Tamil Nadu politics is set for an upheaval with the Supreme Court on Tuesday restoring the verdict of a Bengaluru trial court that held former Tamil Nadu chief minister J. Jayalalithaa and her aide and current AIADMK general secretary Sasikala Natarajan guilty in the disproportionate assets case. In effect, the court has not just held Sasikala — and Jayalalithaa — guilty of corruption, but may have also ended the former’s political career before it could take off. Sasikala now faces a jail term of four years, which could keep her out of electoral politics for a decade.
Her faction has elected a new legislature party leader, Edappadi Palanisami, who, as on Tuesday, appears to have the numbers to form the government. The caretaker chief minister, O. Pannerselvam, and many senior leaders who rebelled against Sasikala’s claim to the AIADMK leadership, have been expelled from the party. However, the ouster of these challengers may not give Sasikala complete control over the AIADMK: Ten years is a long time in politics and to demand loyalty of legislators and cadres from prison will be no easy task.
The crisis in the AIADMK presents itself as an opportunity for the party to shed its inheritance of leader-centric politics for a leadership that is more plural and decentralised. The party’s founder, M.G. Ramachandran, and his successor, Jayalalithaa, built the party as an extension of their persona. They refused to groom a second line of leadership, which has contributed to the crisis the party has had to face after the death of MGR in 1987 and, Jayalalithaa in December last year. The present power struggle in the party could, in its best version, help push leaders from the grassroots to centrestage. Until the emergence of the MGR phenomenon, electoral politics in Tamil Nadu was more a battle of ideas and ideologies and less a confrontation of leaders. But from the 1980s, state politics became a polarised battle between Jayalalithaa and DMK patriarch, M. Karunanidhi.
The leadership transition in the DMK is also near complete with M.K. Stalin emerging as the party’s face in recent months. Other regional parties like the DMDK, PMK and VCK as well as national outfits like the Congress and the BJP too might fancy expanding their influence as state politics enters a post-Jaya, post-Karunanidhi phase. But to be successful, these parties may have to look outside the tropes and leadership models of the past decades and embrace a more modern idiom capable of addressing new social and economic challenges facing the state.