VK Sasikala's rise to the Chief Minister's office from her apparent role as J Jayalalithaa's caregiver and housekeeper has been rather swift, but the road ahead looks extremely uncertain and tumultuous despite a comfortable majority for the AIADMK in the state assembly and her complete control over the party.
For whatever reason, Sasikala has been too impatient to grab power and fill the vacuum left behind by Jayalalithaa - first as the general secretary of the AIADMK and now as the leader of the parliamentary party. She probably knows that if she doesn't take the plunge now, the challenges ahead may swell and drown her. But does fast-tracking the race to the top the right counter-offensive?
Sasikala has some serious obstacles that are likely to derail and short-circuit her political and administrative career. Here are the top five challenges before her:
The Supreme Court verdict on the disproportionate assets (DA) case:
Sasikala was one of the co-accused in the Disproportionate Assets case along with Jayalalithaa that's now pending judgement in the Supreme Court. As soon as Sasikala was elected as the new Chief Minister designate, national dailies reported that the Supreme Court will pronounce its verdict on the case next week, which remains a cliffhanger. The verdict can go either way. Veteran special public prosecutor BV Acharya who appeared for Karnataka in the case strongly believes that the abatement of charges against Jayalalithaa following her death will not be applicable to Sasikala because of the conspiracy angle.
The indisputable fact is that the charges against Jayalalithaa, Sasikala and two of her family members also included conspiracy and the Supreme Court may not be able to overlook that going by its own earlier judgement. In such a case, what awaits Sasikala as the new Chief Minister is incarceration.
According to Acharya, since the case had been posted for judgement, the question doesn't even arise. However, some jurists argue that the charges were under the Prevention of Corruption Act and since Jayalalithaa, the public servant only for whom the Act was applicable, is no more, the charges against others cannot be sustained. However, the indisputable fact is that the charges against Jayalalithaa, Sasikala and two of her family members also included conspiracy and the Supreme Court may not be able to overlook that going by its own earlier judgement. In such a case, what awaits Sasikala as the new Chief Minister is incarceration.
Public displeasure and anger:
Sasikala may have won the approval of the AIADMK, its MLAs and top leaders, but not the electorate. In fact, her total lack of a political legacy, other than being a shadow to Jayalalithaa, in the eyes of the public, will be hard to overcome. In fact, as soon as the news of her elevation was announced, social media was abuzz with posts expressing shock and ridicule. While people in Tamil Nadu are generally guarded about openly taking on leaders such as Jayalalithaa, Karunanidhi and Stalin because of the possible physical and legal harm, they were unhindered in their expression. In an unprecedented move, popular rapper Sofia Ashraf, who rose to fame for her song against a pollution MNC in Ooty, went to Poes Garden on Sunday night and beamed live a protest song against Sasikala with lyrics like, "My vote wasn't for you", "Democracy is dead" and "We will put an end to this." Even at the height of Jaya's alleged misrule during 1991-96, nobody from the general public had dared express their views publicly.
Sofia Ashraf, who rose to fame for her song against a pollution MNC in Ooty, went to Poes Garden on Sunday night and beamed live a protest song against Sasikala, with lyrics like, "My vote wasn't for you", "Democracy is dead" and "We will put an end to this."
With the rise of the social media and other technical tools, the expressions of dissent are going to be diverse and the conventional tricks of the police and state intelligence might not be good enough. The recent youth uprising on Marina beach and elsewhere in the state in which millions participated, is an early warning sign. Will there be a public uprising and will she able to address them without a crackdown?
Getting elected to the assembly:
If she survives the threat of the DA case - Supreme Court either discharges her or orders a re-hearing given the altered circumstances - her next hurdle will be getting elected to the assembly in the next six months. As electoral material, she's completely untested and her win over the party doesn't mean anything in terms of people's mandate. Some speculate that she may try to contest from the constituency vacated by Jaya - RK Nagar in Chennai - but most probably she will choose a Thevar- dominated constituency in in the southern districts such as Theni and Dindigul. She is a Thevar and the community has been one of AIADMK's pillars of support. However, even with caste pride and the support of the government machinery, she runs the risk of rejection because her claim to Jaya's legacy happened too soon. If the general public sentiment against her is bad in the initial months, it will be hard. In 1996, even Jaya had been routed in Bargur, one of AIADMK's pocket-boroughs despite a landslide five years earlier If Sasikala loses, that will be the end of her story as a Chief Minister. She may go back to a remote-control role for the rest of the term, but the strains within the party will be hard to control.
If the general public sentiment against her is bad in the initial months, it will be hard.
Keeping up Jaya's legacy:
Even if she manages to keep herself afloat for six months, survive the DA case and win the election, living up to Jaya's political legacy isn't just a tall order, but may be impossibile. Jaya was a politician with enormous stature, a lone ranger who took on the Centre, regardless of which party was in government, someone who pressed for the state's rights, and a veteran administrator. She was adept in statecraft and had mastered the idea of welfare politics. It's not about dishing out freebies and setting up "Amma" stores, but intervening in the market when people found the going tough. It requires a rare kind of common sense, something that an instinctive politician and able administrator alone can embody.
Does Sasikala have it in her? It's not just about running the existing "Amma" projects or starting new copycat schemes, but understanding the idea of social protection and making timely interventions that are politically rewarding. More over, Jaya had complete control over the bureaucracy and had created a set of officers who read her mind and nuances. In comparison, Sasikala may have to depend on her husband M Natarajan, who reportedly is doing considerable backroom work now, to restructure the bureaucracy. By axing Sheela Balakrishnan and two other officers that Jaya had handpicked as confidantes, Sasikala has made her intentions clear - that she wants a reboot. She may be able to command absolute loyalty in a new lineup, but will that be enough for efficiency and innovation? Historically, Tamil Nadu is known for its proactive and efficient bureaucracy.
Drought, farmers' crisis, investment roadblocks:
Administratively, the government is already facing a serious agrarian crisis that has been even marked by a number of farmer suicides. Reports from the field indicate that farmers, who have lost their crops to an emerging drought, are struggling for not just sustenance, but survival. Its impact will reflect on critical ancillary sectors such as diary. Thousands of farmers are in a serious debt crisis and unless the government intervenes with mitigating measures such as loan waivers and other schemes, the state is going to be in trouble. Jayalalithaa knew the importance of policy interventions, does Sasikala know how to guide policies and programmes at scale?
Jayalalithaa knew the importance of policy interventions, does Sasikala know how to guide policies and programmes at scale?
More over, Tamil Nadu is the second biggest economy in India, but only the fourth biggest FDI destination. The state doesn't get half of what Delhi and Maharashtra are able to attract. Even retaining the present FDI momentum needs stature and statesmanship, not to mention the Vision 2023 document that Jaya had unveiled in her last term.
So, the summary of Sasikala's fairytale is simple: it has been an absolutely easy rise to the top, a dream that comes true probably once in a million years. But she will be on the razor's edge there. The fall can be steep and quicker