VK Sasikala to be Tamil Nadu CM: Has Chinnamma taken the Amma-plunge too soon?
When VK Sasikala swears in as the new Tamil Nadu chief minister sometime this week, it will be the fastest rise to power by anybody in Indian politics, except Bihar’s Rabri Devi
When VK Sasikala swears in as the new Tamil Nadu chief minister sometime this week, it will be the fastest rise to power by anybody in Indian politics, except Bihar’s Rabri Devi, who was asked to keep the chair warm for her husband Lalu Prasad Yadav when he had to step down on corruption charges two decades ago. Rabri was an illiterate housewife and an absolute rookie, but she went on to rule the state for three truncated terms. In comparison, Sasikala has a whole term ahead of her; and unlike Rabri, it’s no stop-gap arrangement. Her chief ministership will be real, she will be her only boss and there will be no time out.
Although she got extremely lucky to become the first chief minister in India whose only claim to the post is her role as a caregiver to an incumbent who died in harness, it’s truly a daunting task because she will now be the executive head of a state with constitutional obligations. Moreover, she has to fit into the shoes of J Jayalalithaa, who was both a mass leader and one of the most experienced politician-administrators in the country.
And it’s this undistinguished background that will make her vulnerable however hard she tries. DMK leader MK Stalin has already identified it and fired the first salvo when he said that the people of the state hadn’t voted for a government to be run by somebody from Jayalalithaa's "household". His language wasn’t patently bad, but the connotation was about her background. In the coming days, he will certainly harp on that and it’s likely to resonate with the general public as well. Social media was aflutter on Sunday with more explicit messages ridiculing her. In fact, rather than a lack of democratically upheld political mandate, her Achilles' Heel in front of the people be will be her caregiver/housekeeper past — how somebody who was nursing Jaya and looking after her household took over her mantle with absolutely no opposition, that too so soon. A top editor in Chennai kept tweeting her displeasure explicitly.
What many don’t realise is that there was no other alternative for both the AIADMK and Sasikala herself because Jaya hadn’t allowed for a second line of leadership and hadn’t indicated who her successor would be in case anything happened to her. It was a vacuum that needed to be filled fast. Had Sasikala not taken over the party, even while she was mourning, the AIADMK would have fractured on the lines of caste loyalties and power. So, she was completely justified in stepping in, and doing rather well in scripting and executing the takeover. However, the race to Fort St George, the state secretariat from where she will rule the state, happened too soon. She could’ve waited a little longer, at least till she established herself as the new leader, made some key public appearances, and achieved some traction with the party ranks and its core support base.
What awaits her now is huge uncertainty, particularly getting people’s approval, running the government, and putting up at least a semblance of what Jaya did. Tamil Nadu is among the most important states in the country — it’s the second largest economy in India, which is also a top FDI destination, a human development achiever ranked second only to Kerala, an aspiring welfare state that has shown the rest of India how social protection can coexist with a liberalised economy and how an innovative bureaucracy can make a difference to governance. A major part of these are political achievements, thanks to Jayalalithaa and M Karunanidhi who had been alternating in power since the 1990s. And that’s the template into which Sasikala has to fit. Unfortunately, the comparisons she will face will be unfair because it’s impossible to match even a fraction of their statesmanship and political craft in a few days or even in a few years.
The rubber is hitting the road too soon.
Besides keeping the party together, there may be many other reasons why Sasikala took this early plunge. One of them could be highly personal — that she wants to get into history as the second woman chief minister of the state and such opportunities are rarer than getting hit by a lightning. Had she delayed the process, she was probably worried that she may never have gotten there for two reasons — one, the AIADMK might not show the same unity when it recovers from the post-Jaya shock, and two, the cases against her — particularly the disproportionate assets case — will disqualify her. So, it’s better to rush and get your name recorded in the annals. Moreover, being in control of the entire state apparatus would help in handling the cases directly. You can use all the resources of the state to protect yourself.
Her large and extended family, that the media disapprovingly call the “Mannargudi mafia”, also is under similar compunctions — for them, this is an exceptional opportunity to become the ruling family of Tamil Nadu and a few months of wait could change everything. It will also help the business interests of many of them. More over, one of the family members faces serious ED and FERA charges, for which the protection of the state government would come in handy when the Centre and courts crack the whip.
Sasikala also would have been wary about the Centre, and the BJP, puppeteering the outgoing chief minister O Panneerselvam. His continued stay, with active support from none other than Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself, could have made him confident and a minor power centre within the party. The development of any such fault-line would have been detrimental to her interests. So, earlier the better. Apparently, there were people watching over his shoulders whether he was in Chennai or Delhi.
It’s widely believed that Sasikala’s husband M Natarajan, a former state government employee and a follower of Tamil nationalist P Nedumaran, is the man who’s scripting Sasikala’s political makeover.
Since the last hours of Jaya in hospital, nothing could have moved without a detailed plan and its precise execution because the whole process worked to a fault. Natarajan, with support from some members of the family, is believed to be the master strategist. He claims knowledge of governance and statecraft, and has often bragged that he was the one who had advised Jaya in administration in her first term.
Whether or not his claims were true in Jaya’s term during 1991 and 1996, it will be certainly him for Sasikala. A new feel-good element has been injected into the party by inducting veterans who had been sidelined and assigning happy roles for many senior leaders. Natarajan has also said that Deepa Jayakumar, Jaya’s niece who’s threatening to contest Sasikala’s authority over the party, would also come around. Informed sources say that Natarajan is now drawing up his list of officers to run the government. The removal of Jayalalithaa’s confidante Sheela Balakrishnan along with two others, who had been principally running the administration, marks the beginning of the takeover and end of the Jaya era.
Sasikala will evoke the legacy of Jaya at every step, but she is unlikely to brook any remnants of Amma-loyalism either in the party or in government because Chinnamma is the new Amma.
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