possibilities: one, a group that is jealous of Panneerselvam becoming the chief minister for caste or power reasons wants to bring him down; two, the same group alone or joined by others genuinely feels that Sasikala alone can run the party and the state with an iron fist the way Jaya did; and third, Sasikala herself is writing the script and deploying proxies to act it out it for her. These three scenarios may be operating independent of each other, however the chances of an overlap cannot be ruled out because the script seems to be too simple and too straight to be true. Realpolitik is complex and treacherous.
Whatever be the motive, Sasikala becoming the chief minister will be a big, strategic mistake. The first and, probably, the last folly, if she ever succumbs to the temptation.
Sasikala's rise to the top of the party would keep her within the party and would let her control it with all the efficiency and sagacity she has; but becoming the de facto executive head of a state with constitutional obligations is an entirely different ballgame. She may have had some reasonable exposure with ministers and senior officers being Jaya’s confidante, but that was, at best, the role of an extra-constitutional proxy. Real rule comes with real roles and accountability, while proxy rule rides on somebody else’s accountability.
Being a chief minister, particularly that of the second largest economy in India which is one of the top FDI destinations, an aspiring welfare state, and home to a number of consular offices, is not easy. It takes vision, statesmanship, ability to wear multiple hats, and the skills of an official deal-maker. Even if one has all these qualities, it should be endorsed by the people of the state, not by party leaders. The template that Sasikala has to fit into is that of Jayalalithaa, who was an exceptionally tall figure in India. She had the knowledge, personality and skills to be a lone ranger and get things done her way. Therefore, if Sasikala becomes the chief minister she cannot escape unfair judgment by both the state and the rest of India. People will be more demanding of Sasikala than of Panneerselvam because the latter has a political constituency and hadn’t asked for the job.
It’s not a worthwhile risk because it can obliterate all that she has on hand now. Being the general secretary — as the legacy holder of Jayalalithaa — is a priceless gift that she should not fritter away by either being ambitious or being persuaded by others. The point to be noted is that even in dynastic politics, all those who made it big - whether it’s Mayawati, Naveen Patnaik or tottering Akhilesh Yadav - were people with both political and administrative skills. There are many examples of people liquidating a legacy because they didn’t have it in them.
Sasikala should be happy as the general secretary because that will let her continue her proxy rule of the state. She will be Jayalalitha by proxy. Having a pliant chief minister, ministers and even key officers will keep her as the real power centre. And the biggest bonus is that she can still stay behind the scenes.
If she indeed has chief ministerial aspirations, probably she should use this period to build an appropriate public persona around her emerging cult and do a calibrated soft launch while keeping her relatives as far away as possible. As Jayalalithaa used to say, “Makkal Theerpae Mahesan Theerpu” (Voice of the people is the voice of God). Unless she gets there, there is no long term future or political safety. In politics, sycophancy and cultism do work, but they have to be timed well. Those big posters of Sasikala that one sees in Chennai and elsewhere in the state don’t have any significance, except an implicit plan in the making, as of now.
Updated Date: Dec 20, 2016 11:31:31 IST