Sasikala may have become the leader of the AIADMK, but she is a far cry from J Jayalalithaa, who towered over Tamil Nadu politics like a colossus
Shivani Chaturvedi | January 16, 2017
Sasikala Natarajan, who is affectionately called Chinnamma, has easily slipped into the role of being the leader of the AIADMK following the death of chief minister J Jayalalithaa. But she has big shoes to fill and there could be choppy waters ahead due to unhappy grassroot workers.
Clad in a green saree, 60-year-old Sasikala was in tears while addressing the party’s general body meeting on December 31 after being made All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) chief.
“The AIADMK will live on for 100 more years. The party will conduct itself with army-like discipline,” she said. This was the first time when people outside the party were hearing Sasikala speak.
Her ascension to the top post in the AIADMK has brought her tantalisingly close to becoming the chief minister of Tamil Nadu. She has support from senior leaders in the party and the MLAs. Those leaders who initially opposed her are all praise for her now.
However, it is a different story at the grassroot level as the party cadre seems to be disgruntled.
People working in the party at various levels are quite upset. “We are unhappy, but we don’t have a choice. We are not in the capacity to challenge what is happening,” admits a party functionary not wishing to be quoted. The party functionary did not spell out what course of action would have made him happy.
With the party activists unhappy and many even opposing the move, it is not going to be easy for Sasikala, says city-based political commentator Sam Rajappa. “Party leaders and MLAs are supporting Sasikala as they have their own interests at stake. But just with MLAs’ support and without the support of party cadres, it won’t be an easy road ahead for her,” he says.
Senior journalist R Mani says, “All 134 MLAs are supporting Sasikala and there seems to be not even a single voice against her. There is no legal constitutional bar on her becoming the chief minister. But she does not have the support of the party cadres.”
“People are not at all happy with the current situation. And then the supreme court judgment on the disproportionate assets case is yet to come in which Sasikala is one of the accused. So even if she becomes the chief minister it may not be a smooth sail for her. We have to wait and watch,” he adds.
People in the party, at least for now, have no other option than to accept her. A party functionary confides, “She has been with the centre of power for a long time. Why can’t you all see that? We know she is the one who is going to lead us. It is an open secret for people in the party.”
AIADMK activists have their opinions, but for now they want to stay in the background. Everyone in the party wants to play it safe and fall in line. It is a political necessity for the ruling AIADMK to stay together as they have a term to complete, says Ramu Manivannan, who teaches at the department of politics and public administration, University of Madras.
Nobody wants to be seen as a potential source of resistance even if there are seasoned and capable leaders in the party, he says, adding that had the AIADMK been the opposition party there would not have been such a compulsion. “Sasikala may be a power centre, but she is not a political entity,” says Manivannan.
There is a distinct undercurrent against Sasikala.
According to an NDTV report, many workers from AIADMK, mostly women, from the late Jayalalithaa’s constituency, RK Nagar in Chennai, protested as lawmaker P Vetrivel appealed to Sasikala to fight from the seat which Jayalalithaa represented.
Vetrivel was present at a silent rally in Chennai to mark 30 days of Jayalalithaa’s death. There, people held protests against Sasikala. “No way I’ll vote for Sasikala,” said many.
Sasikala seems to be trying to imitate her soul sister Jayalalithaa. The way she wears her saree, the bowed head once she assumed power, and also in her mannerism, she is trying to copy Jayalalithaa. She just wants to create an illusion that she has support of the partymen, says a resident of Poes Garden locality. To keep up the pretense, the route from Poes Garden residence to the party office at Royapettah is lined up with workers waving flags when Sasikala visits the party office. It is understood that these workers are paid Rs 300-400 and they are made to stand on the route till Sasikala crosses the area. It is the duty of the district secretaries of the party to daily make this arrangement.
City-based journalist Kalyani Krishna, however, says Sasikala may have an edge as the caste factor would play a role. Sasikala belongs to the powerful Thevar community, a backward class. Emotions are running high in the party and sections of people are seeing her as the one close to Amma, as Jayalalithaa is addressed. Yet, in the same breath, they do express dissatisfaction when they talk of Sasikala.
Of late Sasikala has been holding meetings with leaders from various districts. A report says that though crowds were large during her speech accepting general secretary’s post, they have now thinned.
Dravidian politics is today in a churn. The two major Dravidian parties – the ruling AIADMK, and the opposition DMK – have chosen their new leaders: Sasikala, the AIADMK’s general secretary and, MK Stalin the working president of the rival DMK. AIADMK has not thrown up any young leader. In DMK, Stalin is not of the same calibre as his father M Karunanidhi.
However, Stalin has worked his way up in the party, first as a youth wing leader, and then as a senior functionary in the organisation, and now the de facto head of the DMK, so he seems to have an advantage, adds Rajappa.
Political observer BR Haran says, “We do see a change of era in politics. If BJP rises to the occasion to fill up the vacuum created by late chief minister Jayalalithaa’s death, we can see a new era of politics.”
Also, Stalin may have to fight the BJP instead of the AIADMK, for almost 20 to 25 percent of MG Ramachandran’s (MGR’s) hardcore supporters will not like Sasikala, and at the same time, they may not move to the DMK. Rather, they may go to the BJP. So, in anticipation, the centre would thwart Sasikala’s attempt to become chief minister and capture maximum AIADMK votes.
(The article appears in the January 16-31, 2017 issue)
This piece is based on a previous article by the authors published in Geoforum [Elsevier] in May 2019: available online: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/ S0016718519300764?via%3Dihub
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