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A year after Jayalalithaa: Tamil Nadu’s Fuzzy Politics

Chennai: Tamil Nadu Chief Minister K Palaniswami and Dy CM O Panneerselvam paying tributes at the memorial of J Jayalalithaa following merger of their factions in Chennai on Monday. All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam factions led by Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswamy and former Chief Minister O Panneerselvam formally merged following a power sharing arrangement with the former to remain as Chief Minister and the latter his deputy. PTI Photo (PTI8_21_2017_000138B) | Photo Credit: PTI

The AIADMK government has moved away from the late Tamil Nadu Chief Minister and party supremo, Jayalalithaa’s fundamental doctrine of dealing with the Union government: fierce opposition to any policy change that seeks to usurp the powers of the State Government. An exceedingly generous way of assessing the current situation would be to claim that this appears more in line with the party founder M.G. Ramachandran’s line of agreeing with the Centre on most issues that did not affect the support base of the party. This argument, however, falls off the cliff because some of the basic policy changes, for instance, those pertaining to the public distribution system and the common entrance examination to professional courses, affect people adversely. While the party tries hard to re-position itself in the MGR centenary year, the DMK looks electorally invincible. To add to the changing contours of polity, there are enough indications that the Rajini-Kamal on-screen feud could also be played out in politics. R.K. Radhakrishnan, Associate Editor, Frontline, writes on the changing dynamics of Tamil Nadu’s politics, known for its vocal position on the rights of States in a federal India.

A year after the death of former Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, the party that she managed with an iron-hand, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), is in still search of a leader who can command the loyalty of the cadres and functionaries, and capture the imagination of the people.

The prediction made in some quarters that the party, and with it the government, will wither away have been proved wrong. This narrative had a sound assumption: the party would not be able to replace the all-powerful Jayalalithaa, who was literally the only decision maker. From 1991, the year that she first came to power in Tamil Nadu, party office bearers, and Ministers of the State Cabinet were dropped, and fresh faces picked without assigning any reason. Sometimes the dropped Ministers came back in subsequent reshuffles.

This kind of arbitrariness would look reckless to some, but there always was a pattern with the dismissals and the appointments. Jayalalithaa, who ran the party much like an autocrat, was not impervious to the demands of caste politics of Tamil Nadu, and made it a point to keep the dominant backward castes in good humour when these changes were carried out.

Discipline within the party and an open display of servility where Ministers and party officials vied with one another to come up with a new form of eulogy formed one of the strands of the party that Jayalalithaa nurtured. In this sense, the AIADMK of Jayalalithaa was markedly different from what it was earlier. The AIADMK founder, M.G. Ramachandran (MGR), a three-time Chief Minister, had allowed groupism and infighting—some of it even out in the open. In Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK, servility was the only quality that could be displayed in public; no one had the license to talk to the media or build an image of his or her own.

At no point did she put an end to this embarrassing display of servility, in the State Legislative Assembly or outside. Also, there was no second-in-command in the party or government, barring for purposes of protocol. Even her good friend, V.K. Sasikala, who lived with Jayalalithaa for over 30 years in her Poes Garden residence, was thrown out. Keeping every Minister and party official guessing about her next move was something that Jayalalithaa did successfully since she took the reins of the unified party ahead of the 1989 Tamil Nadu Assembly elections.

The prediction of a collapse

Hence the assumption that without that central, towering personality to lead and control the party, it was only a matter of time before it disintegrated. Both MGR and Jayalalithaa were the central, uniting, charismatic and, even feared figures around which the party rallied. So, this narrative was based on logic. Many political analysts in Tamil Nadu believe that this is still possible. The AIADMK was surviving merely because of the fact that it is the ruling party, and once this term of office ends, it is only a matter of time before it folds up.

In late 2016, a senior Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) leader, Durai Murugan, predicted a change in government in Tamil Nadu in early 2017. “There will be good news in January. Be prepared,” he told DMK supporters in a meeting of party officials. Though some other leaders of political parties had, in private conversations, also assumed that the AIADMK government would disintegrate, this did not happen. The events that unfolded since the death of Jayalalithaa on December 5, 2016, offer an explanation.

