In December 2016, Chennai became the epicenter of chaos. It’s political supremo, the much loved and worshiped ‘Amma’, had passed away. Emotionally, almost immediately, the state disintegrated into turmoil; people were anxious too, suspecting a rerun of riots, something that had occurred in the aftermath of M. G Ramachandran’s (MGR) demise, another political behemoth. O. Panneerselvam was acknowledged as J. Jayalalithaa’s successor, accepted as the AIADMK party’s head, sworn in as Tamil Nadu’s Chief Minister.
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For a while, the political waters looked calm – akin to the calm before a storm. Immediately after however, Cyclone Vardah hit and an emotionally broken Tamil Nadu plummeted into a crisis. In the state’s paralysis, Panneerselvam’s intelligence and acumen as a leader to handle the crisis was tested, and he handled it well, leaving the people impressed. But as Tamil Nadu pulled its last leg out of the devastation left by Vardah, there was another storm looming on the horizon.
Rumours began surfacing that Sasikala, Jayalalithaa’s close and trusted aide for decades, might replace Paneerselvam as AIADMK’s General Secretary. On December 29, she did. The country was informed that Sasikala was asked to head the party on Panneerselvam’s request. Then things quietened down, and Tamil Nadu went back to licking its wounds. At the beginning of the year, however, another rumour began pecking for attention, and the media lens was panned once again on the state. Reports emerged announcing the possibility of Sasikala taking on the mantle as Tamil Nadu’s Chief Minister. On February 5, in a letter addressed to Governor C. Vidyasagar Rao, Panneerselvam resigned citing “personal reasons” for the decision. While Sasikala went on record to say that it was Panneerselvam who thought she was best fitted for the role of the Chief Minister, Panneerselvam appeared reticent towards the media.
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On the surface, it seemed as though there was a consensus within the party. Soon, however, the cracks began to appear when a majority of the people in Tamil Nadu voiced their discomfort with having Sasikala become their Chief Minister. Some deemed it outrageous and “undemocratic” since Sasikala wasn’t elected, while others voiced their refusal to be led by a “maid” who served Jayalalithaa.
Panneerselvam paid attestation to the pulse of the crowd, and took the engendered chaos as his cue to throw in a very important piece of the puzzle: He was forced to resign. In what seemed like a theatrical resurrection of self, he appeared on television, sitting cross-legged, eyes-closed, in his trademark white shirt-white-dhoti attire in front of Jayalalithaa’s grave lost in meditation. He then claimed that he was asked by Amma’s spirit to reveal that he was arm-twisted to resign; that it was she who wanted him to carry her legacy forward.
In the last two months, swords have been unsheathed, backs have been stabbed. Sasikala who once stood at the periphery of politics, suddenly emerged as the epicenter of the drama. In the last two months, Tamil Nadu has dominated the media attention. In the last two months, there have been two swearing in ceremonies (E. Palanisami is being sworn in as the Chief Minister at the time of writing this piece), a funeral and a prison sentence; there has been Cyclone Vardah and the Jallikattu fiasco. In the last two months, the media has been neurotic in featuring all the controversies the state has swung in its direction, refusing to acknowledge or talk about events taking place in other parts of the country.
Despite the troughs and crests, in the last two months, Tamil Nadu has been left paralysed. In the aftermath of Jayalalithaa’s death, the state has been anchored in turmoil, unable to let go, move beyond and focus on making progress. AIADMK has been left embittered and embroiled in a drama it had not scripted. But it’s time for Tamil Nadu to dust off its past and concentrate on the future. As Palanisami takes over from Panneerselvam, hopefully we can all now move on.