VK Sasikala's rise to the top of the ruling AIADMK in Tamil Nadu first as the general secretary designate, and then as the general secretary at the nearest opportunity, isn't an honour to rejoice about, but a poisoned chalice because what she is stepping into is an untested and unpredictable world of people's will.
Her elevation is least surprising because right from the day J. Jayalalithaa passed away, she has been the only choice before the party as any other option would have fragmented it. As the only constant in Jaya's personal life in the last three decades, and as a person who has been dealing with party affairs behind the scenes, she had no equivalent, particularly when Jaya hadn't indicated any personal favourites. She was the classic Hobson's choice, the glue that will keep the party and its functionaries together. As the BBC cleverly called her, she is the "new mother" of Tamil Nadu. But, not the "real mother."
Jayalalithaa was AIADMK. In a monistic sense, they were indistinguishable from each other. One doesn't exist without the other.
That will be, unfortunately, the biggest challenge before Sasikala and the AIADMK. Despite her being elected as the new leader of the party, the AIADMK will still be leaderless. The "new mother" is not good enough to be the real "mother" because AIADMK was Jayalalithaa (Amma, the real mother), and Jayalalithaa was AIADMK. In a monistic sense, they were indistinguishable from each other. One doesn't exist without the other.
Ever since Jaya established herself as the supremo of the party after the death of MG Ramachandran (MGR) in 1987, everything about AIADMK was about her and nothing else. It was about the humiliation she suffered at the hands of the vicious caucus in the party that tried to keep her away, the attacks against her by DMK MLAs in the state assembly, her sacrifices, her strength of will, her oratory, beauty and elegance, an impermeable stateliness in the eyes of the poor people and national politicians, and above all her stated commitment to welfare politics. Even the bitter rivalry with the DMK was also about her because ideologically they were no different. When this ever-throbbing life disappears, what's left behind is only the body.
Unfortunately, that's what Sasikala is inheriting. It's, of course, functional, has its systems, resources and cadres in place, and the entire top leadership will back her; but is that enough? No, because replacing the original life energy called Jaya is rather impossible.
Sasikala has to become the "real mother" sooner rather than later.
Sasikala will for sure start by falling back on Jaya's legacy and even indulge in some epic drama (publicly worshipping her chair or footwear and acting like a trustee), but that won't be good enough in politics because it's a demanding enterprise in which the real people, not leaders or cadres, make the final choice. Sasikala has to become the "real mother" sooner rather than later.
It's a tall order. In comparison with Jaya's legacy, to kickstart her new public role, not only she doesn't have anything to show, but she also has several dark spots to hide. Jaya was a star all through her life, even as a kid; but all that the people of Tamil Nadu know of Sasikala is as Jaya's caregiver and as the head of a large family that ran riot in the state. Although their notoriety and extra-constitutional writ were at their peak during Jaya's first government during 1991-96, the bad image still sticks. The presence of her family, that Jaya had banished, at her funeral was viewed by the media with suspicion and dislike. Popular media still project them as "Mannargudi mafia" and some top editors of the country have openly questioned her suitability to head the party. Former editor of The Hindu, Malini Parthasarathy tweeted: "Disappointing that despite visible discomfort amongst the cadre & her lack of a political background, Sasikala has captured @AIADMKOfficial"
Building brand-new political capital from a caregiver-role before facing the people will be a near-impossible task
With no general election till 2019, there's no immediate challenge; but she has to appear before the people sooner than later. Building brand-new political capital from a caregiver-role before facing the people will be a near-impossible task because she has absolutely nothing to show other than the image of a seemingly reluctant politician trying to perpetuate the legacy of Jaya.
And even this legacy is claimed than endowed. Had Jaya, even faintly, indicated her as her favourite or successor, she would have had something to start with. In the eyes of the people, she was just a shadow, somebody who walked and sat behind their leader. Will they take that shadow for the real person? Unfortunately, in Indian politics there has been no such success story. Even after MGR's death, people's choice was not his grieving wife, but Jaya.
Whether Sasikala has worked towards the leadership-role or not, it's an unfair deal because politics is ultimately about moving people and winning elections. Undoubtedly, this is the most critical period of the AIADMK since its inception, a party that will continue to be leaderless despite electing a new leader.