Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Politics in Tamil Nadu post Jayalalithaa 


                The demise of J.Jayalalithaa in December 5, 2016, could usher in a radical transformation of the political course in Tamil Nadu. The decimation of sorts that the Congress party suffered since it lost power to the DMK in 1967 seemed to have been reversed since 1977 when M.G.Ramachandran took away a chunk from the DMK with him and wrested power in the elections to the state assembly in March that year. That was the first ever elections for his fledgling ADMK and the party won 130 of the 200 seats it contested. The DMK was left with only 48 seats and the Congress won 27 seats. The Janata Party, whose juggernaut did not work in the Southern states, then won only 10 of the 233 seats it contested from.  The point is that the Congress, even after winning 27 of the 198 seats it contested, seemed to be fading out from Tamil Nadu.

                Things, however, changed soon. The DMK, without any compunction (M.Karunanidhi’s government was dismissed by Indira Gandhi in January 1976 and many DMK leaders were jailed under MISA since then), struck an alliance with the Congress(I) in January 1980 elections to the Lok Sabha and MGR’s ADMK, in alliance now with the rump Janata Party was routed. The ADMK, still ruling Tamil Nadu, was left with just two MPs and the Janata won none. He did dump the Janata, now in shambles even in the Northern states and stuck with the left parties to salvage his ADMK when elections were held to the state assembly in June the same year. He retained power even after the DMK-Congress combine remained intact and reversed the trend that seemed to emerge just a few months ago. The ADMK won 129 seats in the 234 strong House while the DMK’s strength came down from 48 to 37 and this despite its alliance with Indira Gandhi’s Congress.

                Although MGR dabbled with the anti-Congress consolidation that was emerging again in the early 1980s with non-Congress Chief Ministers holding conclaves and raising issues regarding fiscal federalism, he was astute enough to not leave the DMK-Congress alliance intact. It was then that he found a role for his former colleague in cinema, J.Jayalalithaa, who had joined his party in 1982. She was sent to the Rajya Sabha and she seemed to have carried out her brief far too well. The Congress(I), in which Rajiv Gandhi had begun playing an important role, was persuaded by the ADMK’s propaganda secretary (a post that was created for Jayalalithaa) to dump Karunanidhi’s party and team up with the ADMK. It was sometimes then that MGR rechristened his party as the All India ADMK. The supremo fell ill even before elections were announced in 1984 but his own illness and the demise of Indira Gandhi and the televised mourning and funeral ensured that the AIADMK-Congress(I) combine swept the polls in Tamil Nadu. Elections to the Lok Sabha and state assembly were held simultaneously then and the AIADMK won 132 of the 155 seats it contested while the Congress(I) won 61 of the 73 seats it contested. The DMK was left with the CPI and CPM as allies and together they won only 31 seats in the 234 strong House.  

                This background, indeed, then shows that the Congress remained relevant in Tamil Nadu and was even in a position to tilt the balance between the DMK and the AIADMK. It is also significant that the AIADMK, under MGR, managed two things: One to retain and consolidate its core support among the poor across the state and the noon-meal scheme that MGR introduced, improvising upon an idea that K.Kamaraj had experimented with when he was Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu between 1954 and 1963. And two to keep the Congress party on his side. This worked in MGR’s own time and even after when Jayalalithaa took over the party, established herself as MGR’s legatee among the people against similar claims by the late Chief Minister’s wife, Janaki  Ramachandran. The two ADMKs, as the party split, were defeated by Karunanidhi’s DMK in the 1989 elections to the state assembly. The DMK also tied up with the anti-Congress National Front headed by V.P.Singh and the AIADMK appeared a party that was over.

                But this was when politics in the state was undergoing another churning; the social mosaic that helped the DMK establish itself – the vanniar community – in the Northern Tamil Nadu ever since 1957 and was held on by the party even after the advent and growth of the ADMK. It changed since the late 1980s when the vanniar community was mobilized by Dr. S.Ramadoss and a violent agitation demanding the Most Backward Classes status to them swept the region when the DMK was in power from 1989. Karunanidhi’s gamble to stoke tamil identity sentiments around the anti-Tamil pogrom in neighbouring Sri Lanka did not work; though MGR too had taken up this cause and associated himself with the LTTE in the early 1980s, the DMK was seen as aiding the militants in Tamil Nadu, at least after 1989 and the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, while elections were on, on May 21, 1991, left the DMK running for cover. The AIADMK, now under Jayalalithaa along with the Congress(I) swept the polls; both to the Lok Sabha and the state assembly held simultaneously in May-June 1991. The DMK won just a couple of seats in the assembly and none in the Lok Sabha.

