Those keen on grabbing power at Chennai's Fort St George, the imposing colonial era home of the Tamil Nadu government, knew at least a day in advance what was going on. And those who were grey participants from New Delhi in the complex chessboard of Tamil Nadu likely knew much more as then chief minister J Jayalalithaa lay in her deathbed — probably dead long before the news of "Amma's" demise became public.
A small paragraph tucked away on the inside pages of Dinakaran, the pro-DMK daily controlled by the Maran brothers, said after O Panneerselvam's tentative exit as chief minister of the state of nearly eight crore people that the resignation had been forced on him after he was summoned by his party mates from the spot where he was inspecting an oil spill. But it would be nearly impossible to see Panneerselvam, the AIADMK leader now leading a party revolt against VK Sasikala, as a DMK mole as her loyalists would make her believe.
Sitting on a grey area between a forced resignation and a difficult party organisation, Panneerselvam may be on a difficult wicket in the immediate future but there are deeper reasons that suggest that his rebellion against "Chinnamma" (Little Amma) Sasikala, the shadowy aide of Jayalalithaa, may be on stronger ground than his critics might believe. In a party known for fierce loyalties that cloak self-interest and corruption, voices don't come out loud and clear when there is a lot at stake.
The scenario is very similar to the winter of 1987-88 when much of the party stayed with Janaki Ramachandran, widow of the late MG Ramachandran, when Jayalalithaa was left in the wilderness following her mentor's death. Jayalalithaa later hit the ground running and took the party with her. It is possible to compare Panneerselvam with Jayalalithaa three decades ago, albeit on a smaller scale. He is stronger on the ground — where things matter — when it comes to the crunch. MLAs who may now sit with Sasikala out of ensuring the continuity of their seats and power might think differently when they have an eye on the longer term.
The key point is that the AIADMK has its own ideology and vote base that is distinct from that of the DMK, though both the parties have their origins in the Dravida movement led by backward castes. While job reservations and the spoils of power for backward castes are common to the two, the DMK is a cadre-based party that thrives on the Tamil identity, anti-North sentiments and strong pockets off male dominance, rationalism and atheism.
AIADMK is more welfarist in orientation, relying a lot on women, farmers and pro-poor handouts to strengthen a political base carved out by its charismatic leaders. This constituency has to be nurtured, and whoever does it better stands a better chance. Both Sasikaka and Panneerselvam belong to the Thevar community. Thevars, though classified as backward in Tamil Nadu, are Kshatriyas with princely and warrior lineages. They tend to be religious and attach value to loyalty. While it has produced woman leaders including Velu Nachiyar, the warrior queen who fought the British decades before the Rani of Jhansi, it is still male-dominated.
Panneerselvam, as a male, a decent orator and one with administrative chutzpah — having been twice chief minister during Jayalalithaa's distance from the seat on account of corruption cases — is a stronger grassroots figure. Having been clearly appointed by the late "Amma" to run the government in the past, he seems to fit better Jayalalithaa's personal slogan, "Makkalal naan, makkalukkagave naan (I am because of the people, and I am only for the people)".
Sasikala may have party bigwigs and MLAs backing her, but her style of palace intrigue and backroom manoeuvres may lose their shine if it comes to the hustings.
The Thevars form a strong bunch in Madurai and beyond in the southern parts of the state. Panneerselvam is more likely to make an impression there than his rival. Also, a new wave of idealism led by youths as witnessed during the recent protests at Marina Beach to restore the traditional Jallikkattu (bull-taming) is more in line with a democratic upsurge than a palace coup of sorts.
A lot will depend on how sitting MLAs and party apparatchiks of the AIADMK weigh their personal future. In a party where "maybe" is not an acceptable answer for imperious leaders, Panneerselvam has signalled that he bears no ill-will towards the cadres — leaving room open for defections towards him in the weeks and months to come. He may also have a sweet alliance with the BJP trying to make inroads in Tamil Nadu. The religious, traditionalist Thevars sit easier with the Hindutva ideology and the AIADMK under Panneerselvam could well head for an alliance similar to that between the party and the Congress in the 1980s.
Gossip bordering on inside news suggested that BJP's emissary Venkaiah Naidu had persuaded at Jayalalithaa's deathbed to Sasikala that Panneerselvam should continue, forcing her hand much in the same manner she forced that of Panneerselvam weeks later. Only the naive would believe that CBI raids on mining baron J Sekhar Reddy and income tax raids on Tamil Nadu's chief secretary P Rama Mohan Rao soon after Jayalalithaa's demise have no political significance. Negotiations, signals and gentle twists of the arm are central to politics.
State governor Vidyasagar Rao, significantly absent from the state for the past two crucial days, may weigh things beyond the headcount that favours Sasikala for now.
With blessings from the Centre, a more cohesive ideological line and a capacity to build grassroots support outside of backroom camaraderie, Panneerselvam may just be a longer term bet to hijack the AIADMK. Since we have no history of Sasikala ever having handled an administrative file, the odds are stacked against her. Unless, of course, she had in her days as a video cassette library owner, one called "Learn Governance in 60 Minutes."
For the moment, she seems to have ruled out the "Sonia Gandhi Formula" of finding someone to run things for her.
The author is a senior journalist. He tweets @madversity
Updated Date: Feb 08, 2017 19:38 PM