A year ago, the thought of Sasikala Natarajan standing at the threshold of becoming Tamil Nadu’s future Chief Minister would seem unfathomable. That would hold true perhaps, even when then chief minister J Jayalalithaa was in hospital. J Jayalalithaa’s death was unexpected and unannounced, but it marked a tumultuous change the history of Tamil Nadu politics; a change that would pave the way for her close aide, Sasikala Natarajan’s unrivaled ascent.
Immediately after Jayalalithaa’s demise, O. Panneerselvam was called in as the immediate acting head of the AIADMK and hours later, he wassworn in as the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. However, conversations in the political sphere were fraught with the possibility of Sasikala (endearingly called Chinnamma) stepping in and wielding political leadership.
WATCH VIDEO | Sasikala Natrajan’s Swearing In As Tamil Nadu CM Depends On Governor Vidyasagar Rao’s Travel Plans
Today, two months after Jayalalithaa’s death, Panneerselvam has stepped down from his post. In a letter addressed to the state’s Governor, Vidyasagar Rao he cited “personal reasons” for this decision. Indications about Panneerselvam’s resignation were there, no doubt, but when he inked the letter, it became official. Inevitably, Sasikala is now poised to take the reins. In a period of two months, she has metamorphosed from an ordinary aide with absolutely no political authority into a woman of daunting political stature, assuming the role of the Queen in the chess of realpolitik, knocking off pawns like Panneerselvam with effortless ease.
Sasikala’s ascent to the throne of the late MGR’s political empire as its general secretary on December 31, 2016, and now becoming the CM of Tamil Nadu, are significant markers in the history of the state. Both MGR and Jayalalithaa were AIADMK general secretaries and then won the chair of Chief Minister. But while both MGR and Jayalalithaa were democratically elected, their rise idiosyncratically marked and marred by the ambient noise of political rivalry —Sasikala has been handed over the reins without any political battle, yet.
So what is about Sasikala that led to her meteoric rise to power?
Many argue that in comparison to Panneerselvam, Sasikala lacks political experience – she has never run a party, leave alone a state. Sasikala, therefore, could be an inept leader, unable to wield the command, power and respect Jayalalithaa could. However, Sasikala and the AIADMK (which accepted her with arms wide open), are obliquely aware of the knowledge, or the political prowess she picked up along the way, while intimately shadowing the late AIADMK supremo. Perhaps that is what led the party members – a majority of which are men – to allow Sasikala to take the AIADMK throne, despite Panneerselvam’s presence.
When Jayalalithaa rose to power back in the 1990s, her political prowess was apparent. She knew how to steer people in her favour, rallying masses through her chiseled oratory skills. She exhibited charisma. Her magnanimous freebies, including the iconic Amma canteens, cemented her identity as Amma (mother)–the nurturer and caretaker of her people. It also engendered an extreme, neurotic (bordering on the theatrical) degree of subservience and sycophancy among her people, which transcended the parameters of logic. Her reign echoed the mammoth and unwavering clout MGR (her mentor and former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu) once commanded. Both MGR and Jayalalithaa were acutely aware, and therefore relished and reveled in the glory of devotion and worship they received from the people.
It was the AIADMK that grovelled and pandered to Jayalalithaa. And by extension, so did the swooning and delirious state Tamil Nadu. Cut to present, by virtue of her inimitable proximity to Jayalalithaa, Sasikala became a force to reckon with within the party. It was something even Prime Minister Narendra Modi was acutely aware of, for after paying respects to Jayalalithaa at her funeral, he immediately veered towards Sasikala (no other AIADMK member). He exchanged a few words with Sasikala, to console her, but also to show solidarity. It was as though he was privy to the knowledge of Sasikala’s inevitable rise, which would be crucial to the future of politics. In the aftermath of Jayalalithaa’s death, Sasikala not only inherited Amma’s power, position and her party – but she also inherited the party’s inherent sense of sycophancy. That is the sole explanation behind her ascent on the political ladder with questionable ease.
While Sasikala has been able to gain the unbridled devotion of the AIADMK (http://bit.ly/2kJmdEE), will she be able to win the hearts of people who’ve been led predominantly by strong, resilient, politically perspicuous leaders with Machiavellian minds like Jayalalithaa, MGR and M. Karunanidhi? In the realm of politics, many are speaking out against Sasikala’s promotion as the Chief Minister. While the expelled AIADMK MP Sasikala Pushpa stated that Sasikala Natarajan could not become a Chief Minister since she had a criminal record (her case of disproportionate assets is still pending), others claim that her becoming the Chief Minister is undemocratic since she hasn’t been officially elected.
Former Finance Minister P Chidambaram tweeted, “It is the right of AIADMK MLAs to elect their leader. It is the right of the people to ask if the leader deserves to be CM. AIADMK and people of Tamil Nadu are now moving in opposite directions.”
Will Tamil Nadu accept Sasikala as its Chief Minister, whose only credentials thus far have been her close relationship with Jayalalithaa — not political expertise, hard work or solid experience?