Tamil Nadu in a state of flux

Jayalalithaa’s disqualification from electoral contests following her conviction will have far-reaching consequences for AIADMK and Tamil Nadu. Uncertainty has already crept into state politics


Shivani Chaturvedi | October 21, 2014

One of the posters dotting the Marina beach, secretariat and Madras university, saying, “People will punish Tamil traitors who filed this case and also Kannada chauvinists.”
One of the posters dotting the Marina beach, secretariat and Madras university, saying, “People will punish Tamil traitors who filed this case and also Kannada chauvinists.”

The story appeared before Jayalalithaa got a bail in the disproportionate assets case

From a cine star she became one of the most successful but controversial political figures. She never hid her national ambitions and presented herself intrepidly as a prime ministerial candidate even though her party contested only 40 (39 in Tamil Nadu and one in Puducherry) out of the 543 lok sabha seats in the 2014 elections. That she swept Tamil Nadu, winning 37 of 39 seats without an alliance with any party, underlined J Jayalalithaa’s position. Her future was believed to be bright till the time she was forced to step down as chief minister on September 27 after a Bangalore special court convicted her in a corruption case that had lasted for 18 years. She was found guilty of amassing '66.65 crore worth of unaccounted-for wealth during her first tenure as Tamil Nadu CM from 1991 to 1996. The court sentenced Jayalalithaa to four years in prison and slapped a fine of '100 crore on her. A further massive setback came when she was denied bail by the Karnataka high court on October 7 – effectively putting her behind bars for a substantive period.

The 66-year-old leader whose health is indifferent is likely to stay out of electoral contests for 10 long years as per the provisions of the Representation of the People Act that bars any convicted person from contesting an election for six years after serving the sentence. Unless ‘Amma’, as she is popularly referred to by her supporters, gets the apex court to overturn the verdict or stay her conviction and sentence. 
That the apex court may find it difficult to overturn the high court decision, which drew heavily from its own landmark verdicts in other corruption cases against politicians, is an indication that her political career is bleak.

Despite her clout, wealth and proximity with prime minister Narendra Modi, Jayalalithaa is the first serving CM to come under the supreme court ruling under the Representation of the People Act. The verdict in this case has certainly given a strong message to corruption stalwarts in other parts of the country.

At the same time it is crystal clear that her disqualification will have far-reaching consequences for her party and Tamil Nadu. Uncertainty has crept into Tamil Nadu politics. For one, the legal battle for Jayalalithaa will not be over any time soon. As her party was always a one-woman show, there are no strong leaders in the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) who could take the mantle forward. Newly appointed CM O Panneerselvam remains an uncharismatic leader.

Jayalalithaa’s main opposition, with whom she has been alternating governments, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) chief M Karunanidhi, too, is a weakened patriarch. The ageing stalwart of Dravidian politics is plagued by family feuds and 2G scam that involves his family. Analysts, politicians and even party members feel that Karunanidhi’s children lack his political acumen and charisma. Besides, his children, sons Stalin and Alagiri and daughter Kanimozhi, are too caught up in their personal wars against each other. Karunanidhi always gave more importance to the political ambitions of his progeny than to the party. So, in the DMK too there is no leader of consequence after Karunanidhi.

Politicians like Vijayakanth of Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK) and Vaiko of Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) have never been taken seriously by voters in Tamil Nadu.

So, this is the time when Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will make all efforts to project itself as the alternative. The BJP is working to improve its strength in Tamil Nadu after it was able to pocket one (Kanyakumari) Lok Sabha seat in the May election. Its ally Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) won another, the Dharmapuri seat.

For now, political prognosticators are left searching for hints about what lies ahead for Tamil Nadu.

And whether Jayalalithaa’s conviction will turn public mood against her or build a sympathy wave and help the AIADMK in the next assembly election scheduled for 2016 is also debatable. Her supporters are crying foul, saying the case is politically motivated while her critics see Jayalalithaa as a deeply corrupt figure who has manipulated the system. Even in this disproportionate assets case attempts were made to delay the legal process – judges were changed, lawyers were removed.
Tragedy of Tamil Nadu politics

There is widespread discontent among Jayalalithaa’s supporters. Since her conviction the entire state has been witnessing demonstrations, protests and human chain formations. Shopkeepers have been forced to keep their shutters down for days together. “Though it is festival time, I am unable to open my shop. Otherwise, I would be in trouble,” said a shopkeeper who did not want to be named. There are silent protests. Supporters are seen visiting temples and performing special pujas for the release of their leader. Men are seen getting their heads tonsured in Amma’s support. Padmavathi, 50, a resident of Perungalathur, a suburban locality of Chennai, has a soft spot for the convicted leader whom she calls “a symbol of woman power in the male-dominated Tamil Nadu society”. Rajini, 58, a beneficiary of Jayalalithaa’s many schemes for the poor, is still coming to terms with the fact that her Amma is not the CM anymore.

Huge posters have appeared, one of them reads, “Can a mortal punish God?” Another says, “People will punish Tamil traitors who filed this case and also Kannada chauvinists.” There is yet another poster with a crying baby and a picture of Jayalalithaa. The baby is yearning for ‘mother’ to come back.

