Sasikala's Gross Miscalculation And The Mess That Followed

Published: February 13, 2017 18:55 IST
As the comic opera in Tamil Nadu rolls out, this column apologizes for an earlier opinion piece, written in the immediate aftermath of Jayalalithaa passing away, which argued that as her principal legacy had been four and a half years of unchallengeable power, the AIADMK would stabilize with Sasikala as the party head and O. Panneerselvam (OPS) as the Chief Minister. That prediction was based on the assumption that the players concerned would have a lively appreciation of their self-interest and would therefore intelligently decide to keep the ship on even keel by respecting the power-sharing arrangement they had so quickly entered into. 

Where the column went completely wrong was in assuming the AIADMK cadres and leadership were capable of assessing their intelligent self-interest. I had not adequately factored in Jayalalithaa's very personal system of awarding tickets. She was paranoid about her personal power being stolen by her anointed party leaders or her chosen MLAs. She feared their unfurling the banner of revolt. In consequence, even Sasikala was twice driven out of Poes Garden and reluctantly re-admitted only after she had tendered her most abject apologies and promised to keep her Mannargudi kith and kin and other assorted favourites out of the corridors of power. If Jayalalithaa was so suspicious of even her "sister", imagine her complete lack of trust in anyone else, irrespective of the indisputable fact that they owed their positions only to her patronage. 

As for her MLAs and MPs, she rarely allowed anyone a second term. Most candidates were astonished at their being chosen, so limited was their aspiration and so unexpected was the consummation. Moreover, as they sometimes discovered to their chagrin, even after nomination and in the midst of their hectic campaigning, Jayalalithaa could and did change her mind to field an alternative candidate. Their sole qualification was that if Jayalalithaa would order them to raise their hand, they would raise their hand; if she asked them to lower their hand, they would solemnly obey. To have a mind of your own was anathema to Amma (as the most articulate spokesman of the party in parliament, Maitreyan, found when he was suddenly expelled from the front-bench to the rear of the Rajya Sabha). Amma knew best, and Amma must at all times be humbly obeyed.

Even in her choice of interim Chief Minister, she made clear that she had no No. 2 - that everyone without exception was in position because she had so decreed, and would lose that position at her will and without question. Hence, OPS never became her automatic replacement despite having been appointed acting Chief Minister by Jayalalithaa thrice over. Similarly, Sasikala was never anointed her successor and so her succession has been easily called to account.
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VK Sasikala was among the closest aides of former AIADMK chief Jayalalithaa

In early December, Jayalalithaa was no more. The AIADMK, within the party and in the legislature, scrambled to deal with this situation. The simple route was the knee-jerk arrangement they put together: Sasikala as General Secretary of the party, and OPS as Chief Minister. It was a non-controversial set of decisions - except that it did not have Jayalalithaa's seal of approval. 

It unravelled when Sasikala persuaded herself, or was so persuaded by her legal team, that were she to become Chief Minister, her chances of surviving the Supreme Court trial would be much enhanced. The very suddenness of the Supreme Court announcement that they would be rendering final judgement the following week, made it imperative for Sasikala, in her own eyes and in the assessment of her advisers, to believe it was Now or Never. The party fell in with her wishes as a kind of reflex action. Why then did that decision not hold beyond a day or two?

One has to go back to the origins of the Dravidian movement to really understand the volte face. The first expression of Dravidian political sentiment was the Justice Party that made dramatic inroads into the Tamil polity in the 1920s - but not enough to foil Rajaji of the Congress in the elections of 1937. Meanwhile, E.V. Ramasamy Naicker, "Periyar" (The Wise Elder) as he was reverentially called, had emerged as the most important voice of the Dravidian movement. His goal was the trifurcation of British India into Hindustan, Pakistan and Dravida Nadu. Dravida Nadu was conceived as covering virtually all of the Madras Presidency that stretched beyond Tamil Nadu to Malabar in north Kerala, and along the coast of the Bay of Bengal, through Andhra, all the way to Behrampore in Odisha. That goal was clearly articulated when Periyar welcomed Mohammed Ali Jinnah to Madras (Chennai) in April 1941 for the first annual session of the Muslim League following the adoption of the "Pakistan" resolution in Lahore the previous year.

Pakistan happened but Dravida Nadu did not. Periyar's was a sweeping social reforms programme dedicated to ending Brahmin and priestly domination of Tamil society. It was a programme that went beyond politics and addressed itself to the roots of social issues. While Periyar had been something of an acolyte in his early youth, journeying all the way to Varanasi to steep himself in Hindu spiritual thought and religious ritual, his deep study of Vedic and other Hindu texts only served to create a profound aversion in his mind to anything that smacked of religion. Atheism and rationalism became the touch-stone of his philosophy and Dravidar Kazhagam (DK) cadres and leaders were pledged to denying God and His self-appointed agents on earth, the Brahmin community. The Dravida Nadu that he envisaged was a fierce assertion of the Aryan-Dravidian divide, as he saw it. Periyar believed in establishing a revolutionary new social order and prioritized the propagation of this ideology over the mere capture of political power.
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Mr Panneerselvam has said he will not allow Ms Sasikala to replace him as Chief Minister, as decided by the party

Several of his most devoted followers were, however, of the opposite view - that the DK, without a political vehicle, was condemned to propaganda without action. In the face of unrelenting opposition from Periyar, these young men, led by C.N. Annadurai, determined on founding the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) as a political party that would mobilize electoral support and seek to bring into being a Dravidian political dispensation. The principal medium they devised for such politico-ideological propagation was the cinema.

Cinema was to Annadurai, Karunanidhi and their colleagues what the social media is to politics today. Till these two arrived on the scene (to be shortly joined by MGR and, a little later, by 16 year-old Jayalalithaa), cinema in Kollywood was much the same as in Bollywood and Hollywood, a means of mass entertainment. The DMK leaders were the first to spot cinema's potential for mass messaging of a political philosophy to rise to power in a democracy. They were much influenced by the resounding success of an altogether new genre of film, the Italian movie Bicycle Thief, that was taking the world by storm in the early '50s. With Anna's strong story-lines and Karunanidhi's brilliant dialogue, Tamil cinema became an unstoppable medium of political propagation. Unlike Bollywood super-stars Amitabh Bachchan and Rajesh Khanna, who flopped in politics because they sought to leverage their star status to make a mark in politics, in the Dravidian new wave in cinema, it was those who were primarily politicians who leveraged cinema to their political purpose.

The spark that transformed Tamil politics was the rather foolish decision of the Shastri government to literally interpret a provision of the Constitution that Hindi would become the sole official language in 1965, 15 years to the day from the promulgation of the Constitution. Tamil Nadu went up in flames - quite literally. It was only the intervention of Indira Gandhi, then Minister of Information and Broadcasting, that saved the situation - for which reason she remained personally popular in Tamil Nadu, notwithstanding the rapid decline in Congress fortunes in the state after the elections of 1967 brought Annadurai to Fort St. George as Chief Minister. There has been no looking back since then. Tamil Nadu has remained a Dravidian reserve for the last 50 years and is likely to remain so for another half-century.
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Jayalalithaa was paranoid about her personal power being stolen by her anointed party leaders or her chosen MLAs

But whereas in 1967, "Dravidian reserve" meant a DMK reserve, by the early '70s, Karunanidhi, who had succeeded Anna on the latter's sudden death in 1969, came under challenge from another star of the Dravidian silver screen, MGR, the hero of most of the social revolutionary films spun by Anna's stories and Karunanidhi's exceptional script-writing skills. He broke ranks and set up the AIADMK, which stunned political observers with its dramatic showing at the polls. Since then, politics in Tamil Nadu has revolved around the two principal Dravidian political parties, the DMK and the AIADMK. In all these years, win or lose, Karunanidhi, known reverentially and universally as "Kalaignar" (Great Artiste), has been the unchallenged leader of the DMK. Jayalalithaa, following MGR, has held a similar position in the AIADMK.

What has fundamentally distinguished the DMK from the AIADMK is that while Kalaignar and his followers have faithfully adhered to Periyar's tenets of atheism and rationalism, the AIADMK, particularly after Jayalalithaa, has become a thoroughly devout and temple-going party. The suppressed spiritual longings of the people have found expression in MGR being treated as a God-substitute and Jayalalithaa as a Goddess. 

Sasikala is no Goddess and OPS no God. Neither has any background in Dravidian film-making. The failure in politics of very popular Tamil film stars like Sivaji Ganesan and "Captain" Vijayakanth shows that it is not film fan clubs that translate into political machines. but political machines that used the cinema like the social media is used today who created the very special ethos of Dravidian politics. Not even Rajinikanth, who might be making the transition shortly from cinema to politics, will be able to change that equation. Meanwhile, DMK cadres are beginning to slip palpably out of unflinching atheism.

The Sasikala-OPS rumpus marks a historic turning point in breaking the nexus between Dravidian cinema and politics. The nation might yet find a foothold in the politics of the state.

(Mani Shankar Aiyar is former Congress MP, Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha.)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

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