Who is to blame for the ongoing political crisis in Tamil Nadu? Is it VK Sasikala, accused by a section of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) of being a wily schemer and a pretender to the throne that their beloved Amma, J Jayalalithaa, once occupied? Or is it O Panneerselvam, who has suddenly found a spine — many believe due to the blessing of the Opposition, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)?
The root of the trouble really lies elsewhere. And only the people who elected the AIADMK government to power has a finger on it.
As the drama within the party deepens, with Panneerselvam confident about proving his majority in the assembly and Sasikala refusing to let up on her mission to be the CM, the voice of the electorate is struggling to be heard over the din.
Supporters of AIADMK gathered on Marina Beach in Chennai to seek comfort at the memorial of their late beloved Amma. According to a report in The Times of India, they bemoaned the sullying of the legacy of their former chief minister, who have left them "orphaned". "We chose her as our leader," a woman told ToI, "We didn't choose Panneerselvam or Sasikala. They seem to forget that. Ask us what we want, not the MLAs."
In three sentences, she summed up the real problem plaguing Tamil Nadu: an audaciously undemocratic politics that has robbed common people of any agency in choosing their leader.
With Jayalalithaa's death last December, the AIADMK didn't waste a moment to install Panneerselvam as the new chief minister. The move was both sensible and expedient.
As someone who has filled Amma's shoes twice when she had to step away from duty, Panneerselvam was the most suited to running the government. At the time, emotions were fragile and the Opposition could have easily taken advantage of the power vacuum in the AIADMK to carry out a coup. The fissures, however, began to show soon after.
Even before Jayalalithaa's funeral was over, it became obvious that Sasikala, who had been her companion for 30 years, was merely biding time before making an aggressive claim on her political legacy.
The first shock came with the sight of her corrupt family, popularly known as the Mannargudi Mafia after the village they come from, surrounding Jayalalithaa's body as it lay in state.
In her lifetime, Jayalalithaa had such visceral aversion to them that she banished Sasikala, fearing a conspiracy to ruin her. Sasikala had to publicly disown her kin and sever all contact with them to be allowed back into Jayalithaa's Poes Garden residence. This same lot, which Amma reviled with such intensity, was flocking by her body, even before it was buried.
In the next few days, reports claimed Sasikala as the inheritor of Jayalalithaa's immovable assets, worth ₹113.73 crore. On the heels of such inauspicious beginnings, other developments signalled her vaulting ambition.
She got herself elected to the post of the General Secretary of the party, a position that was offered to her like an inheritance. Even more preposterously, last Sunday, her party MLAs appointed her as the leader of the legislature. On the same day, O Panneerselvam resigned from the CM's office, making way for her to be sworn in.
From never having run for election, even as a local councillor, to getting this close to the big seat, Sasikala had come a very long way. Her fidelity to Amma, for whom she had pledged to not see her family and even gone to prison with, seemed to have finally paid off the dividends.
But much water has flown since then. O. Panneerselvam, whose reputation so far was of a decoy taken for granted by Amma when she was alive and by AIADMK after her death, has suddenly found his voice. Guided by her departed spirit, he wants to fight Sasikala and reclaim the chief ministerial chair, should the people wish to have him back.
So far no one seems to have factored in the most important stakeholder in this battle for supremacy: the people. The electorate had voted for a party represented by Jayalalithaa. Their mandate wasn't for Panneerselvam, least of all for Sasikala.
In the end, Sasikala's family profession (they ran a video cassette store) or her services to Amma (she has been called a maid, even MK Stalin of the DMK called her a member of Jayalalithaa's "household") doesn't disqualify her from being the next CM of Tamil Nadu. The only reason for her not to hold that office is the lack of popular mandate for her.
But what about Jayalalithaa's role in this fiasco?
While her fight against entrenched patriarchy to emerge as the undisputed head of the AIADMK is worthy of going down in the pages of history, her political legacy, as it has emerged since her death, was shockingly short-sighted.
Her charisma as a film-star and later authoritarian leadership (she penalised political opponents and the media for the slightest criticism) blinded her to the urgent need of having a credible face who could carry her mantle.
Although Sasikala allegedly ran the show from behind the scenes, making crucial decisions in the party and the government, she was never projected by Jayalalithaa as a successor. Panneerselvam, with his meek and mild ayesayer's profile, might have been picked precisely because he had no public profile independent of Amma. Since Jayalalithaa's death, her niece, Deepa Jayakumar, estranged from her aunt for years, has emerged as a claimant to the legacy, but she, too, lacks political experience.
The story of the crisis in Tamil Nadu is the story of a blindspot endemic in Indian politics. It pertains to larger-than-life leaders, who live in denial of their mortality or without a plan for a rainy day.
It played out after the death of Indira Gandhi and the abrupt ascension of her son Rajiv, a political novice, to power. And now it's afflicting Tamil Nadu, a state bereft of a credible leadership, where two unelected aspirants to the high office fight it out in a bitter feud.
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