OPS vs Sasikala: Battle of the unelected

Last Updated: Fri, Feb 10, 2017 11:34 hrs
OPS vs Sasikala: Battle of the unelected

When the epithet which had once been used sarcastically by disgruntled AIADMK workers to refer to their leader Jayalalithaa’s ‘trusted aide’ Sasikala – ‘Chinnamma’ – became the title Sasikala embraced in an ambitious but clumsy attempt to climb into the Chief Minister’s chair, it left most of the state disillusioned.

The leader the voters had elected was gone. The options for her replacement were a man who was more meme than contender, and a woman whose face was being torn off posters featuring her alongside Jayalalithaa.

Seemingly oblivious to the people’s distrust and dislike of her, to the fact that most of Jayalalithaa’s excesses – from the notorious wedding to the allegations in the disproportionate assets case – were being blamed on her, Sasikala set in motion a systematic plan to ascend the throne. After becoming the party’s general secretary and subsequently the “cadre’s choice” for chief minister, Sasikala began to dress like her departed friend, from the drape of her sari to her signature pottu, and make appearances on the balcony of Jayalalithaa’s Poes Garden home.

But, soon after being edged out, O Paneerselvam seemed to have finally become a politician. He meditated for 40 minutes by Jayalalithaa’s grave, giving the media ample time to reach the spot.

He invoked the ‘aanma’ – the soul and spirit – of Jayalalithaa, as Sasikala had done in her maiden speech after her ‘election’ as general secretary. He went on to say, as Sasikala had done, that he was in no position to assume the mantle of power, that he had not wanted to occupy the seat his revered leader had. But, like Sasikala, he was obeying the will of the party and the people, and the wishes of Jayalalithaa’s eminently communicative soul.

The fact that O Paneerselvam has turned into something of a cult hero is evidence not so much of faith in his leadership qualities or of respect for Jayalalithaa’s selection of him as her deputy, as of the public’s disillusionment with the cavalier manner in which Sasikala has dispensed with democratic process.

As the battle lines are drawn between these two unelected leaders, the future is in the past. The drama that has played out so often before will play out again.

Every time there has been a power struggle, the party splits. That is how the DK gave rise to the DMK. That is how the DMK gave rise to the ADMK. That is how the ADMK gave rise to the AIADMK.

If the party were to split, it could give the DMK, which has all but been written off after losing the 2016 state elections, a backdoor entry. Unlike 2011, the last state election, coming on the back of floods that had wreaked havoc in the capital, were won by a narrow lead. The DMK has 89 seats in the Assembly, and several allies.

As Sasikala tries to contain the dissent in the ranks by firing people who were known to have been trusted loyalists of Jayalalithaa’s, the prospects of this backdoor entry look ominous. If the party were to split, the natural course of things would be for one of the factions – the one without Sasikala – to call upon Jayalalithaa’s niece Deepa, who has also begun to dress like her aunt and make appearances on her own balcony and who would seem to be Jayalalithaa’s legal heir, to lead that faction.

The problem is that Deepa was estranged from her aunt. Unlike Jayalalithaa with MGR, unlike Karunanidhi with Annadurai, she was not groomed into the role of a lieutenant. Neither was anyone else. Jayalalithaa had no deputy and no lieutenant.

And this failure to groom an heir may spell doom for the party’s future.

In fairy tales, the template is that a wicked stepmother sidelines the king and usurps the throne, forcing the princess away from her inheritance. She mourns her departed mother, and resents the stepmother. In her absence, the king realises the stepmother is evil, but is helpless in the face of her intrigues. Fortunately for the kingdom, the handsome prince turns up with the missing princess and everyone lives happily ever after, the stepmother first being sealed into a dungeon or coffin.

When the template is missing a princess, the handsome prince might just as well be an ogre. And in a template which is somewhat ill-fitting, we must hope that the kingdom will not eventually pass into the hands of yet another unelected leader, perhaps a sexagenarian named after a Russian dictator.

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Nandini is a journalist and humour writer based in Madras. She is the author of Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage.