Jayalalithaa's death leaves Tamil Nadu politics open ended

The power vacuum left behind will prove tricky to fill, as she did not choose an heir before passing away.

 |  5-minute read |   10-12-2016
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At 11.30pm on Monday, December 5, 2016, the Tamil Nadu chief minister “Puratchi Thalaivi Amma” Jayalalithaa passed away from a cardiac arrest, after spending 74 days at Chennai’s Apollo Hospital. Shortly after, members of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) held a meeting, which resulted in Ottakara Panneerselvam taking oath as the new CM of Tamil Nadu.

Rise to power

From being an actress on the sets of director CV Sridhar to being buried with full state honours at Marina Beach, J Jayalalithaa’s rise to power can be traced back to her mentor MG Ramchandran (MGR). Jayalalithaa joined the AIADMK in 1982 and, in 1983, became "propaganda secretary" for the party.

In 1984, with MGR’s guidance, Jayalalithaa was nominated and elected to join the Rajya Sabha, where she stayed until 1989. In 1987, MGR passed away and left a power vacuum in his absence splitting the party between rival factions. The split was between: Jayalalithaa’s supporters and MGR’s wife Janaki Ramchandran’s supporters. At MGR’s funeral, a first major event occurred that garnered her public sympathy. After standing next to MGR in mourning for about 21 hours, she was assaulted by Janaki’s nephew and stopped from boarding the funeral procession carriage holding MGR’s mortal remains.

She spared no time in capitalising on the sympathy that poured in over her treatment at the funeral.

Shortly after this scandal, she had an interview with India Today, where she displayed how deep her understanding of her state’s people was. She was skilled in utilising public sympathy to further develop her cult of personality. This was clearly demonstrated in how she attributed the violence following MGR’s funeral to the fact that they “couldn’t even get a glimpse of their beloved leader” as “there was no [funeral] procession”.

In addition to developing a public following, she also forged alliances with people such as Rajiv Gandhi. These alliances would play a crucial future role in helping her maintain power. In 1988, Janaki Ramchandran became CM of Tamil Nadu amidst allegations of foul play.

Rajiv Gandhi dismissed Janaki and her government, and instated President’s Rule in Tamil Nadu. In subsequent elections in 1989, Jayalalithaa and her faction won 27 seats during state polls and she became the first female leader of the opposition. The two factions of AIADMK merged and accepted her as their leader. Later that same year, a second major scandal erupted in the Tamil Nadu assembly.

The then CM, M. Karunanidhi, verbally abused Jayalalithaa because she called him a kutravali (criminal). In the fighting that ensued in the House between members of the AIADMK and DMK, a DMK minister, Durai Murugan, attempted to assault and disrobe Jayalalithaa. This infamous incident where she emerged from the scene, dishevelled and outraged, with her declaring that she would only set foot in the House again as CM is cited as the start of vendetta politics within Tamil Nadu. This was a second major incident, which combined with Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, enabled her to once again gain sympathy votes, as she became CM of Tamil Nadu in a landslide victory for the AIADMK-Congress coalition in 1991.

Governance

Her authoritarian style of governance enabled her to navigate through the maze of complex cult politics in south India. Senior leaders, regardless of age, would bow down and touch her feet when they met her. “Powerful Goddess (Adi parashakti)” and “Tamil Mother (Thamiz Thai)” are examples of some of the titles of veneration that Jayalalithaa’s supporters had for her. Additionally, there are numerous tales of fanaticism. For example, a female party MLA dressed in Neem leaves and walked to a temple to “ward evil spirits from [her] leader”.

Her relationship with the public had both highs and lows. Her rise to power was largely based on the sympathy the public had for a single woman attempting to climb the political ladder without the backing of a major political family. However, in her first term she received criticism for her displays of excess as was evidenced by her foster son’s record-breaking, decadent wedding. Jayalalithaa also developed a reputation for ruthlessness with her adversaries in the historically male-dominated political arena.

In 1996, Jayalalithaa underwent a devastating loss during state elections where AIADMK won only four seats. This loss was attributed to the corruption charges for which she spent approximately a month in prison. The charges, coupled with the 1999 arrests of her political opponents, converted her image into that of a “vindictive and irrational person drunk on power.” She proceeded to spend the next few years focusing on dealing with the various charges of corruption, which she and AIADMK were linked with. Despite winning another landslide victory in 2001, her legal entanglements resulted in the Supreme Court deposing her and nullifying her position as CM. O Panneerselvam was named the interim CM.

Jayalalithaa made her comeback to politics in 2003 after being cleared by the Madras High Court. Her image had suffered major setbacks through the corruption scandals, and so she revamped her image as “Amma” – a benevolent maternal figure. She began providing food and water products for extremely low costs to the poor, under the brand name “Amma”. Such was this public relations campaign that it resulted in about one-third of Tamil Nadu’s revenue spending went towards subsidies.

Today

Her death serves a massive blow to the AIADMK party that won 136 seats in the 2016 Assembly elections and saw Jayalalithaa as the first person in 32 years to win a second consecutive term as CM. The power vacuum left behind will prove tricky to fill, as she did not choose an heir before passing away. An unmarried woman without children, Jayalalithaa had distanced herself from her family, and disowned her foster son.

The two leading contenders for leadership, Sasikala Natarajan and Panneerselvam both have viable claims; Sasikala was Jayalalithaa’s right hand woman, while Panneerselvam was chosen by Jayalalithaa as acting CM twice before. The opinion of the party towards Panneeerselvam is one of a “blind follower” of Jayalalithaa instead of someone who could lead and prevent factions from forming within the AIADMK.

Conversely, various party members have hinted that Sasikala has the party’s backing, claiming, “Sasikala is the backbone of Poes Garden” (Jayalalithaa’s residence and the symbolic seat of power).

The future for the party, however, remains unclear as Sasikala has the power to become leader of the party and CM, but it is unknown whether she has made any attempts to do so.

Writer

Shefali Dhar Shefali Dhar @shefdhar

Shefali researches and writes on South Asian affairs for the Hudson Institute's South Asia Program. She received her B.A in International Relations from Boston University.

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