In the immediate aftermath of Jayalalithaa’s demise, Chennai and parts of northern Tamil Nadu were reeling under monsoon fury. The Chief Minister then, O. Panneerselvam, came across as a capable leader who was willing to rise to the challenge. The relief and rehabilitation efforts came in for praise from all but the opposition parties. Panneerselvam later met Prime Minister Narendra Modi and pressed for a relief package, travelled to Hyderabad to meet the Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu, seeking drinking water for Chennai, and was at the centre of the biggest spontaneous agitation in Tamil history, the one for Jallikattu, a regional Tamil sport where the bull is tamed by unarmed men. In end-December, Panneerselvam and other prominent Ministers and party men chose Sasikala to the post of the all-powerful party general secretary. There was a minor murmur when the husband of a Member of Parliament, Sasikala Pushpa, tried to file the nomination papers for the post of the general secretary. He was roughed up in the party office, and the issue never came to the fore after that.

Barring his manner of dealing with the Jallikkattu agitation, Panneerselvam came across as a decisive, humble and efficient leader. It almost seemed as if all is well within the party and that the transition from Jayalalithaa to Panneerselvam was a smooth affair.

Not quite. When Jayalalithaa was alive, both the party and the government were under her total control. In the new arrangement, there was the dual leadership of Panneerselvam and Sasikala. In January this year, a Minister of the Panneerselvam cabinet, R.B. Udayakumar openly raised this issue and demanded that Sasikala should also be made Chief Minister. Events that followed indicated that this was no random statement by a party-fanatic, but a calculated move by Sasikala to unseat Panneerselvam. Party seniors, including Lok Sabha Deputy Speaker, M. Thambidurai, pointed to the ills of dual power centres, and wanted Sasikala to take over.

A carefully scripted drama was being staged: the central theme was that of leaders and cadre asking her to take over. She even met a host of prominent people from the media, to consult on the future course of action. Two prominent media persons who met her said that when their advice was sought, they had dissuaded her from taking over as Chief Minister.

Apart from the fact that Sasikala wanted to become Chief Minister, the undermining of Panneerselvam has a back story. Ahead of the 2016 elections, at least two senior party functionaries of that time had told this author that Panneerselvam had lost “Amma’s confidence”. She had snubbed him in the run up to the polls by not meeting him—and meeting several other party seniors, and that she was finally forced to field Panneerselvam because the 2016 elections was one in which she could not keep any prominent person from the party out. She had already taken a huge gamble in refusing to invite the smaller parties to ally with her, and had only given space to a few one-person parties that had agreed to contest in the AIADMK symbol, the two leaves.

Jayalalithaa included Panneerselvam in a top AIADMK Assembly election body later, in a signal to him and his supporters that all was not lost. But the fact was that she needed each potential vote—and she was proved right by margins in the assembly elections— because she seemed to take into consideration that there would be many close fights. “She needed everyone to work like this is the last election,” said one leader at that time, perhaps not knowing the importance of the words he had uttered. Though she made Panneerselvam a Minister in the 2016 Cabinet, she allowed one of the junior-most in the ranks of AIADMK Ministers, ‘Ma Foi’ Pandiarajan, to intervene in the Legislative Assembly discussions on portfolios held by Panneerselvam.

Sasikala’s script

The ranking party office bearers and Ministers were aware of Panneerselvam’s fall in fortunes with Jayalalithaa. They were also not comfortable with the idea of one among them as Chief Minister. So, when Sasikala, egged on by her rather large family circle, suggested that she be made Chief Minister, there were many takers. Almost all AIADMK seniors took centre stage to explain why this was exceedingly important to the party.

The first inkling of which way the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government at the Centre was veering came to be known on February 5, the day Sasikala was elected by the AIADMK legislature party as its leader. The Maharashtra governor, Vidyasagar Rao, who was given additional charge of Tamil Nadu, did not reach Chennai till February 9, despite the AIADMK’s decision being communicated to him repeatedly. State leaders of the BJP struggled hard to explain this away as a Governor’s prerogative, and even the opposition, wary about dragging a Constitutional office into controversy, opted to wait and watch.

Two days after Sasikala was elected legislature party leader, Panneerselvam revolted. On February 7, he was seen in deep meditation at the Jayalalithaa Memorial. Forty minutes later, he announced that he could not accept Sasikala as the leader, signalling the first fissure in the AIADMK. That same night, AIADMK’s three-time MP, V. Maithreyan, joined hands with Panneerselvam. He was promptly expelled from the party, along with some others, including the presidium chairman, E. Madhusoodhanan. Pannerselvam’s faction, claiming to be the real AIADMK, expelled most of the leadership from the Sasikala faction, and questioned how a person who was expelled by Jayalalithaa, former MP and Sasikala’s close relative, T.T.V. Dinakaran, could be taken back into the party.

Panneerselvam pitted his battle as a ‘ dharma yudham ’ [battle for justice]. The script seemed too good: a loyal follower of Jayalalithaa standing up to the corrupt Sasikala, who, in the eyes of many in his faction, ‘had brought disrepute to their Amma’. The expectation was that many more—at least the majority of MLAs—will throw their weight behind Panneerselvam. A few others joined in too, but at no time did the number of MLAs cross a dozen.

Even after the Supreme Court restored the lower court order convicting Sasikala and others in the disproportionate assets case on February 14, the expected exodus of MLAs did not happen. At that time, the explanation was that all the MLAs were being held against their will at a resort. Events in the later months proved that the MLAs did not trust Panneerselvam as a leader, as much as they did Sasikala and the new deputy general secretary T.T.V. Dinakaran.

A New Chief Minister

Sasikala’s pick for Chief Minister came from a community that has not had a Chief Minister ever. Edappadi K. Palaniswami, who was chosen more for being a Sasikala loyalist than for the fact that he was Number Two in the Cabinet, weathered the first confidence vote in the Legislative Assembly with considerable ease, with the DMK not getting its act together. Having fended off one crisis, the ruling government was on a next one—the Radhakrishnan (R.K.) Nagar by poll, which was necessitated by the death of Jayalalithaa. (Later, the AIADMK government weathered a second confidence vote.)

While Sasikala trying to take over as Chief Minister was the first strategic mistake of her camp, the second mistake was when Dinakaran decided to contest the by-polls to the Legislative Assembly seat which fell vacant with the demise of Jayalalithaa as it upped the stakes for the AIADMK government. The Panneerselvam faction fielded Madhusoodhanan. The DMK was confident that its candidate, Marudhu Ganesh, a local who had served the community will win the seat comfortably. Jayalalithaa’s niece, J. Deepa, too had filed her nomination, but this was nothing more than a footnote in Tamil Nadu politics.

The announcement of the R.K. Nagar by-poll is important because a series of events is linked to it. The Panneerselvam faction, claiming itself to be the real AIADMK because both the treasurer (Panneerselvam) and Presidium Chairman (Madhusoodhanan) were in that faction, wanted the Election Commission to freeze the symbol and the party flag for the election. The Sasikala faction, which had almost all the district secretaries, MLAs, and MPs, contested this on the basis that it had all that was required as per the Sadiq Ali case 1 .

But on March 22, the Election Commission, claiming that there was not enough time before the R.K. Nagar by-poll chose to freeze the symbol and the flag, and temporarily recognised both factions: one as AIADMK (Puratchi Thalaivi Amma) and the other as AIADMK (Amma). The R.K. Nagar election was later postponed after the Election Commission of India (ECI) found evidence of widespread voter bribery.

The by-poll is also important because it was after the freezing of the symbol that more intrigue came to the fore. The Delhi police arrested a person who, it claimed, had tried to bribe ECI officials, to get the two leaves symbol for the Sasikala- Dinakaran faction. Though no names of election officials were recorded in the First Information Report, the middle man, Sugesh, was arrested and cash of Rs.1.3 crore was recovered from him. Based on the interrogation of Sugesh, Dinakaran was arrested and he spent 38 days in custody. This is also the point when Chief Minister Palaniswami was toying with the idea of breaking off from the hold of the Sasikala clan. With Sasikala in jail and Dinakaran under the scanner of multiple agencies, he began slowly distancing himself from the family, with a few of his Ministers making noises on how the ‘Mannargudi clan’ had “betrayed” Amma and the cause of the party itself.

From March 22 to August 22, the day Panneerselvam, and Edappadi joined hands, a majority of the party functionaries and elected leaders were with the Sasikala–Dinakaran faction. The ECI did not take a decision on the issue of the party symbol and flag despite multiple requests from the faction. It finally pronounced an order on November 23, citing, among other things, the Sadiq Ali case judgment, and handing over the symbol and the flag to the Pannerselvam-Edappadi faction. The very next day, it announced the dates for the RK Nagar by-poll (The Madras High Court too said that it “expected” that the by-poll be held before December 21 2 .

