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Theatre of the absurd in Tamil Nadu
Theatre of the absurd in Tamil Nadu

Amulya Ganguli

The tradition of hero worship has queered the pitch for the succession battle in Tamil Nadu. In normal circumstances, it should have been up to the MLAs to choose the next Chief Minister.

But the shadow of Jayalalithaa, who is revered as Amma (mother) and Puratchi Thalaivi (revolutionary leader) even after her death by the AIADMK cadres, has ensured that the contestants for the post will have to depend on her memory to acquire legitimacy.

Therefore, the support among the legislators for Jayalalithaa's former aide, Sasikala, is based not on any political calculation but on her earlier proximity to Amma, which is why Sasikala is called Chinnamma or younger sister. But for this fortuitous closeness, Sasikala would have been nowhere in the picture.

On the other hand, the outgoing Chief Minister, O. Panneerselvam, has based his claim for the position on the fact that he was twice chosen by Jayalalithaa to act in her absence -- once when she was incarcerated in 2014 and again during her last fatal illness.

Moreover, Panneerselvam has said that Amma's "soul" has told him to remain as the Chief Minister. Evidently, he did not receive the message before he resigned. But, now, he has alleged that the resignation was submitted under duress.

What seems to have happened is that the uneasiness expressed in the social media over Sasikala's possible elevation, and the protests by the opposition parties, with the DMK predictably describing Sasikala's choice by a section of the AIADMK legislators as "murder of democracy", have convinced Panneerselvam that he had acted hastily in resigning.

At that time, he had apparently been under the spell of the overpowering cult of personality surrounding Jayalalithaa in the party, which meant that anyone who had been her companion would be the automatic choice for replacement.

But the reservations voiced on the social media and the political protests clearly helped Panneerselvam to come out of his trance and throw his hat into the ring.

None of this shows Tamil Nadu in a favourable light. If anything, the melodramatic events militate against the very practice of politics, which is supposed to be a hard-nosed affair.

Even if Sasikala has shown the tell-tale signs of an ambitious politician, silently biding her time till she felt that she could now come out in the open, the invocation of Jayalalithaa's memory by her as well as by a section of the AIADMK legislators harks back to a pre-modern, feudal age.

It is a trait which is not suitable for a democracy, where reverence for a person should not be allowed to derail the routine process of the transfer of power in accordance with the existing rules. In this case, it would be best for the two contenders to submit themselves to the will of the legislators in the absence of a claim based merely on companionship or amidst allegations of coercion or directives from beyond the grave.

It is not surprising, however, that AIADMK politics has taken such a theatrical turn because from its inception in 1972, the party has been led by larger-than-life figures like its founder, M.G. Ramachandran, and his protege and successor, Jayalalithaa.

The result was that the cadres, as well as the followers, became imbued with feelings of awe and veneration for their heroes, leading them even to take their own lives in the event of a leader's death.

About 30 people committed suicide after MGR's death. There were also violent riots which made the police issue shoot-at-sight orders. After Jayalalithaa's death, too, more than 70 people died of shock, according to the AIADMK.

Given such adulation, it is understandable why Sasikala should have thought along with a section of the party's MLAs that it was only a question of time before she became the Chief Minister.

But for the first time in more than four decades, the AIADMK is having to come to terms with unsentimental, bare-knuckled politics where a leader is judged by his or her ability to influence the followers as well as the masses and also to govern.

In this respect, while Sasikala may benefit from the remnants of Jayalalithaa's charisma, Panneerselvam has the advantage of having been in the seat of power more than once and being conversant with the art of governance.

Sasikala's disadvantage, however, is that she lacks both popular appeal and political experience. Besides, the disproportionate assets case hangs like the sword of Damocles over her head.

Irrespective of who comes out on top, the AIADMK will undergo a reality check about politics without a mesmerising figure at the helm. The experience is likely to affect its primary rival, the DMK, as well because it, too, has been banking on the nonagenarian M. Karunanidhi's popularity in striving for power.

It is clear, therefore, that a phase in Dravidian politics which began with the Congress's defeat in Tamil Nadu in 1967 is coming to an end. It remains to be seen to what extent the main ingredients of that politics -- atheism and an anti-Hindi, anti-Aryan, anti-North Indian outlook -- survives the entry of non-charismatic rulers.

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Update: 11-February-2017

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