The Tamil crucible

Jayalalithaa’s departure opens up new volatility — and possibilities of political transformation

Written by Suhas Palshikar | Updated: February 16, 2017 5:11 pm
tamil nadu, tamil nadu crisis, sasikala, jayalalithaa, panneerselvam, AIADMK, DMK, tamil nadu news update, tamil nadu chief minister, panneerselvam support, indian express editorial Tamil Nadu Chief Minister O Panneerselvam (File Photo)

The exit of a towering personality is always a catalyst in many senses. The death of J. Jayalalithaa was bound to release new energies and bring out possibilities of a reconfiguration of Tamil Nadu politics. The internal struggle over leadership has only hastened that process. Tamil Nadu’s politics turned a new page when the DMK government was elected to power, removing the Congress in 1967. That was also the time of the beginning of the decline of the Congress elsewhere in the country.

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The rise of the DMK in Tamil Nadu was remarkable, in retrospect, for two reasons. First, it showed how a dominant party can be vanquished for a long duration by fundamentally changing the nature of competitive politics in the state. Two, that transformation was not merely related to the change of ruling party in the state, but signaled the coming of a new discourse of regional pride and state autonomy besides bringing new social forces to the forefront. This year marks 50 years of that transformation in the politics of Tamil Nadu. In the passing away of the Puratchi Thalaivi, a crack has opened for the possibilities of the next round of transformation in the state.

This crack holds three possibilities in terms of party political competition in the state. Let us first consider the scenario of reflected glory. That would be at the core of Sasikala’s gamble. Already, she has managed a coup of sorts by getting herself appointed as party general secretary. She would hope that she can do a Jayalalithaa and wrest public sympathy through her long personal association with the departed leader in addition to her current control on party resources. Besides, by virtue of being at the centre of decision-making during the last election, she would already command the obedience of a sizeable number of party MLAs.

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So, Sasikala would surely be expecting to repeat the script that her benefactor so commandingly performed three decades ago. There is a caveat though. When MGR departed, Jayalalithaa was already a key political player in active politics — and not only a backroom planner. She was denounced by MGR’s family members, but never by MGR — unlike the misfortune that once befell Sasikala.

The second possibility, then, is a tactical attempt by the BJP to insert itself into the scene. This possibility has limitations. With its barely three per cent votes and complete absence in the assembly, the BJP can insert itself only through the instrument of the governor. Whether that would go down well with the Tamil Nadu public will be a dilemma for the BJP. But it would aim at rupturing the dominance of the state parties in Tamil Nadu and, in the short run, want to create a situation whereby no state party would sweep the next Lok Sabha elections from Tamil Nadu. For this purpose, the BJP would want the two factions to keep weakening each other, possibly both becoming two small parties. This way, the bipolarity of state politics could become weak.

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Already, in the last assembly elections, the DMDK did forge a separate alliance and the PMK contested separately — both without success — producing the beginnings of multi-cornered contests in the state. If after a short interregnum led by one of the two AIADMK factions, Tamil Nadu has to face fresh assembly elections, they could coincide with the next Lok Sabha elections.

It would be to the BJP’s advantage to have the bipolar politics of the state fractured through factionalism, a possible split in the AIADMK and also the uncertainties faced by smaller state parties. For the BJP, then, rather than state level gains, the possibilities of some indirect gains for the next Lok Sabha battle would be crucial.

Third, for the smaller state parties, rather than the Lok Sabha, the opening at the state level would be more alluring. For the past decade and a half, smaller state parties had already become important and had forced the politics of coalitions on the neat bi-party competition. But if any of the two factions of the AIADMK settles down, smaller parties do not gain much since they too have no presence in the present assembly. For them, the current moment can be useful only if it leads to a chaotic fragmentation of the AIADMK, because that would force a mid-term assembly election. Parties like the PMK and DMDK, as also the much smaller parties such as VCK and PT, would thus hope for further deterioration of uncertainties within the AIADMK.

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But beyond these possibilities pertaining to the party framework, at least two other factors need to be taken into account. One, the death of Jayalalithaa has opened the doors for a further wave of the politics of regional identity and regional hurt in a state where the AIADMK always sought to underplay the regional platform. Whatever the governor does and whoever is ensconced in governmental power, the high pitch of regional discourse would resonate in the politics of the state. The state is facing critical issues in its political economy, marked by populist spending, stagnated growth and deep uncertainties arising from the informalisation of labour. All this is enough for a regionalist explosion; political uncertainties would further strengthen the space for regionalist politics. The Jallikattu episode has recently indicated how most players would be willing prisoners of the politics of symbols and regionalist mobilisations.

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Two, the vacuum left behind by Jayalalithaa means that the social basis of the AIADMK would find it tough to hold. Caste relations are not only volatile, the expectations each caste has from parties and the state are exaggerated. In the deeply divided caste-politics of the state, even small shifts of communities constitute important political possibilities. For a long time, the DMK has tried to cultivate the Thevar community because where many communities are aligning with their respective caste parties, the political support of communities like the Thevars becomes critical. The AIADMK had indicated that the Thevars would be included in the MBC rather than the OBC category. Now, in addition to that unfulfilled demand, if the leader of that community, Panneerselvam, is sidelined, that would be reason enough for the crumbling of the social basis of the AIADMK.

Both these possibilities have the potential for a more serious transformation in the state’s politics than a mere shuffling of parties. Tamil Nadu is today at the moment of transformation like it was in the late ‘80s after MGR departed. Jayalalithaa’s ascendance stalled the transformation then. Whether the current moment would lead to a transformation or it would only produce a period of deep complications decorated with political drama remains to be seen. Suddenly, Tamil Nadu will have become a state requiring very close attention for the political configurations it may throw up.

The writer taught political science at Savitribai Phule Pune University, Pune, and is currently chief editor of the journal ‘Studies in Indian Politics’

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