Despite a series of setbacks, as many as 22 MLAs remained with Dinakaran. In yet another bizarre move, the Government whip, S. Rajendran, complained to the Speaker about 19 of the 22 MLAs. The MLAs had met the Governor and handed over individual letters stating that they did not have confidence in the Chief Minister. In September, the Assembly Speaker, P. Dhanapal, disqualified 18 of them under provisions of the anti-defection law—though they had not violated party whip by voting against the government. The only instance of AIADMK MLAs voting against the government was when the first vote of confidence was taken. At that time, MLAs owing allegiance to Panneerselvam had voted against the government. No action was taken against them. The disqualified MLAs have approached the Madras High Court and are seeking relief.

Panneerselvam’s friends

From the time of Jayalalithaa’s death to now, the Panneerselvam faction has enjoyed considerable support in New Delhi. Panneerselvam and Maithreyan have met Prime Minister Modi at least nine times, while the Chief Minister, playing catch up, managed to meet the Prime Minister at least an equal number of times. Given this background, not many political analysts in the State were surprised in the latest in a series of coincidences, happy for one section of the AIADMK—that of allotment of the party symbol, the two leaves, and the party flag to the faction led by Chief Minister Palaniswami and Deputy Chief Minister Panneerselvam. The dispute was under consideration of the ECI for over seven months, and the happy news came barely a day before it announced the dates for the by-poll to the all-important R.K. Nagar constituency, which was held by Jayalalithaa.

On the governance side, a year after the demise of Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, all that the AIADMK supremo stood for has been given up by the government that takes her name at every turn. On June 14, 2016, Jayalalithaa had presented to the Prime Minister a memorandum of 29 demands, running to 96 pages (PR No.287, dated June 14, 2016) 3 . Her demands covered almost all aspects of divergence of views with the Union government, ranging from issues of water resources sharing, fisheries, power, the implementation of the Goods and Services Tax, public distribution system revamping and the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET).

In the case of NEET, Jayalalithaa said:

“The introduction of NEET would be a direct infringement on the rights of the State and would cause grave injustice to the students of Tamil Nadu who are already covered by a fair and transparent admission policy which has been working well. My Government has taken the consistent stand that rural students and students from poorer socio-economic backgrounds will be unable to compete with urban elite students in Common Entrance Examinations…I request you to permit Tamil Nadu through appropriate legislative intervention to continue its existing fair and transparent system of admission to medical colleges and dental colleges in the State at the under graduate and post graduate levels on a permanent basis and not be forced to implement the NEET.”

This demand of hers was one of the most debated upon in Tamil Nadu. Many Tamil Nadu Ministers, and even Ministers of the Union Cabinet, said that Tamil Nadu would get exempted at least for this academic year. But with the Supreme Court ruling out exemptions, the Union government decided not to single out a State to help. This has led to a lot of heartburn and one high profile suicide in Tamil Nadu: a Dalit girl who had scored well in the State Board examination, but was unsuccessful in the NEET. However, nothing moved the AIADMK government to take up the issue firmly with the Centre.

Government not bothered

A State Congress party leader S. Peter Alphonse, who shot to limelight for standing up to the might of the first Jayalalithaa government (1991-96), says that the present state of acquiescence by the AIADMK government to the BJP-led Union Government was because the former has stopped to even pretend that it is working for the welfare of the people of the State.

“It appears that the government is not bothered about any criticism, even very serious allegations. For example, there is a very serious allegation against a Minister Vijaya Bhaskar [health minister]...on the quantity of resources extracted from quarries, apart from other allegations…Who is held responsible for all this? There is just no accountability…Earlier, even at the slightest impropriety, people [Ministers] have resigned 4 .”

In his view, the media played a major role in providing context and keeping an issue alive.

“Any issue survives only as long as the media remembers it. If the media does not have any discussion, then the next issue gets taken up. Media directs the course of politics. People [in positions of power] think that if they have a few media in their hands, they can mould public opinion. Unlike earlier days, it is impossible to hold public meetings because of the cost factor and other reasons. The ruling party is now conducting public meetings at the cost of the government and is calling it MGR centenary meetings 5 .”

On the BJP’s role, he said,

“The BJP is root cause for the problems here. They give a kind of protective layer to the corrupt AIADMK. Without their patronage, the AIADMK cannot continue in power for a single day. They are also equally culpable. They are also partners in guilt and crime 6 .”

