Even as the immediate shockwaves caused by caretaker Chief Minister O Panneerselvam's bombshell against VK Sasikala are beginning to settle down, the attention of entire Tamil Nadu will now shift to the Raj Bhavan, and subsequently the state assembly.
In India's mutant democracy, the fight for power when the leader of a party dies has become inevitable because of defective inner-party processes. And what's happening in Tamil Nadu at the moment is not just that, but history repeating itself - a clear case of deja vu. Three decades ago, Jayalalithaa was fighting bitterly with Janaki Ramachandran, the wife of her mentor MG Ramachandran (MGR) for the control of AIADMK; today Panneersevlam (OPS) is re-enacting the same fight with Sasikala.
The former is one of the worst chapters in Tamil Nadu's legislative history and the present one is almost reaching there.
The profiles of the contestants then and now are similar too - one was a professional politician with a legitimate claim, while the other, an unexpected new entrant with the backing of a coterie.
Just like Sasikala came from Jaya's shadows and wanted to be the Chief Minister, Janaki too came from nowhere. And this is what Janaki said to the party and the public while staking her claim to be the Chief Minister: "They have approached me to save the unity of the Party. I appeal to all party-men and leaders, particularly the acting Chief Minister VR Nedunchezhiyan to sink their differences and support me."
Today, Sasikala's reason for becoming the Chief Minister is no different. She too invokes the unity and stability of the party when she says that her election as the Chief Minister designate shattered "the expectation of our political opponents that there will be a split in the party after the demise of our Amma".
A few weeks earlier, when she was elected as the General Secretary of the AIADMK, she said something similar: "For the rest of my life, I will live for my party and the crores of people. Amma's dream for Tamil Nadu will continue. AIADMK will continue to work for people."
And she wanted incumbent OPS's support, just as Janaki wanted senior leader Nedunchezhiyan (or rather Jaya, since he was her proxy) to surrender, which he didn't. OPS today is replaying Nedunchezhiyan's role, except that he is going solo while the latter was fronting for Jaya. Both Janaki and Sasikala claimed that it's not their personal ambition, but for the party and the legacy of their leaders.
The statement made by a disappointed Nedunchezhiyan assumes significance in the present situation. He said that the Raj Bhavan was not the place for testing the majority indicating that numbers on paper didn't matter and he, as the acting Chief Minister, should have been given the first chance.
The final leg of the 1988 fight was the most interesting: two contestants, two feuding factions backing them, a governor, the assembly, the Centre and the Prime Minister. The present setting is exactly the same. If the past episode left behind a sordid turn of events in the history of the state assembly, the present imbroglio also has all the elements to make it equally messy.
The bickering of 1988 began when MGR was in sickbed itself. After his death in December 1987, all eyes were on the Governor SL Khurana because he was the constitutional authority to keep things going. He told Nedunchezhiyan, the then acting Chief Minister, similar to OPS now, that a Legislature Party Leader has to be elected before 3 January. Nedunchezhiyan told the Governor about a minor problem - who will convene the meeting in the absence of a General Secretary? Governor told him that it was for his party to decide. In the case of Sasikala, this had been taken care of because the first step in her plan was to get elected as the General Secretary.
Thanks to MGR's prolonged illness, the AIADMK in 1987-88 had grown into two factions - one led by Nedunchezhiyan backing Jaya and other by RM Veerappan, a strongman and Revenue Minister, backing Janaki. Jaya convened a meeting of her faction and got elected as the General Secretary herself and convened a meeting to elect Nedunchezhiyan as the Legislature Party leader.
In the rival camp, there was no General Secretary and hence the Deputy General Secretary convened the meeting that elected Janaki. They both met the Governor and staked their claims and Janaki was invited to form the government and prove her majority not later than three weeks. On paper, she had the support of 91 legislators as against Jaya's 34.
The statement made by a disappointed Nedunchezhiyan assumes significance in the present situation. He said that the Raj Bhavan was not the place for testing the majority indicating that numbers on paper didn't matter and he, as the acting Chief Minister, should have been given the first chance. OPS can say the same thing today to retain his Chief Ministership for some more time. He is already the Chief Minister and all that the Governor needs to do is to find an excuse to accept the withdrawal of his resignation. If the Governor accedes to his request, OPS can easily borrow three to four weeks, which is a good window to get some numbers.
Another interesting parallel is the legitimacy of the post of the General Secretary. One of the points Nedunchezhiyan raised to stop Janaki was that her party didn't have a General Secretary and that she had been selected by a Deputy General Secretary. A similar objection has been raised in Sasikala's case too - not by the Governor, but the Election Commission. The Commission has said that no rules were followed in her elevation and has asked for the records of the meeting. If rules were flouted in her election and she ceases to be the General Secretary, her election as the Legislature Party leader will become null and void. And this will give OPS another chance to prolong his innings and even manipulate the loyalties of more MLAs.
In 1988, Jayalalithaa had accused the Governor of "playing partisan politics, violating all cannons of constitutionalism and democracy." Sasikala, although not as explicit, has already hinted at a similar partisanship when she said in her first ever interview on Wednesday that the Governor hadn't responded to any of her messages. If the Governor agrees for the withdrawal of OPS's resignation and allows him to prove his majority, he will certainly come in for similar, if not more severe, criticism. From the turn of events so far, the Governor's office seems to have been receptive to OPS than to to Sasikala.
In 1988, when the fight between Janaki and Jayalalithaa (represented by Nedunchezhiyan) reached the assembly, it led to historic violence and even the intervention of the police. The man who set if off with a number of extraordinary tricks was the then speaker PH Pandian (yes, the same man who was the first to rush to OPS after his announcement). He got Janaki elected as the Chief Minister although she was short on numbers, but Rajiv Gandhi, who was sitting on the wings, dismissed her 24 days later describing the events in the assembly as a "slur on democracy".
What was remarkable was that Rajiv and the Congress played both the factions for about three weeks and didn't take a stand till it chose to impose the President's rule. The BJP is seemingly playing a somewhat similar role because OPS's strategy is incomplete without the support of the Centre (read the Governor) and Sasikala is not uttering a word against them. Instead, she wants to deflect all the blame for OPS's revolt to the DMK, which seems to be the most unlikely collaborator.
Now, the most important question: Who will ultimately win?
The developments in 1988 tell us that the immediate results don't matter because Jaya lost to Janaki, but vanquished her in a year. It was her, and not Janaki, that Tamil Nadu's political history remembers. If OPS plays well, he too will have a chance. Ultimately, politics is a game of probabilities.