There is a surprising power struggle going on in Tamil Nadu.
Surprising, because all omens suggested that Sasikala would take over as party leader and chief minister in the state after Jayalalithaa died last December.
Sasikala Nataranjan was Jayalalithaa’s long-time friend and confidant, and she had built up a powerful political position as a power broker in the party apparatus. When Jayalalithaa was hospitalised less than three months before her death last fall, Sasikala literally became the door-keeper. Only with Sasikala’s permission could people visit the ailing chief minister.
Even the governor of the state is supposed to have been held back by Sasikala. She gave him, rumours told, only access to the floor where Jayalalithaa was -- not to the room and her sickbed. Sasikala had solid control not only over Jayalalithaa, but also the party apparatus and state government.
Sasikala was not elected, however, so when Jayalalithaa was sick, someone else had to be chief minister. The man appointed was O Panneerselvam, a staunch political ally of Jayalalithaa and popularly known as OPS. He was not known to harbour political ambitions of his own and had also, on previous occasions, functioned as chief minister in Jayalalithaa’s absence.
On each occasion he has obediently stepped down as Jayalalithaa returned. He was also among those who hailed Sasikala as Jayalalithaa’s successor and then agreed to resign to prepare for Sasikala’s ascent as chief minister.
But then he changed his tune. He has redeclared himself as a candidate for the chief minister position and has challenged Sasikala. He claims he was forced to resign, and that he has the party’s full support.
There are reasons to believe that he has broad support, though exactly how far it extends remains to be seen. However, local party leaders and MLAs come out in increasing numbers to support him. These are people with fingers on the pulse of the voters, because in India, there is always an election just below the horizon. So what exactly happened in a party that a few weeks ago pleaded for Sasikala?
A controversial confidante
Sasikala is a controversial figure. She was no doubt very close to Jayalalithaa. She lived for many years in Jayalalithaa’s official residence in Poe’s Gardens until a serious scandal forced Jayalalithaa to throw her out. But the two remained close. And the relationship extended to Sasikala’s family.
Jayalalithaa adopted Sasikala’s nephew, and when he married, she organised what may have been Tamil Nadu’s most lavish celebration. The relationship with Jayalalithaa benefitted Sasikala’s family in a wide array of ways. They have become very rich, and many of her extended family and caste members have ended up in important positions in government and in the party. They are in some circles referred to as the mafia. Some of them are now very rich.
Despite this, Jayalalithaa’s popularity seems to have been unemcumbered by the association with Sasikala. Last year Jayalalithaa and her party were re-elected with a large majority. She was even respected by members of the opposition, and in spite of several serious corruption scandals over the years, she was recognised as a skilled politician and a capable head of the state government.
Inheritance of aura
So then, why could her popularity not be passed on to her designated successor? Jayalalithaa herself had inherited the support of her predecessor and mentor MGR. She had been his close political confidant and ally, in some ways comparable to the relationship Mayawati had had with Kanshi Ram and that she had been able to inherit.
Jayalalithaa’s proximity to MGR was integral to her rapid rise to the top of Tamil politics -- where she even pushed out MGR’s widow. It was proximity, not family, that was crucial. So why does Sasikala not seem to be able to enjoy the same mechanism?
The answer is that there is no mechanism. Popularity cannot easily be passed on. It is not automatic for the respect a leader enjoys to be passed on to close companions -- even when the leader so wants.
Jayalalitaa could be personally popular even if surrounded by questionable people, even if her judgement of people was not sound. In South Asian culture, as in many other parts of the world, mothers and fathers, to some extent kings, and certainly gods among the Hindus, leaders, seniors, or elders often receive respect and are honoured even if they have flaws.
It has been suggested that Sasikala claimed rank and acted arrogantly towards other leading politicians in the belief that she had Jayalalithaa’s aura. But arraogance is a style to be handled with great care in Indian political culture, where even senior leaders often portray themselves as just one among many.
There are exceptions to this, such as the queenly and detached style of Jayalalithaa herself, but they are exceptions. The bet is that Sasikala erred on the side of arrogance, in the mistaken belief that she was fully and unquestionably Jayalalithaa’s heir.
But that mistake was a crack and an opportunity for others with a better understanding of the world of politics. The aura of Sasikala has evaporated, and it is truer now more than ever as she was just found guilty by the Supreme Court on a corruption case that puts an end to her bid of becoming the chief minister of Tamil Nadu.
The next chief minister of the southern state may well be known by the acronym of OPS.
Arild Engelsen Ruud is Professor of South Asia Studies, Department of Culture Studies and Oriental languages, University of Oslo, Norway.