DMK spokesperson Manuraj Shanmugasundaram said that a year after Jayalalithaa’s death, people had become more cynical.

“But this is not just to do with Jayalalithaa’s death but also events on the national stage. There was a glimmer of hope that there may be robust economic growth under NDA [National Democratic Alliance, the ruling combine led by the BJP], but this has largely been negated. Absurd decisions such as demonetisation and ramming through the GST [Goods and Services Tax] have shattered investor confidence. In Tamil Nadu, lack of strong leadership, battles within AIADMK and zero decision making has killed any hope people had left in this government 7 .”

The AIADMK now is firmly two factions. The EPS-OPS faction obviously has the upper hand because it also runs the government and is extremely, sometimes even uncommonly, friendly to the BJP. The Dinakaran faction has finally decided that it has to take on the BJP for its own survival: all the actions of any organ of the Central government have only targeted this faction. There is also a newly sprung group led by the late Chief Minister’s niece, Deepa, who was nowhere in the scene until December 5, 2016. Barring a sound byte on and off, and her intention to contest the R.K. Nagar by-election, she and her supporters are rather quiet these days.

The DMK is waiting in the wings looking for an opportunity to strike. Though it let a few golden opportunities pass, it is hopeful that the recently announced R.K. Nagar by-poll will give it the legitimacy it seeks to topple the government. For the first time since the 2006 polls, a broad coalition is forming with the DMK at the centre: the Congress, the Communist Party of India (CPI), the Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPI (M)], the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) and a few other smaller parties have pledged support to the DMK candidate. This is likely to be the combine for the next Assembly polls too, if the CPI(M) can live with the fact that the Congress is also on the same side.

The BJP is wielding a disproportionate amount of influence over the government, and the number of votes it polls in the by-poll will be an indicator of how much it has gained in strength in the State. There are a few other pointers that will decide how the people of the State look at some promising formations. One is the ultra-Tamil nationalist Naam Tamizhar Katchi, founded by film director Seeman. The party has some support among the youth, and had managed about two per cent of votes across Tamil Nadu in the last polls.

The second relates to actors entering politics. Actor Vishal, who also heads the Tamil film industry’s actors’ and producers’ associations, has already filed his nominations for the R.K. Nagar by-poll; Kamal Hassan has claimed that he is already in politics and Rajnikanth is making noises about his entry. Given the fact that both MGR and Jayalalithaa were actors, and M. Karunanidhi, a six-time Chief Minister and president of the DMK, was a script writer, there will be more actors getting into politics over the next year ahead of the Lok Sabha polls in 2019.

A year after the death of Jayalalithaa, there are many who have made noises of stepping into politics sensing a void. But the contours of a realignment in Tamil Nadu politics is still fuzzy. For now, the DMK appears the stronger party with a solid support base which is impatient to have a shot at power. With allies, including the Left parties and Congress on its side, the DMK appears invincible.

In the absence of a strong AIADMK, those opposed to the DMK both ideologically and otherwise, will be forced to choose from among the parties that sell Tamil nationalism, caste politics, or the BJP. The churning within the AIADMK will only be complete once the party loses power in the State. By then, if other players step in, and are seen by the people as a force capable of opposing the DMK, then the AIADMK’s decline will have begun. It is yet too early to write the obituary of the AIADMK. But unless the decline is arrested ahead of the 2021 Assembly elections, the AIADMK, the third largest party in India’s parliament today, would end up as yet another regional party that promised too much but delivered too little to strengthen Indian federalism, and the concept of strong States.


[All URLs were last accessed on December 4, 2017]

1. ^Election Commission of India . “ Landmark Judgements on Election Law, Volume - II “. Return to Text.

2. ^The Hindu. 2017 . “ High Court expects ECI to conduct bypoll for R.K. Nagar before December 31 “, November 21. Return to Text.

3. ^Department of Information and Public Relations, Government of Tamil Nadu . “ Full Text: Tamil Nadu Chief Minister’s Memorandum to the Prime Minister of India (June 14, 2016) “. Return to Text.

4. ^ Alphonse, P. 2017: Personal interview with the author. Return to Text.

5. ^ Ibid. Return to Text.

6. ^ Ibid. Return to Text.

7. ^ Shanmugasundaram, M. 2017: Personal interview with the author. Return to Text.

Related Link: Jayalalithaa and Governance, The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy, December 9, 2017.

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