The AIADMK and its government that looked absolutely invincible till a few days back, are still holding up after the passing of its sole leader J Jayalalithaa, but the earth seems to have started shifting under its feet. Although a lot of seemingly-scripted preparations for leadership-succession are being played out, even a minor move to change the current state of play might alter the equilibrium that is holding the party-government complex together.
The reason is not the lack of support for the leader-in-waiting or the cohesion within the AIADMK, but the fishing exploration of the BJP's central leadership. Although there were considerable speculations that the Centre was trying to gain some space for manipulation while Jaya's precarious health kept the state in suspended animation, media reports now show that it's indeed trying to convert the default chief minister O Panneerselvam as its ally.
An ally, in this case, means a proxy to control the stakes both in the party as well as in the government.
This fairly well-detailed Economic Times report quotes multiple unnamed sources, both in the state and in Delhi, to establish that the Centre, or rather Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself, is amping up Panneerselvam. Reportedly, the latter has been advised to strengthen his ties with the Centre and was even given a brief one-on-one with Modi who advised him to continue the rule of Jayalalithaa. The effort seems to be to keep Sasikala and her clan out.
Panneerselvam would certainly feel empowered that no less a person than Modi is backing him, but unfortunately that wouldn't mean much in the state because Sasikala's writ over the party is rather old and is well established. And if she does take over the leadership of the AIADMK, as it's poised now, Panneerselvam has to fall in line. He will be a nobody without the party's support. Delhi will ask him to be his own man, but Sasikala and the party would want him to toe their line. In the end, Panneerselvam would find himself to be in an untenable situation. In fact, he is most likely to be a victim than a hero if he is not careful because what's unfolding is old Congress-era politicking.
And Rao read that politics well and is now trying to play his game for his safety by claiming that he did nothing other than following Jaya's orders. By terming the raids on him as an assault on the erstwhile authority of Jaya, he is trying to gain his space as well.
It will be similar to the circumstances in labour politics in which managements try to co-opt labour leaders to settle disputes in their favour. Panneerselvam could work with the Centre, but how does he gain the support of the party when Sasikala is in control?
Mere promise of support by the Centre will not be enough. It needs to be backed up by concrete action that will stalemate or even immobilise Sasikala. Will there be more tax raids and other black money related operations? Can it do something with the disproportionate case that's hanging over her head?
The raids on chief secretary P Rama Mohana Rao has made the situation murkier. Raiding the office of a chief secretary is radical because he is the secretary of the cabinet and the chief of staff of a state. It couldn't have happened without the knowledge of finance minister Arun Jaitely (according to senior I-T officials) and he couldn't have kept it away from Modi. Whether it was planned or it fell on their lap is immaterial, but that the Centre chose to raid him indeed was a political decision. He was the lynchpin around which the state apparatus worked.
The BJP has been able to generate a three-way crack that it obviously would wants to exploit: on the one side Sasikala and the almost the entire party apparatus and on the other, a helpless Panneerselvam probably nursing aspirations of independence and authority.
And Rao read that politics well and is now trying to play his game for his safety by claiming that he did nothing other than following Jaya's orders. By terming the raids on him as an assault on the erstwhile authority of Jaya, he is trying to gain his space as well. As he himself said on Tuesday his office also keeps the criminal records of ministers and others. It's a veiled threat that he knows everything.
Therefore, both the raids on Rao and his subsequent nonchalance are additional threat to the AIADMK ministers, including Panneerselvam, and ultimately Sasikala. When he said that "this government doesn't have the guts to serve the transfer order to me," and asked if the chief minister and the home secretary gave permission for the raids or knew about it, he makes his challenge quite frontal.
So, in a few days since Jaya's demise, the BJP has been able to generate a three-way crack that it obviously would wants to exploit: on the one side Sasikala and the almost the entire party apparatus and on the other, a helpless Panneerselvam probably nursing aspirations of independence and authority. Threatening both, for his safety, is Rao, who is scorned.
Will Sasikala make the first move? The game has only begun.