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Tamil Nadu after Jayalalithaa: Things seem fine for Sasikala, but plenty can go wrong

As Circe said in Homer’s Odyssey: “So far so good ... now pay attention to what I am about to tell you ...”

We are talking about Tamil Nadu, where the story of political succession is still-unfolding and has the trappings of the palace intrigues of Mughal empire after Aurangazeb’s passing away.

Democracy? Forget it for now. What happened after the demise of AIADMK matriarch and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa was a coup — neat, swift and bloodless.

A midnight coup is unsettling enough. And if it's followed by deafening silence, it's more disconcerting, even scary. Jayalalithaa’s death on 5 December and Sasikala’s feat in anointing O Panneerselvam as the new Chief Minister in the middle of night and then, equally swiftly, taking full charge of the affairs of the AIADMK sent the rank and file of that party into stunned silence. Some in the party were too dazed over the death, and some were too afraid to ask whether Sasikala was right in doing what she did.

The silence was broken only on Friday, not by voices of dissent but a slowly gathering chorus of support for Sasikala. Like weathercocks, they know which way the wind is blowing, and they are expressing their adulation for the new leader in the most sycophantic terms that Tamil Nadu excels and revels in.

It’s difficult to believe yet that the entire party is wholeheartedly backing Sasikala. What’s easier to understand is that most MLAs and ministers don’t relish the prospect of losing their posts—which is what the fall of government would mean—with assembly elections, held only six months ago, due next only in 2021.

 Tamil Nadu after Jayalalithaa: Things seem fine for Sasikala, but plenty can go wrong

Sasikala with former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu Jayalalithaa. Reuters

The apparent peace in the party seems too tenuous to last till 2021, and Sasikala, from all available indications, knows it too well. Apart from the terrible mistake of flaunting some of her discredited family members despised by Jayalalithaa at her funeral on Tuesday, Sasikala has so far, politically, done four things right:

-- One, she didn’t try to manoeuvre herself into the Chief Minister’s job. She could have, if she tried, and then announced she would win a byelection to enter the Legislature within the stipulated six months. But that would have made her look like a greedy usurper of power which she claims she is not.

-- Two, she pushed Panneerselvam into the job, an action that was likely to meet least resistance. She was right. He had been the stop-gap Chief Minister for Jayalalithaa twice before and was playing that role a third time when she died.

-- Three, whatever covert understanding both Sasikala and Panneerselvam had reached, they wisely retained Jayalalithaa’s ministerial team. Disrupting the status quo can lead to a political disaster even at times of mourning the demise of an iconic leader.

-- Four, Sasikala took control of the funeral and performed the last rites along with another family member of Jayalalithaa. The live television image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi consoling her gave her extra-constitutional position more than a semblance of a legal locus standi.

These are deft moves of an astute, hardboiled politician, not of a “housekeeper”. Some 30 years ago, Jayalalithaa had asked Sasikala to move into her home to keep her home in order while she busied herself with politics. And for at least ten years now, Sasikala has been doing more than cooking sambar and keeping the home clean for Jayalalithaa’s visitors. In fact, she was often deciding who should be the visitors.

The “housekeeper” was also having a say in the selection of at least some election candidates and taking part in seat-sharing talks with alliance partners. It indeed looked as if Jayalalithaa was nurturing Sasikala as her successor, but she has never made it public. So in the eyes of at least a section of the party’s workers and leaders, she is the heir-apparent.

Wasn’t it how Jayalalithaa herself had succeeded her mentor and two-term AIADMK Chief Minister M G Ramachandran (MGR)? He had made Jayalalithaa the party’s Propaganda Secretary and a Rajya Sabha member, primarily because she could wax eloquent in English, but had never hinted even during his long illness that she would take his place.

It led to a tussle for power between Jayalalithaa and MGR’s wife Janaki after his death. But Jayalalithaa proved the better of the two in the fierce battle that reminded us of William Congreve’s line: Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. There were two scorned women after MGR’s death.

In Sasikala’s case, she was the only one who was close to Jayalalithaa for so long with no rival to contend with. So the alleged heir-apparent has become the heir. And as things stand now, everything looks good for her. Or does it?

What can possibly go wrong?

The immediate decision that Sasikala has to take is about who should be the next General Secretary of AIADMK, the highest party post held by Jayalalithaa and earlier by MGR. Not a political novice that many may think she is, Sasikala is shrewdly weighing between the options of taking the post herself or giving the job to Panneerselvam or another obsequious and unquestioning entity like him.

Sasikala and Panneerselvam belong to the Thevar community and the caste of the new general secretary, if neither takes that post, will tell its own story, sending the right or the wrong message to the party. But a wrong move on this score alone is unlikely to see the collapse of either the party or the government.

Playing favourites

What could trigger a downslide in Sasikala’s fortunes would be any sign that she is playing favourites with those in the party close to her in the past. Jayalalithaa could afford to promote and demote or use and discard partymen at whim, alternating between cold-blooded ruthlessness and serene benevolence, because the party was, to her, no more than a personal fiefdom. Any attempt by Sasikala to be a Jayalalithaa-2 in the immediate future will be fraught with consequences she may regret.

Disproportionate assets case

An adverse judgement in the “disproportionate assets case”, now pending with the Supreme Court, may find her in the soup. The case was against Jayalalithaa, Sasikala, Ilavarasi (wife of her dead brother Jayaraman) and VN Sudhakaran (son of her sister Vanithamani, whom Jayalalithaa had adopted and discarded).

The “Mannargudi mafia”

More than everything, if the “Mannargudi mafia”, as Sasikala’s family is known, revives its old games again, it will give ample chance to her opponents in the party to break their silence. More than a dozen of her family members, including her husband, her siblings, their spouses and children, have been riding rough shod over the AIADMK machinery and bureaucracy across the state, till Jayalalithaa clamped down on them five years ago. Some of them resurfaced at the funeral.

The first indications point to the possibility that Sasikala may rein in her family members.
But first impressions may not always be the best and the most accurate ones.

Author tweets @sprasadindia

Your guide to the latest election news, analysis, commentary, live updates and schedule for Lok Sabha Elections 2019 on firstpost.com/elections. Follow us on Twitter and Instagram or like our Facebook page for updates from all 543 constituencies for the upcoming general elections.

Updated Date: Dec 10, 2016 21:33:55 IST

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