Youngsters Asking Questions to Tamilnadu Government

Reacting to the chorus of articles highlighting a vacuum in Tamil politics following the demise of Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, Dalit leader Thirumavalavan insisted that the vacuum was in the AIADMK, rather than in the wider state. Whilst party stalwarts and cadre are still coming to terms with their loss, the AIADMK appear determined to dismiss even this suggestion by acting swiftly to reorganise the party. Sure enough, the installation of O Panneerselvam as interim leader and Chief Minister was smooth and the state government’s response to Cyclone Vardah was timely and efficient. This response was in stark contrast to the faltering and patchy relief efforts following a similar natural disaster in 2015, and suggested that perhaps talk of a vacuum was exaggerated. Youngsters Asking Questions to Tamilnadu Government

Panneerselvam, it might be objected, lacks the presence and charisma required to lead the party. His self-effacing loyalty might endear him to the party faithful and make him an able administrator, but hardly qualifies him to replace the larger than life figure of Amma. Such calculations have clearly occurred within the AIADMK too, since there are already plans to usher him back into the ranks in favour of Jayalalithaa’s trusted companion and confidante Sasikala. Paneerselvam has barely got his knees under the Chief Minister’s desk, but there is a concerted effort by party ministers to vest power in the woman who is affectionately known as Chinnamma (small mother). Sasikala has already been elected General Secretary of the Party and there are calls for her to be made Chief Minister too. In what follows, we reflect on what these machinations tell us about Tamil politics and the possible implications:

The Image Trap

To understand current politics, we first need to return to the origins of the AIADMK. It was founded in 1972 by Tamil screen idol MG Ramachandran (MGR) following his split from the DMK. Tamil cultural historian MSS Pandian details the way in which he meticulously cultivated his on-screen persona to present himself as a champion of the poor and the oppressed. His popularity thus derived blinded many people to the fact that his policies often worked against the interests of the poor. His electoral successes have shaped politics in the state in ways that resonate even today. One of his abiding legacies is the importance of image and stature for leadership contenders. As Vijayakanth demonstrated with his initial foray into politics – popularity and public recognition make up for many failings. Youngsters Asking Questions to Tamilnadu Government

Jayalalithaa was extremely adept at cultivating her image as a benevolent patron and mother figure. Welfare schemes, cheap eateries, water bottles, ration shop provisions and bus-stops all bore her portrait and helped establish a connection to the public that was instrumental to her electoral success. The centralisation of power and decision-making in her person, however, means that few members of the party have the prominence or media exposure to enable them to succeed her. Panneerselvam may have occupied the Chief Minister’s chair three times, but he has always been seen as a stop-gap and never fully held the reins of power. In contrast, Sasikala is a household name and is immediately recognisable by virtue of her closeness to Jayalalithaa. Not only has she occupied the limelight, but she has also been active behind the scenes in negotiating electoral alliances and nominating ministers and candidates. Additionally, she is the only leading female contender for the post which could be important in retaining the AIADMK’s strong backing amongst women. Finally, unlike her predecessors in the party (MGR was a Malayalee and Jayalalithaa a Kannada Brahmin), Sasikala is Tamil and has been endorsed by senior Dravidian ideologues like K Veeramani of the Dravidar Kazhagam who has welcomed the possibility of a person of Tamil origin heading a Dravidian party. She is, in this sense, the obvious successor. Many in the party have expressed this view already and have started to project her image on posters and wall paintings to this effect, but her elevation will not win unanimous backing. Youngsters Asking Questions to Tamilnadu Government

There May Be Trouble Ahead

If there are many reasons to embrace Sasikala’s leadership, there are also grounds for caution. For a start, Sasikala has never been elected. She may have been the power behind the throne, but such figures attract jealousy and spite as much as admiration. Many of the most controversial aspects of Jayalalithaa’s history are bound up with Sasikala. Both were indicted under the disproportionate assets case which is still pending in the Supreme Court, Sasikala’s family were expelled from the party in 2011 for seeking to wrest power from Amma, and it was the ostentatious wedding celebrations for Sasikala’s nephew and Jayalalithaa’s foster son Sudhakaran that gained Jayalalithaa a reputation for extravagance and possibly corruption. During Jayalalithaa’s life, Sasikala shouldered much of the blame for these episodes and served to absolve Amma herself. Whether the public are now willing to forgive and forget and transfer their allegiances to Chinnamma or not remains an open question. Youngsters Asking Questions to Tamilnadu Government

One further obstacle in Sasikala’s path to public popularity is her caste background. That Jayalalithaa – as a Brahmin – managed to assume leadership in a state shaped by a vehement non- (or even anti-) Brahmin movement was impressive. Brahmins, however, are a numerical minority in the state and have long ceased to be politically influential. Sasikala, however, hails from the Backward Caste Thevar community, which is one of the dominant castes in the state. Not only will this alienate Dalit voters, but the AIADMK’s long cultivation of the Thevar vote-bank will rankle more if the Chief Minister hails from that community and is perceived to be protecting her own. The key question here is whether ethnic identity can trump caste identity in a state where caste calculations inform the political practice. Sasikala, much more than Jayalalithaa, will need to navigate the complex caste equations of Tamil politics with care if she is to reach out and appeal to voters from other castes. Youngsters Asking Questions to Tamilnadu Government

Tests to Come

In other words, whilst her intimate knowledge of the workings of the party, her public renown and her undisputed claim to be Jayalalithaa’s closest aide make Sasikala the perfect choice for the AIADMK, it is too soon to say that the vacuum that opened up in the party has been filled. Caste ties, loyalty and patronage may all bind candidates to a leader, but the history of Tamil politics repeatedly demonstrates that politicians wish to back a winner. Each election sees a wave of defections and transfers as candidates lobby for greater prominence or switch sides to alliances that they think stand a greater chance of winning. For all his wealth and cinematic popularity, Vijayakanth was unable to stem the tide of departures from his party once candidates had determined that his front stood little chance of success. Youngsters Asking Questions to Tamilnadu Government

The true test for the AIADMK, thus, will come in the next two elections. Whether Panneerselvam remains Chief Minister or Sasikala replaces him, neither is experienced in overseeing a campaign and neither has been the star-attraction. If the party can harness a sympathy wave to win the next election, then the leader will be able to establish a reputation for themselves and to build a following. If, however, the DMK can manage its own problems of succession and corruption and emerge as a credible force, then we will really get to test the mettle of the AIADMK. A weak poll showing would probably lead many representatives (especially non-Thevars) to jump ship. If so, the vacuum that currently exists in the AIADMK would really extend to Tamil politics as a whole. Youngsters Asking Questions to Tamilnadu Government

(Hugo Gorringe is senior lecturer in Sociology at the University of Edinburgh)

(D. Karthikeyan is a doctoral student at the Centre for South Asian Studies at University of Edinburgh)

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