POLITICS

Sasikala's Elevation As Party Chief Is Unsurprising, Will She Become CM Next?

Does she have it in her?

15/12/2016 3:28 PM IST | Updated 15/12/2016 4:18 PM IST
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Sasikala Natarajan, left standing, a close friend of India's Tamil Nadu state former Chief Minister Jayaram Jayalalithaa, wipes her tears next to Jayalalithaa's body wrapped in the national flag and kept for public viewing outside an auditorium in Chennai, India, Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2016.

Sasikala Natarajan's rise to the top of the ruling AIADMK in Tamil Nadu, as its new general secretary, is least surprising because there was absolutely no other alternative to keep the party together. In India's dynastic politics, a super authoritarian leader has never been replaced by a democrat and the AIADMK cannot be an exception.

The men in the AIADMK were smart enough to realise this reality early because what they need at the moment is survival. And hence they have found a replacement for their "Amma" in their "Chinnamma"

The keyword for the AIADMK to at least maintain its status quo - retaining power and keeping its flock together till the next elections - after Jaya's passing was authority. Jaya was the sole leader, and the sole arbiter of power, democracy and justice within the party. She never allowed a second-line leadership, kept even senior leaders insecure, and took the entire burden of external relations and realpolitik upon herself.

The men in the party, including the old guard who had resented her influence during Jaya's time, have been making beelines to Jaya's Poes Garden residence where Sasikala is staying now. With folded hands, they pleaded with her to take control of the party.

In essence, she was multiple systems rolled into one, and at least for the sake of continuity, the replacement needed to be something similar. Sasikala, and she alone, was the closest fit.

The men in the party, including the old guard who had resented her influence during Jaya's time, have been making beelines to Jaya's Poes Garden residence where Sasikala is staying now. With folded hands, they pleaded with her to take control of the party. For them, she was the "Chinnamma", the selfless soulmate of their "Amma" for three decades, and hence the rightful inheritor.

Jaya TV, AIADMK's official TV channel, broadcast these images and party workers soon fell in line even as Sasikala appeared uncommitted.

Nothing, except her disinterest, would have prevented Sasikala from taking over as the new general secretary, a post that Jaya had occupied ever since she took control of the party after her mentor and former chief minister MG Ramachandran (MGR) died. In fact, if Sasikala was not politically inclined, the AIADMK would have faced a huge vacuum and the party would have split across caste-lines. Dravidian politics is about personality cults and charisma, and hence the party needed a reverential figure that can precipitate a new cult.

The big question now is how effectively can Sasikala function as a political leader? Nobody has heard her speak in public and nobody, except party leaders and seat-aspirants who have interacted with her, even knows how she sounds.

Reportedly, even before the official announcement of Sasikala's choice as the new general secretary was made, party leaders have begun building the new cult. The Hindu reported on Thursday that a number of ministers and MLAs have placed orders for new year calendars with Sasikala's image on them after cancelling their earlier orders with Jaya's imprint. Apparently in the reprints, the size of Jaya's image will be smaller than the size of the image of their new leader.

That is the critical message that the leaders have already embodied. And some of them even had begun demonstrating their ultimate submission to her authority by touching her feet. The AIADMK's signature gesture of public prostration too might return.

The big question now is how effectively can Sasikala function as a political leader? Nobody has heard her speak in public and nobody, except party leaders and seat-aspirants who have interacted with her, even knows how she sounds. But that doesn't mean she is a political novice. She has been Jaya's literal shadow ever since the latter became the chief minister of the state for the first time in 1991, and she has been with her through thick and thin.

Reuters Photographer / Reuters
Former filmstar and powerful regional politician Jayaram Jayalalitha (C), leader of the opposition AIADMK party alliance, arrives with her companion Sasikala Natarajan (L) and an unidentified woman at a polling booth in Madras, May 10, 2001. Though polling for the state assembly was largely peaceful in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, violence plagued elections in India's insurgency-hit state of Assam. SK/PB

In fact, her presence was so indispensable for Jaya that no sooner than she expelled her on two occasions, had she called her back within a few days.

This proximity was not just personal. She was not just Jaya's caregiver, or the caretaker of her Poes Garden residence. At least in recent years, she did take an active role in politics and administration too. Informed sources say that she took part in alliance-negotiations with other political parties as well as managed bulk of the screening of candidates for assembly and Lok Sabha elections. In fact, she had some role in the selection of most of the sitting MLAs and even the ministers.

According to some media reports, she even had a role in Jaya's choice of O Panneerselvam, the present chief minister, as her stand bye, whenever she had to step aside. Similarly, there have been reports that she had her share of control in the state's administration as well.

Informed sources say that she took part in alliance-negotiations with other political parties as well as managed bulk of the screening of candidates for assembly and Lok Sabha elections.

Sasikala will be fine as long as she stays behind the scenes because it's not a new role for her. Nobody else would have seen how Jaya functioned as a party leader and head of the government as she could have, that too for such a very long time. However, her real challenge will be if she ever wants to fit into Jaya's second role as the chief minister as well. That will mean winning elections and demonstrating statesmanship.

Does she have it in her? It's completely untested. Some do speculate that she would contest in the RK Nagar assembly constituency vacated by Jaya's death. Party support alone will not be enough. She has to win the trust of the people. For the moment, she is nowhere close to that because in public imagination, she is only a caretaker with no proven political legacy.

More over, she and her family had always been accused of operating as an extraconstitutional authority whenever Jayalalithaa was in power. In fact, Jaya herself seemed to have, at least temporarily, backed such a thought, when she expelled her from her household and the party. The sight of her family members, all of whom had been kept away by Jaya till her death, crowding around her and Jaya's body at the latter's funeral had fuelled fresh fears that their lawless run would return.

However, Sasikala seemed to have sensed the public mood and has reportedly asked them to stay away. Even her husband M Natarajan, who claimed that "we" would take the legacy of MGR and Jaya forward, has been curiously invisible since Jaya's funeral.

Running the party and controlling the government will not be difficult at all. However, getting her hands dirty in electoral politics will be a little tricky. AIADMK has of course found a leader who could replace Jaya. But can she replace Jaya in people's minds?

DMK's charismatic leader MK Stalin will be waiting.

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