Why so vicious? Sasikala as CM is a natural outcome of the growing decay in Dravidian politics

The Tamil Nadu chief minister-designate is not the first person with few qualifications to assume a high office – and won't be the last.

VK Sasikala’s ascent to the chief ministership of Tamil Nadu has added a strong Tamil flavour to the confused dirge for democracy we have been subjected to over the last few years, on account of events national and international.

When the electoral coin-toss – or indeed, subsequent political machinations as with Sasikala, a close aide of the late Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa – does not result in one set’s favour, excoriations of social decay and extant democratic systems routinely follow.

Why is the rise of Chinamma, as the chief minister-designate is known, so singularly egregious that champions of democracy have developed digestive disorders?

Not the only one

There have been holders of public office with fewer years of formal education than Saskilala, of whose qualifications little is known. She is also is not the first, and one can fairly assume, will not be the last unelected occupant of a ministerial chair. The fact that she is the second defendant in the same graft cases where four-term chief minister, Jayalithaa, was the first makes Sasikala’s credentials as crooked, or compelling as her friend’s, who was widely popular as a leader, to the extent of being deified.

In India, it has not been uncommon for neophytes – those with absolutely no legislative or public life experience – to overnight find themselves at the top of the executive tree. The outcome has not uniformly been catastrophic. If behind-the-scenes proximity to puissant men and women of politics (the equivalent of political and administrative apprenticeship by observation) is a yardstick, Sasikala has had a more than 30-year association with Jayalalithaa the politician.

When Sonia Gandhi took over as the Congress president in 1998 and in effect became the leader of the Opposition, she had no political experience, but had been a Nehru-Gandhi bahu for 30 years.

Providential parentage is often the ultimate determinant of political pedigree. Sasikala has obvious shortcomings in that department.

Sasikala’s transformation in public eyes from a shadowy usurper of Jaylalithaa’s lucre and political legacy to an ogress is in large measure due to her family’s seemingly insatiable appetite for plunder.

It cannot be mere coincidence that the Mannargudi Mafia, as her relatives are called, prospered and became owners of nearly anything their eyes surveyed and liked during Jayalalithaa’s rule. Amma, as the late chief minister was known, herself faced similar criticism not just from rival DMK but also from second-rung leaders of her own party for most of the 1980s, over her relationship with MG Ramachandran or MGR, the founder of the AIADMK who, like her, was a film star-turned politician.

Rigor mortis

The decision of stockbrokers and analysts to buy or sell a company factors in its future prospects and a host of intelligently guessable business upsides and downsides.

When the people of Tamil Nadu offered a “buy” rating on Jayalalithaa in 2016, it is reasonable to venture that they did so mindful of the succession risk. The poor state of Amma’s health, especially in the second half of her third term in office, was no secret. When she resumed office after the Karnataka High Court acquitted her in a disproportionate assets case in May 2015, even the national anthem at her swearing in ceremony was pared down to 20 seconds instead of the full 52-second version, reportedly due to her inability to stand too long. She then started visiting her state secretariat office twice a week, and that too only for an hour or two.

But voters preferred the rule of partially fit chief minister and the ever-growing influence (baleful or not) of Sasikala in matters of governance over Karunanidhi’s DMK.

The unintended consequences and what appear to be perverted outcomes of this decision are neither an indication of democracy’s diminishing returns nor a mass brain fade. It is rather a sign of a polity that has become fattened to the point of unresponsiveness.

British journalist and Conservative commentator Peter Hitchens, describing in 2005 how the country’s politics lost its way, wrote that the Labour and the Tories were “like a pair of corpses, stiff with rigor mortis, propping each other up”. According to Hitchens, they no longer represented the true divisions in British society, rendering them incapable of genuinely adversarial politics of principles and of going beyond the superficiality of personality politics. When that happens, perverted outcomes of the Sasikala variety will become commonplace.

Mummies and Ammas

India’s national politics may very soon resemble the Hitchensian double act of corpses, but several of our states are already there. As with many things, Tamil Nadu leads the way here.

The two principal Dravidian parties – DMK and AIADMK – are metaphorically and literally cut from the same cloth. Over the last two decades, it would be impossible to tell them apart.

The Dravidian movement, founded by EV Ramaswamy or Periyar and its political forebear, the Justice Party, strongly represented the social divisions of their time. Initially a Congressman, Periyar broke away from the party in 1925, disillusioned by its domination of Brahmins and what he saw as Congress’ inability to match his idea of social justice.

In his seminal book Anna: The Life and Times of Annadurai, R Kannan said about the genesis of the Dravidian movement:

“In 1935 Periyar associated himself closely with the Justice Party, inspired by its progressive legislation on communal representation, temple entry and degrading the Devadasi system… His construct of a homogeneous Dravida nation proved a non-starter with the project’s bias in favour of the Tamils. Aided by his disciple Anna [CN Annadurai], Periyar would nonetheless succeed in transforming the moribund Justice Party into a vibrant Dravida Kazhagam in 1944.”

While Anna broke from Dravada Kazhagam to form the DMK in 1949, MGR broke away from the DMK in 1972, three years after mentor Anna’s death, forming a new party in his name with claims of being his true political and ideological legatee.

What differentiated the Dravida mothership DMK and the AIADMK was MGR’s personality cult, built on his superstardom and his somewhat pioneering politics of welfarism.

Reacting to the news of Sasikala’s anointment, historian Ramachandra Guha in a tweet lamented the descent (a decline in the stature of Dravidian movement standard bearers, presumably) from Periyar to Sasikala.

His lament, is perhaps two or even four decades too late. The Dravidian movement itself has outlived its social utility. The response of the Dravidian parties to the new socio-economic realities enabled by their own distant founders has been a competitive politics of freebies and self-aggrandisement.

The collision of mummies can only produce Ammas and Chinammas. But as a wise Persian king once said, this too shall pass.

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