                Jayalalithaa now was unstoppable; she even managed to prevail upon the Congress party against impeaching Justice V.Ramasami for his excesses as Judge of the Punjab and Haryana High Court involving financial impropriety. It is appropriate to note that the judge to be impeached happened to belong to the thevar community, as also does Sasikala, who had then become Jayalalithaa’s aide. Her kin, V.N.Sudhakaran was now decalared Jayalalithaa’s foster son and his big fat wedding showed he in poor light. She erred on this and many other instances of brazen show of power and authority but her party was, without doubt, under her command. The problem, however, was that the Congress leaders in Tamil Nadu revolted against the high command (well; P.V.Narasimha Rao could hold his party under his thumb only for a while and ceased to be a commander after Sonia Gandhi blessed a revolt against him) when the Congress decided to go along with the AIADMK. And the DMK patriarch lost no time striking an alliance with the Tamil Manila Congress to sweep the elections. The point is that the Congress, an ally of the AIADMK since 1984 was now with the DMK. Notwithstanding the PMK, that Dr. Ramadoss had floated, eating into the DMK’s traditional base, the DMK could wrest power in 1996.

                Jayalalithaa, now picked up the ropes and bounced back in 1998 cobbling up an alliance with such parties as the PMK, the MDMK (that had split away from the DMK in 1994) and most importantly the BJP, which at the national level had now managed to supplant the Congress(I). The alliance won as many as 35 of the 39 Lok Sabha seats from Tamil Nadu; the AIADMK won 18 and the BJP, for the first time, opened its account in Tamil Nadu winning 3 seats. Far more important was that Jayalalithaa emerged a powerful player in New Delhi with her 18 MPs crucial for the BJP-led government. Her command like hold on her MPs was proved when they cringed before her in full public glare (even while they held ministerial offices in the Union Cabinet and she was only out of jail on bail facing charges of corruption in Tamil Nadu) and the Parliamentary Party simply bowed before her when asked to withdraw support to the Atal Behari Vajpayee government in April 1999.

                She switched to the Congress(I) again in September the same year and managed to retain 10 Lok Sabha seats in the general elections. She also helped the Congress(I) win two seats and the CPI(M) win one.  Most of these happened to be from Southern Tamil Nadu where the AIADMK under Jayalalithaa had consolidated itself among the dominant thevar community. Jayalalithaa, meanwhile, worked on getting the PMK back to her fold and this she managed in time for the 2001 state assembly elections. She also managed to get the Tamil Manila Congress, whose birth itself was to oppose her in 1996, and thus returned to power in May 2001. The alliance with PMK, particularly, held her in good stead; and more importantly weakened the DMK in the northern districts, its traditional stronghold. 132 seats out of the 141 the party contested and Jayalalithaa was back as Chief Minister. She ensured that ministers in her cabinet were left insecure and were sent out when she wished. None dared to ask her why.  She dumped her pre-poll allies and picked up new ones in 2011 (it was the DMDK this time) to win another election and dump them soon after.

                It was her ability to do all these and carry her partymen wherever she decided to go that left the DMK scourging for partners and stay afloat. She mastered the art of talking directly to the people (well she did that hardly and let her larger than life posters to connect with the people). He rewarded policemen even while they were seen as guilty of violating human rights in the search for Veerapan, the brigand who was hunted down in the forests. Strictures against the police force by as mighty an agency as the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) did not hold her back and she held a state function to reward them with land and out-of-turn promotions. She conveyed to the budgeoning middle classes in Tamil Nadu that the state needed such a force and she also expanded the scope of welfare measures to keep the poor and the lower middle classes contended. She kept her party under her feet and ensured that ministers and MLAs orchestrated mass support day after day.

                This long background will help see the shape of political developments in the immediate aftermath of her demise and what holds for the party she had commanded all the while.    

                Announcement of Jayalalithaa’s demise, late in the night on December  5, 2016, seemed to have followed some discussion and consultations among the party’s ‘leaders’ and Ms. Sasikala Natarajan apart from the BJP’s M.Venkaiah Naidu. The anointment of O.Panneerselvam as Chief Minister seemed natural; he had, after all, been the one she chose to hold office on occasions when she had to. First when her party won the majority in the state assembly elections in May 2001 (in which her own nomination was rejected on grounds of her conviction in a charge of corruption) and the Supreme Court subsequently held against her claims to the Chief Minister’s office in September that year, Panneerselvam was anointed Chief Minister. He promptly resigned the day his ‘amma’ qualified for office after the Supreme Court held her ‘innocent’ of the charges. He was thus Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu between September 21, 2001 and March 1, 2002.  He returned as Chief Minister, once again, on September 29, 2014 after ‘amma’ was convicted by the Karnataka High Court on charges of holding assets disproportionate to her known sources of income. As it happened, a Division Bench of the same High Court quashed the earlier order on May 11, 2015. ‘Amma’ Jayalalithaa waited until the eleventh day after her acquittal and Panneerselvam put in his papers on May 22, 2015, vacating the throne once again.

                It could have been that all those who confabulated at the Appolo Hospital during the couple of hours before Jayalalithaa’s demise was announced were unsure of their own prowess and decided to invoke what could have been amma’s will in the event. Well. As things have been unraveling since Panneerselvam seems to have some more credentials too  than having been the rarest among the AIADMK ‘leaders’ on whom the party supremo had complete faith. That his anointment now had taken shape in a gathering including Sasikala suggests he was the aide’s nominee even on earlier occasions and Jayalalithaa seemed to execute what her aide wanted. None in the party protested then; not even in whispers. But with ‘amma’ gone and Sasikala now out in the open, there are some in the party who seem to have gathered against Panneerselvam. And the daggers are likely to be out when the party, after the ritual of mourning, meets to ‘elect’ its general secretary.

                The AIADMK has 136 MLAs in the state assembly. 117 is what it needs to command majority in the House and there was no way that the party would have lost power in normal times, I.e. when Jayalalithaa was around. The additional numbers – 19 MLAs – was more than what the AIADMK needed to complete its five year term. All these, now, seem to be past. And Panneerselvam will need a lot of blessings, not only from Sasikala but also from the ruling BJP in the Centre to keep his flock together and fore-close the possibility of M.K.Stalin, leader of the 88 member strong DMK-legislature party (along with the 8 Congress MLAs) staking claims for the Chief Minister’s job in the event of a revolt in the AIADMK legislature party against Panneerselvam. While the Chief Minister’s proximity with Sasikala, thanks to caste they both belong to, may have been his strength in the night on December 5, 2016, the same may cause his fall in the event.

The thevars, after all, are not the only dominant intermediate caste in Tamil Nadu and the AIADMK has a substantial following among the Kongu Gounder community, dominant in the Western parts of the state; it was from this region that the AIADMK gathered mass since its inception in the 1970s and many of those are still around in the party to contest Panneerselvam’s claim. While a rebellion of this kind will depend on how deep Sasikala has entrenched herself by way of posting officers of the police and civil administration loyal to her across the state and how much the potential rebels are vulnerable (in other words as to how well would they be able to keep skeletons from tumbling out of the cupboard), the fact is that the AIADMK will no longer have a leader who can relate as ‘amma’ did with the people of Tamil Nadu. It is also unlikely that none in the party, including Sasikala, can aspire to be perceived by the people as MGR’s legatee as they perceived Jayalalithaa.

The point is that the AIADMK cannot be the same as it was under Jayalalithaa. And it is unlikely that it will remain as ‘disciplined’ as it was until December 5, 2016. And given the fragmentation of the polity and the various caste groups now having thrown up parties seeking to represent their own sectarian interests, as Jayalalithaa is no longer the present and is past, the space hitherto occupied by the AIADMK in Tamil Nadu could now be up for grabs. From what it looks like, Sasikala could end up offering the space to the BJP and that could happen only if Amit Shah’s party manages to survive the adverse effects of the November 8, 2016 announcement on currency notes by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Tamil Nadu, after all, is a state where money circulation has remained high and pervasive. It is another matter that Sasikala can manage to keep Panneerselvam as Chief Minister if she wants it that way and gets help for this from the Union Government the way governments were made and unmade in Uttarakhand and Arunachal Pradesh in recent months.