It remains open because Amit Shah is clearly no substitute for even Sasikala, leave alone the late lamented Amma. Although Sasikala is herself in jail (from where, rumour has it, she frequently escapes on forays without!) her stalking horse is her nephew, TTV Dhinakaran. His money and muscle power keep her in play (and him politically alive). The petition against Sasikala pleading for her removal as Supremo is pending without decision before the Election Commission. Dhinakaran himself is to hold today a massive rally to flex his muscles and money-power. Therefore, even after the reunited AIADMK completes the formalities of holding a formal meeting to dismiss Sasikala and install OPS in her gaddi, the Amma party will remain split between those who repudiate Sasikala and those who express their loyalty to Amma through support to Sasikala. Meanwhile, Deepa, Jaylalithaa's niece, waits in the wings - although at present she seems to be a political cipher.
Nevertheless, the significance of the reunited AIADMK should not be under-estimated. They have indeed got together. They are more than likely to field a united front. But it will be a faceless front - for both EPS and OPS had rendered themselves faceless by their abject submission to Amma. Can they run Amma's party without Amma? Would it not amount to Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark?
As far as one can make out from instant public reaction to the shot-gun merger, there is not much public enthusiasm on display. The merger itself seems so tentative that the response too is tentative. Should the coming together consolidate into genuine unity, the AIADMK might rise again - but the people are waiting and watching with skepticism because everyone knows that this is not a marriage of minds and hearts and ambitions, but a shot-gun marriage arranged under duress by an outside party, the BJP. The second reason is that even the most ardent AIADMK follower knows Amma spurned the BJP even when she opportunistically drew close to them. Who can forget that she single-handedly brought down the Vajpayee government in April 1999? Third, whatever EPS and OPS might do, they cannot bring back Amma. So, we are back to the key question: how to project an Amma party without Amma?
She was no ordinary leader. So centralized was her outfit that to prove that every AIADMK vote was a Jayalalithaa vote, she routinely refused a second term to most of her MLAs (and even MPs), and, more often than not picked her candidate precisely because the candidate had no personal political standing and was merely a zero masquerading as a legislator. What then happens at the next election? EPS/OPS will find most of their MLAs an impossible hurdle to re-election. But dropping them as casually as Amma did would be to invite a flood of defection to the Sasikala/Dhinakaran camp. So what the EPS-OPS duo are obliged to stay with are the very weak reeds whose only strength lies in their potential to jump ship.
Moreover, the courts have ordered the EPS government to fix by September 1 a definite date for the much-delayed local bodies elections. The excuse that the exercise for the revised delimiting of constituencies has not been completed has begun to wear very thin. Thus, within the next few months - probably by early 2018 at the latest - the litmus test will come when, with a pipette, all of Tamil Nadu will be able to measure the extent of the DMK's resurgence and the exact degree of decline of Amma's party without Amma. If, as expected, the results substantially go Stalin's way, no only will that leave the state government wobbly, there could (would?) also be a cataract of defections away from the AIADMK.
It is in these circumstances that Amit Shah has been compelled to cancel the massive illusory welcome that was being planned for him in Chennai today. So, where Dhinakaran's thunder might have been stolen by Amit Shah, now Dhinakaran is free to tell EPS, OPS and Shah that if they think they can cut him out, they have another think coming.
Where does this leave the Congress? Where it was, I should think, just a wee bit more comfortable. This is because the DMK have reiterated their continuing alliance with the Congress, but also because Amit Shah's blatant pitch for the Amma-less AIADMK has brought the BJP into the fray, albeit as a proxy similar to the Congress role as a proxy. If in the local body polls a few months from now, the AIADMK triumphs, it will be a shot in the arm for the johnny-come-lately BJP. However, if, as widely expected, the DMK triumphs, the proxy war would go in favour of the Congress.
This is just the medicine the Congress needs. For the morale of the Congress has been much boosted by Ahmed Patel winning his Rajya Sabha seat despite the wiles and the machinations of the man the BJP chooses to boast is its Chanakya. A DMK win in the panchayat elections in TN would further boost morale. But perhaps the biggest pep-up pill has been the local outfit C fore polls published yesterday in the Karnataka papers. They indicate that if the state assembly polls (due next May) were to be held today, the Congress would win handsomely with 120-132 seats as against 60-72 for the BJP and 24-30 for the JD(S). Congress CM, Siddaramaiah, leads in the popularity stakes with an approval rating of 46 per cent against a mere 27 per cent for the BJP's Yeddyurappa and an even lower count of 17 per cent for the still-active Deve Gowda. This steep rise in support for the incumbent Congress CM seems to have something to do with the popular free meal scheme for the poor that is now in full operation around the state. It secures in the local outfit C fore polls an approval rating of 79 per cent. It is a vote for good governance - quite stealing the BJP's bogus claim of "sabka saath-sabka vikas".
It would redound to everyone's improved understanding of the return of the Congress in the South for everyone to recall that in 1977 when Indira Gandhi was miserably defeated everywhere else in India, she smoothly coursed to victory in the South. True, Andhra Pradesh was her bastion and the Congress seems to have irretrievably lost that bastion by dividing the state in two even as the nation marched towards the disastrous 2014 Lok Sabha elections. If there is some recovery in AP and Telangana, and significant improvement in Kerala, matched with spectacular success in TN and Karnataka, the restoration of the Congress to a measure of electoral respectability would be assured. The emerging nation-wide gathbandan would be reinforced. And we might begin the yatra to a BJP-mukt Bharat.
(Mani Shankar Aiyar is former Congress MP, Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha.)
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