De mortuis nil nisi bonum. (Of the dead say nothing but the good). The best I can do is to say nothing uncharitable about Jayalalithaa the person, but simply recount the events of the last 25 years. M G Ramachandran (MGR) broke with his party (DMK) in 1972 and founded the All India Anna DMK (AIADMK). He was elected as the Chief Minister in 1977, 1980 and 1984 and was undefeated until his death. He picked Jayalalithaa and groomed her. After MGR’s death, the party split, lost the election in 1989, but re-united under the leadership of Jayalalithaa. Soon, Jayalalithaa gained absolute control of the party and recast the party as a loyal congregation that worshipped her as a deity.
Took perilous path
Jayalalithaa was first elected as Chief Minister in 1991. During her first term (1991-96), she and her cohorts (Ms V K Sasikala and her group) embarked upon a perilous course to amass wealth by corrupt and illegal means. Although Jayalalithaa was elected thrice subsequently (2001, 2011 and 2016) and she enjoyed the support of a large proportion of the electorate until her death, the reputation of the AIADMK was steadily and irretrievably damaged. It was not the same party that was founded by MGR. The charges of corruption in the disproportionate assets (DA) case against Jayalalithaa and others before the Supreme Court pertained to the period 1991-96. In Jayalalithaa’s second and third terms in office, the cases against her collapsed one after another. The DA case survived, as did a few other cases. Neither the cases nor the legal setbacks deterred Ms Sasikala and her group.
They accumulated more wealth in the second and third terms as well. What defied comprehension was how a person as intelligent as Jayalalithaa did not realize that she was being pushed into a deep hole out of which she could never emerge unscathed. While Jayalalithaa enjoyed the goodwill of large sections of the people, the same sections had silently turned against Ms Sasikala and her group. Few political observers had noticed this duality in the attitude of the people.
Jayalalithaa died on December 5, 2016. On February 14, 2017, the Supreme Court upheld the judgment of the trial court in the DA case and ordered Ms Sasikala and two others to serve the sentence imposed on them. Jayalalithaa was spared the ignominy of going to prison. The two factions of the AIADMK do not seem to have grasped the gravity and import of the judgment. One faction is ‘celebrating’ the judgment, seemingly oblivious to the fact that Jayalalithaa was also found guilty! The other faction is ‘dismissive’ of the judgment notwithstanding that the leader they had elected a few days before will spend the next four years in a prison! The people of Tamil Nadu, however, cannot be uncaring or forgiving.
Now, after Jayalalithaa’s death, the AIADMK is poised to undergo another self-destructing transformation. There was a fragile arrangement for a few days — Ms Sasikala as general secretary of the party and Mr O Panneerselvam as Chief Minister — but, as predicted, the arrangement broke down in the face of the fierce ambition of Ms Sasikala and her family. Her goal was not control of the party alone, her goal was control of the government.
It was an audacious move, but it was of a piece with the impudence and audacity displayed by Ms Sasikala’s group since 1996. The people’s hostility towards Ms Sasikala erupted in the open only after she bulldozed her way to become general secretary of the party and, within a few days, again bulldozed her way to be elected leader of the AIADMK legislature party. Social media exploded in her face, but Ms Sasikala did not seem to notice or, worse, did not seem to care.
The AIADMK party first suffered a horizontal split. The vast majority of the people, especially the poorer classes and women, were outspoken in their opposition to her. The rank and file of the party was disillusioned and became sullen and inactive. It was only the MLAs and party office-bearers who obediently paid tribute to Ms Sasikala and behaved like her vassals.
The end game
Now, the AIADMK could face a vertical split too. If the legislators cannot or will not shake off the stranglehold of Ms Sasikala, even if the government under the new leader, Mr E K Palaniswami, is able to prove its majority, the disconnect between the people and the party/government will deepen. The portends are not encouraging. Just before she left for Bengaluru to begin her prison term, Ms Sasikala re-admitted two of her nephews into the party (they had been expelled by Jayalalithaa) and appointed one of them (Mr Dinakaran) as the deputy general secretary to run the party in her absence. It is astonishing that Ms Sasikala believes that she can run the party and the government from prison through her proxies for the next four years! Her latest moves have sealed the disconnect between her and the people of Tamil Nadu. Ms Sasikala is perhaps the most reviled public figure in Tamil Nadu today. In its forty-fourth year, the AIADMK seems to be hurtling towards its demise. It is a cruel twist of fate that a party founded on the plank of fighting corruption will be buried by the corruption of its third (and last?) supreme leader.