Every now and then reports of self-immolation come from parts of the state, though there is no official confirmation of any such incident.
All this for a political leader convicted on graft charges. This is the tragedy of Indian politics, to be specific, more so the tragedy of Tamil Nadu politics. C Lakshmanan who teaches at Madras Institute of Development Studies (MIDS) and did his doctorate on ‘Personality Cult in Tamil Nadu Politics: Study of the Culture of Dravidian Politics’ told Governance Now that the overall Dravidian politics is a ‘depoliticisation’ of politics. Politics means people should be organised for modern democratic values and virtues. Instead, in this state, it is irrational, devotional loyalty to power, which is embodied in one person.

Savithri, 25, a resident of Pallavaram, another suburban of Chennai, is happy over the conviction of Jayalalithaa and feels that justice seems to have been finally done. But not many share her sentiment in the state today.

The importance of Jayalalithaa

Earlier, in 2001, when Jayalalithaa was unseated for a few weeks in another criminal case and Panneerselvam had taken charge as the care-taker CM, she worked from her Poes Garden residence in Chennai. A senior bureaucrat in Chennai said on condition of anonymity, “At that time meetings used to be held in the evenings at Jayalalithaa’s residence, where Panneerselvam used to sit with her and discuss issues related to governance and administration. Files were taken to her and decision-making was not paralysed.”

So what makes things different now?

Several officers told Governance Now that the real power was vested with Amma and she was known to take all decisions for both the party and government. The cause of concern now, for senior bureaucrats, is that the process of decision-making and actual work would slow down with the former chief minister in jail, and no longer available for frequent consultations on government-related matters.

An adviser to Jayalalithaa and former Tamil Nadu chief secretary, Sheela Balakrishnan, and a few other senior bureaucrats hand-picked by Jayalalithaa are there to guide Pannerselvam government. But doubts persist.

Some bureaucrats have even expressed doubts about the CM’s ability to govern when he does not even sit in the chair meant for the CM. In continuance of his earlier symbolic gesture of avoiding sitting in the chair meant for his leader, Pannerselvam sits on an ordinary chair when he conducts meetings. “What would happen when a big company comes to the state to make investments?” asked a bureaucrat.

Political observers said all this will go on till 2016, which, however, is a long way ahead. The question here is when people know she won’t return to active politics for 10 years, will they vote for Panneerselvam, the proxy CM, or any other face from the AIADMK?

Novelist-journalist Vaasanthi who has penned books like Jayalalithaa: A Portrait and Cut-outs, Caste and Cine Stars: The World of Tamil Politics told Governance Now that the scenario has changed from 1996 when the AIADMK was voted out. “People at that time rejected Jayalalithaa because of corruption charges against her. But public memory is short. Now people remember only her welfare schemes. Jayalalithaa has now caught up the imagination of the masses. Her welfare schemes too have benefitted the population. All this might help AIADMK in the next assembly polls. Plus, DMK’s unpopularity too would work in favour of AIADMK in the coming election. But if she can’t contest elections for a decade, AIADMK cannot sustain because there is no other face in the party. And her popularity can only sustain it for few years,” she said.

For now, the Puratchi Thalaivi (revolutionary leader) continues to smile benevolently from the walls of government offices.

What lies ahead?
Electoral battles in Tamil Nadu have mostly thrown up decisive results. Considering the trend since 1967, Tamil Nadu has a peculiar habit of voting for one or the other Dravidian party – the DMK or the AIADMK – in turns. But with the AIADMK supremo likely to stay out of electoral politics for long, there can be a departure from this trend in the next assembly elections.

“People vote for the AIADMK or DMK since they do not have an alternative (the Congress being a spent force in the state and the BJP non-existent till May 2014). But now there is scope for the BJP to make an impact in Tamil Nadu,” said a city-based analyst. “The BJP, alone or in coalition with other smaller parties, can emerge as an alternative force. Since Jayalalithaa has been disqualified as an MLA and she might not be cleared of all the charges before the elections, the saffron party may get more support and spread its wings here.”

Emphasising that the BJP wanted to present itself as an alternative party in a state where its influence has been minimal till date, senior BJP leader from Tamil Nadu, L Ganesan, told Governance Now: “We are working to grow BJP in the state. But at this juncture, planning for growth would leave a bad taste (in people’s mouth) and we are not people who fish in troubled waters.”

C Lakshmanan of Madras Institute of Development Studies, however, suggested that the BJP wouldn’t want to miss this opportunity. “They (BJP leaders) see it as an occasion to strike in the state. The BJP is trying to bring superstar Rajnikanth in their fold. If Rajnikanth joins the BJP, he would be the face of the party. In Tamil Nadu, people go to extremes. They can bring a political party to power with absolute majority and they can outrightly vote a party out of power. After seeing this entire episode people might think of electing someone who may not be from either of the Dravidian parties.”

The BJP, meanwhile, has already started leveraging the popularity of cinema stars in Tamil Nadu. In May – before the elections, Narendra Modi met Rajnikanth and actor Vijay in Chennai. “The BJP has already moulded itself after Dravidian parties. They have fallen into the trap of personality politics,” Lakshmanan added.

Rudra Krishna, a city-based lawyer and a writer, said, “Tamil Nadu is in a big trouble. Jayalalithaa provided the state with lot of stability. Now there is genuinely something to be worried about. The state seems to be entering into some serious difficulty with no other ‘face’ to lead. Since there is a vacuum in state politics today, this would be a wonderful opportunity for the BJP as well as for Rajnikanth.”

This story appeared in the October 16-31, 2014 print issue



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