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POSTED AT 01:27 PM 14-02-2017

Post Jayalalithaa Tamil Nadu: a struggle for power

A look at her rise, death and aftermath in the Tamil Nadu political landscape

Image courtesy: The Quint

Late Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalitha was a quintessential element in politics in her own state, and had a powerful influence over the Indian and Sri Lankan Governments. Her death was met with widespread mourning, and cast a shadow over the future of Tamil Nadu. Following her demise, what seemed like a would-be smooth transition of power has now turned in to a 'Game of Thrones' between her proteges, Sashikala Natarajan and O Panneerselvam. 

With Sasikala now behind bars, and DMK seemingly victorious, one could say the future of Tamil Nadu seems more uncertain than ever. If the history of Tamil Nadu politics is to be any indication then the "Game" is far from over. FrontPage takes a look at the history and potential future of Sri Lanka's immediate neighbour.  


Jayalalitha's Rise to Power

Image courtesy: The New Indian Express

In 1982, leaving behind her days as an actress, she joined the AIADMK under the guidance of her frequent co-star, MGR. She laid down her niche as a competent orator and a role model for women with her maiden speech “The Greatness of a Woman.” She quickly ascended the political ladder, starting as a successful Propaganda Secretary. After her mentor MGR passed away, Jayalalitha battled his widow Janaki Ramachandran to become the Chief Minister.

She served four times as Chief Minister amid many setbacks. She phrases her political life as ‘Swimming in a river of fire.’ A reputation of being cold and authoritative cloaked her, however the masses called their beloved leader ‘Amma.’ She was a blessing to women and the poor, establishing adoption centres for unwanted baby girls and a chain of cheap but healthy canteens. Nevertheless she was repeatedly accused of amassing more wealth than her income. Violence born of caste disparity was prevalent during her rule, but most ignored these problems under the guile of her indispensable charisma.



Image courtesy: The New Indian Express

She breathed her last on 5th December 2017 at around 11.30 pm. Many states declared one or more days for mourning, and her funeral was an event attended by the distraught public. AIADMK states that 77 people have died of shock. The mantel of Idolization placed on MGR so far had now passed on to Jayalalithaa.


Sasikala and Panneerselvam: the tug of war 

O Panneerselvam succeeded Jayalalithaa as the new Chief Minister overnight, and Sasikala took over AIADMK party affairs simultaneously immediately after Jayalalithaa’s death. In a fast sequence of events, Sasikala was appointed the General Secretary of the AIADMK on 29th December. On 5th February, Panneerselvam resigned from his post and the AIADMK declared Sasikala to be the next Chief Minister.

Things took a stranger turn yet on 8th February when Panneerselvam launched a surprise revolt against Sasikala claiming that she had forced him to resign. He also claimed that Jayalalitha had spoken unto him while he was meditating and blessed him to be her true successor. Sasikala retaliated with the strong words “People are trying to divide the organisation, I won't let this happen.” But it was in vain as The Supreme court adjudged her guilty of Disproportion of Assets and aiding Jayalalithaa in amassing illicit wealth. She was sentenced to four years in jail on 14th February.

Image courtesy: The Deccan Chronical

Sasikala Natarajan first arrived into Jayalalithaa’s life as her personal assistant, but soon became her close confidante. She was constantly in touch with AIADMK politics and Jayalalithaa’s personal life. Sasikala and her relatives, derogatorily named the 'Mannargudi Mafia', were evicted by Jayalalithaa in 2011. Sasikala soon won her forgiveness and returned. It was she who organized Jayalalithaa's funeral, gaining the people’s sympathy and a supportive media coverage. She did not try to be the Chief Minister, but appointed the less controversial O Panneerselvam. She retained Jayalalithaa’s posse of ministers.

Panneerselvam also remains a staunch supporter of Jayalalithaa. He replaced Jayalalitha twice before from 2001-02 and 2014-15 after she was forced to resign by the courts. In May 2006, he was the leader of the AIADMK and the Opposition in Tamil Nadu.


