People are known to discover hidden springs of talent when they are catapulted into significant positions of power. It is quite possible that Panneerselvam as chief minister and Sasikala in whatever party position she gets to occupy may turn out to be good leaders. But their starting points are not very encouraging.
With the demise of J Jayalalithaa, the state of Tamil Nadu has lost its most dominant politician. The tributes to her, and the old interviews that are being revisited by the television channels reveal a persona that is far removed from the picture of a stern autocratic leader who is unmoved even as her followers prostate themselves before her in reverence.
For Jayalalithaa, this unquestioned loyalty of her supporters was proof of her iron grip over the party AIADMK that she steered for nearly three decades. As she recounted in one of the interviews that has been re-telecast after her death, it was not as if her mentor M G Ramachandran had smoothed the path for her to succeed him. She did not inherit AIADMK as Rajiv Gandhi got the Congress after the assassination of his mother. She had to fight her way with the faction that had sided with MGR’s widow Janaki, and though MGR’s preference for her was well-known, she had to prove herself.
“Being a woman, is itself a liability,” she once told an interviewer. But to her credit, she did not allow this liability to interfere with her political plans. For a person who was pushed into two careers-acting (by her mother) and politics (by her mentor)-she actually hated, Jayalalithaa did well for herself in both these spheres.
Her domain was limited to Tamil Nadu, and this is one of the reasons for being confined to that state as an icon. In reality, her scale of achievements in the state during her years the chief minister dwarfs the performance of many so-called national leaders. Very few leaders as administrators have been able to create that perfect blend of welfare and development that is a hallmark of the Tamil Nadu administration under her leadership. The success of the ‘Amma’ brand salt, canteens, and other products of daily use along with the presence of major automobile manufacturers in her state embody this twin success. Apart from her almost invincible personal charisma that drew voters by the flock, she has left behind this rich legacy of administrative and political success that has very weak inheritors like the chief minister O Panneerselvam (OPS), and her companion Sasikala. It needs to be remembered that both were hand-picked by Jayalalithaa herself as she saw that Panneerselvam would be a loyal number, and Sasikala could manage her household, almost like her mother. Clearly, these are not leadership roles. So, it would be fair to conclude that Jayalalithaa did not seem to visualise them as leaders.
Now people are known to discover hidden springs of talent when they are catapulted into significant positions of power. It is quite possible that Panneerselvam as chief minister and Sasikala in whatever party position she gets to occupy may turn out to be good leaders. But their starting points are not very encouraging.
It is also necessary to draw out an essential difference between them and Jayalalithaa. Whether it was acting or politics, Jayalalithaa was the chosen one because success with her was guaranteed. In films, she was the leading lady and carried herself with aplomb, and was the preferred heroine of many leading actors. It was in this capacity that MGR who was 35 years her senior was drawn to her. Besides, it was after working with her through 28 films, that he mentored her into politics. This implied that MGR knew her strengths and weaknesses when he drafted her into politics. She had excellent command over Tamil, English and Hindi, and these were her political assets. So, despite her Iyengar Brahmin roots, she was not only inducted into a Dravidian party, but rose to rule it unquestionably.
She also showed great character in adversity, and it steeled her in public though admittedly she did have her weak moments in private like any other normal person. She did go through a lot of testing times, and a person-man or woman- with a weaker character could have crumbled.
The advantage for chief minister OPS and Chinamma (younger sister) as Sasikala is being referred to is that they have time till the next round of general elections to consolidate their hold over the party and show results. But this luxury would be available only if they are not bogged down by internal factional fights.
In Jayalalithaa’s absence the voice of Tamil Nadu in national affairs would be subdued at best. During her days, the capital would be clued into the nuances of her positions on national issues as she had the ability to ensure that prime ministers heard her voice. Now with 39 Lok Sabha MPs the AIADMK does remain a potent force, but sans a leader who could change a situation with the flick of her finger.
It is difficult to see the OPS-Sasikala combo inherit this part of her legacy. On the contrary, in weak moments or during critical times they would look for support from the centre, thereby weakening the AIADMK’s intrinsic strength.
With the DMK patriarch M Karunanidhi ailing, and the succession issues still clouding the party inspite of the nod in favour of Stalin, the internal dangers are still some distance away. But this position of comfort may not last long for the OPS-Sasikala combine, especially if they show some weakness or expose their vulnerabilities. Then the DMK could very well in the troubled waters of AIADMK.
OPS has begun his innings with a demand for Bharat Ratna for Jayalalithaa and the installation of a life-sized bronze statue in the parliament premises. The merits and demerits of these demands apart, the response from the Modi Sarkar would determine the level of importance it is prepared to give to a post-Jaya Tamilnadu.
The legacy of a person is actually carried forward by his or her successors, and this is apart from the intrinsic merit of his/her contribution. Jayalalithaa was an iconic figure in her life time and her contributions immense, but then the question is who will carry forward legacy? OPS and Sasikala do not look promising enough.