NEW DELHI: Jayalalithaa Jayaram is dead. What remains alive is the abounding speculation: After Amma, what? The question of ‘Who, after Amma’, though easily answered can be misleading, for it conceals the real powers at play and the players in power.
Right now, the visible, obvious Who is O Panneerselvam. He has been put in the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister’s chair by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. As his point man, Union Minister M Venkaiah Naidu ensured that the Governor, key AIADMK figures and state officials stuck to the script written in Delhi.
Panneerselvam, who was twice interim chief minister, may appear to be a case of the meek inheriting the government. Whether the man who was meek under Jayalalithaa would remain so after the Iron Lady has gone — and when her confidante Sasikala Natarajan is the AIADMK’s undisputed power centre at this juncture of transition – has to be watched.
Modi standing beside Jayalalithaa’s body in Rajaji Hall; hugging an inconsolable Panneerselvam who repeatedly breaks down; asking him to stay strong; emphatically telling him within everyone’s earshot that “Any time on any issue, feel free. We are with you”; and, patting a no less distraught Sasikala on her head even while his body is turned against her. All these capture the underlying plot with stunning clarity: that Chief Minister Panneerselvam is safe and secure as long as he stays within Modi’s embrace.
All he has to do is stay put and strong in the knowledge that the Union Government is solidly behind him and will stop at nothing to keep together the AIADMK flock of legislators, including the 50 MPs. Few would doubt that Modi’s “stay strong” message to Panneerselvam was an exhortation to hold his own against any and all in the AIADMK and also the DMK, which is waiting in the wings, biding its time.
This is a holding operation, scripted by the Centre, avowedly in the interests of “political stability in state, where the assembly elections which brought Jayalalithaa to office were held earlier this year. No one, including the BJP, AIADMK and the DMK want elections when the present assembly has four more years of its term to go. However, in the present state of flux in Tamil Nadu, re-set of equations within the AIADMK appear as inevitable as political realignments in the state.
The equations within the AIADMK are the most worrying issue for Modi and the Centre, given the fact that there was no love lost between the RSS and Jayalalithaa in Tamil Nadu. Since 2011, she had shunned the RSS, given no quarter to the Hindutva outfits and, despite her friendly disposition towards Modi, she kept the BJP at a distance and ignored the party’s state ‘leaders’. Thus, Modi’s hold over Panneerselvam and the AIADMK is as head of the Central Government, and not because of any close ties between the BJP and AIADMK. The two had a transactional relationship at the national level because the BJP needed the AIADMK’s support in Parliament. And, to keep on the right side of Jayalalithaa, the BJP made the AIADMK’s M Thambidurai Deputy Speaker.
Jayalalithaa is the one Chief Minister that neither Modi nor any of his ministers needled. In fact, the Union Finance and Law Ministers went out of their way to cosy up to Jayalalithaa when she was facing charges of corruption and being tried for possession of disproportionate assets.
After Jayalalithaa, it is Sasikala who holds most of the cards, especially the aces, with which her leader and close friend played the political game with skill and finesse. The AIADMK has vast resources and its assets are yet to be estimated, though these are unlikely to be ever made public in full. Perhaps, only Sasikala and her associates know the nature and extent of the party’s and Jayalalithaa’s assets. This makes Sasikala the Numero Uno, at this moment, in the AIADMK.
As the one who was closest to Jayalalithaa, knows every detail of what she’s left behind, heir to her legacy unless legally challenged, the pre-eminent power centre in post-Amma AIADMK and a power within the Thevar community which calls the shots within the party, Sasikala is the most important political figure in Tamil Nadu. She is the power behind Panneerselvam; and, Modi and Venkaiah Naidu need to tread warily until the new Chief Minister emerges in his own right, which too may mean problems for Modi. But that would later.
Right now, it has to be seen whether Sasikala takes on a formal role as the AIADMK’s General Secretary or sticks to the greater power she wields behind the scenes. She also has to contend with the Gounder community, to which Thambidurai and state minister E K Palaniswamy belong. She has to gauge whether the situation within the party calls for the Thevar lobby to strike a deal with the Gounder faction, knowing that Thambidurai may be part of Modi’s Plan B. The disproportionate assets case against Sasikala, which will continue, is also a factor.
Modi would like to keep the AIADMK intact and sustain the holding operation at least until next year’s presidential election, for which the AIADMK votes would be invaluable. That requires the Centre to maintain some sort of truce and equilibrium between competing factions and ambitious caste groups within the AIADMK.
The only rationale for the AIADMK coming into being and existing was anti-Karunanidhi. With the dominant anti-Karunanidhi personalities, namely MGR and Jayalalithaa gone, the DMK might exert a powerful pull as the natural home of the Dravida cadres. In the long run, the DMK may be the natural beneficiary especially if no leader of statute rises from within the AIADMK to hold the party together.
Before that there is the present, the immediate future of the holding operation, the short term and the medium term when it would be open season in the AIADMK, between Dravida parties, for all parties in Tamil Nadu and for the BJP and Congress.
In February 2017, it would be 50 years since the Congress party was banished from Tamil Nadu. 2017, the year of reckoning for the Dravida parties, the BJP and the Congress, may well prove to be a turning point for the state.
With Amma gone, it all depends on ‘Chinnamma’ Sasikala and how she plays it with Modi Sarkar and its proxy in Tamil Nadu.
(Shastri Ramachandaran is a senior journalist and columnist)