The DMK and the AIADMK

M Karunanidhi and M K Stalin (Image courtesy: Zee News)

With Jayalalithaa gone and the old age and fragile health of M Karunanidhi, leader of the AIADMK's chief opposition the DMK party, the Dravidian parties are at cross-roads. Jayalalithaa has always centralized party decisions thus her ministers lacked direction and cohesion. The DMK itself has a lot of internal struggles. Karunanidhi’s son M. K. Stalin has been by his side for four decades and was the Chennai Mayor and the Deputy Chief Minister at one time. His brother M. K. Alagiri is a MP, and it is often debated who should succeed Karunanidhi as party chief. Karunanidhi has stated that Stalin is his heir, though he shows no signs of stepping down any time soon.

A power vacuum has opened. As caste segregation is still a factor in Tamil Nadu politics, parties with anti-dravidian policies may rise. Sensing the instability, BJP or the Central Government could make an attempt to gain a footing there. Further, smaller parties such as TDK, TMC and TMKC will seek opportunities to raise their heads.


The Central Government and Tamil Nadu

Image courtesy:

The central government is keen to maintain the stability of Tamil Nadu. AIADMK under Jayalalithaa had always been supportive to the government, such as during the upheaval over demonetisation. The continuation of this relationship will be a challenge. On the other hand, Jayalalithaa was suspicious of BJP and warned her MPs to not be influenced by them. Cunning and foresightful, she kept a good relationship with Narendra Modi, even before he was Prime Minister, when he was the Gujarat Chief Minister.

There is more opportunity now for the Central Government to influence Tamil Nadu Politics. The BJP had campaigned for M Thambidurai, a senior AIADMK Lok Sabha MP as Chief Minister but was unsuccessful. Tamil Nadu could once again come under national parties since the two leading Dravidian parties are weakened.The Indian Congress, which was ousted by the Dravidian parties fifty years ago cannot oppose the BJP due to the lack of a suitable candidate or the popularity to establish itself in Tamil Nadu. However, it is unlikely they will make a move until The Presidential elections held someday before 25 July 2017.


Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu

Tamil Nadu politicians have always shown concern over Sri Lankan Tamils. Since the two strongest parties have grown weaker, smaller parties with exclusivist pan-Dravidian sensibilities might raise a cry for Tamil elitism in Sri Lanka. The predicament of Sri Lankan Tamils may be used to gain more votes. Jayalalithaa overall did not support LTTE even though she softened her attitude during her last term. ‘The departure of Jayalalithaa is likely to see a younger generation leadership emerge in state politics that will focus even more on economic issues rather than ethnic issues,’ said Lakshman Gunasekara.

R Sampanthan (Image courtesy: News First)

Opposition Leader and the Leader of the Tamil National Alliance, R. Sampanthan released a statement to convey his condolences. “I am grateful for the work of late Hon. Jayalalitha ... to find a solution to the issues faced by the Tamil people in Sri Lanka.” The TNA has often turned to Tamil Nadu to pressurize the Sri Lankan Government. Northern Provincial Council member M.K.Sivajilingam stated that Jayalalithaa agreed that Sri Lankan Tamils deserve a separate state. “Although it will not be pursued as relentlessly, I don’t think any future leader in Tamil Nadu can dodge the question,” he added.


What happens now?

O Panneerselvam, the caretaker Chief Minister, is the most likely candidate to be made the Chief Minister. Semmalai, an AIADMK Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) from Mettur, extended his support to Panneerselvam. Others on his side include Saravanan, the South Madurai MLA of AIADMK and R Gopalakrishnan, a MP from Madurai. However, after she was convicted, Sasikala expelled Panneerselvam from the party at an assembly and had Edappadi K Palanisamy, a minister loyal to her, elected as the AIADMK Chief in the assembly. Thus Panneerselvam and Palanisamy will be contesting for the position.

Vidyasagar Rao, the Tamil Nadu Governor had kept the swearing-in ceremony on hold, so far. MK Stalin has declared that Sasikala's arrest was a victory and justice has been served. Now that the power struggle between Sasikala and Panneerselvam is over, the people hope for a positive political outcome.

"Sink differences, work together and keep the party united to continue Amma's good rule" - Panneerselvam (Image Courtesy: NDTV)