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Trouble in Tamil Nadu

  • Published at 06:19 pm February 23rd, 2017
Trouble in Tamil Nadu

There is unrest in the AIADMK after Jayalalithaa’s demise. How will the party survive without the icon of Amma as its unifying figure?

Last Saturday, there was a vote in the state assembly and the result was a vote of confidence for E Palaniswami. Known as EPS, he was appointed as chief minister just a few days earlier. He won with 122 votes against 11.

The 11 belonged to the rival faction led by O Panneersalvam -- OPS -- who had revolted against the party leadership. EPS is party leader Sasikala’s man and it is clear that it was Sasikala who won the vote.

She herself is currently in jail after following a conviction in a corruption case, but a sentence even in a corruption case is not necessarily detrimental to a political career in India.

Some of the limelight of the AIADMK power struggle was stolen by expressions of ire by the opposition DMK. They protested against the vote and the DMK vice chairman got his shirt torn up in a fight. But the noise was a result of the opposition’s powerlessness. They demonstrated vigour rather than having to choose from the ruling party’s two lead candidates.

Future anxieties

The power struggle in the AIADMK is about the future. There are those within the party who, over the years, have built a close relationship with Sasikala and naturally want that she retains power. But even if she has demonstrated reasonable control of the party’s representatives in the state assembly, there is a fear in the party that she will not be able to ensure the same support in a future election.

She herself is currently in jail after following a conviction in a corruption case, but a sentence even in a corruption case is not necessarily detrimental to a political career in India

Polls indicate extremely low confidence in her among voters. The party’s representatives in the Lok Sabha, over whom she has more limited control, are also opposed to her. The next state elections may not be until 2020, but she is very far from the elevated position that Jayalalithaa held.

Jayalalithaa and her predecessor MGR built and maintained an extensive network of loyal followers from among the enthusiasts of Tamil film. The film clubs constituted the core of their solid organisation. And in addition, both MGR and Jayalithaa were populists who generously handed out sops -- saris and cheap television sets, mid-day school meals, and bicycles.

Equally significant was the considerable economic growth that the state has seen over many decades, in part due to the fact that even the dynastic and populist AIADMK had an accomplished administrative hand. It was OPS who inherited this hand, not Sasikala. He is referred to as the people’s chief minister and has a reputation for being incorrupt.

Within the few weeks he was chief minister, he proved himself an able administrator. Among other things he lifted the ban on jallikattu, the popular ox taming race, and he oversaw the efficient distribution of relief efforts in the aftermath of the cyclone Vardah.

Sasikala has far to go before she achieves Jayalalithaa’s seemingly invulnerable, larger-than-life status where she was the subject of unwavering devotion from her followers.

Sasikala has yet to prove that she has charisma, and she even has to contend with a reputation for being Jayalalithaa’s evil adviser.

The question is whether she will have the necessary political space to construct herself as the party’s beloved and undisputed leader, or whether she will remain a transitional figure with only a half-hearted party apparatus between herself and the voters.

Arild Engelsen Ruud is Professor of South Asia Studies, Department of Culture Studies and Oriental languages, University of Oslo, Norway.

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