The slide has been steady for over a decade and steep. We are all complicit in this. Tamil Nadu has now been a land of fiefdoms, bullies and mafias for so long that I cannot remember the last time we could boldly oppose and criticise a politician, let alone the chief minister, without fearing for our lives. And yet, we have lived in this state and continue doing so.

The privileged among Tamil Nadu’s population have been earning well – some extremely so. They have not cared that even as their prosperity has grown, their political freedoms have shrunk. In fact, the illusion of prosperity subsumes and camouflages the multiple intimidations we live under.

The worst is felt by those living at the margins of our society, the ones who do not matter. The rest of us, hypocrites, sit sanctimoniously in our drawing rooms or on social media blaming the others, meaning the uneducated and illiterate for all that has befallen on us.

The happenings of the last few days in my state of Tamil Nadu were not unexpected or surprising. Considering the sudden developments of Tuesday night, whether Sasikala will become the chief minister right now, after a week, continue to wield her power from behind the chief minister’s throne or miss the bus will be known very soon. But as per the Constitution, whatever happened on February 5 is entirely legal. And if O Panneerselvam becomes chief minister once again, that too on the exterior will be as per the Constitution. There are no grounds on which we can deny these facts. But in terms of its sheer political and ethical vulgarity Sasikala’s elevation has very few parallels in recent memory.

Steady rise

Over the last two months Sasikala, a close companion of the late Chief Minister Jayalalithaa has undergone an optical and semantic makeover. The attire, bindi, gait, the title “Chinnamma” and the removal of Natarajan from her name completed the resurrection. This is not about whether Sasikala is capable or not, and honestly that has never mattered to us! It is about the fact that that one person dons this vesham and thinks that that is good enough to fool us all into believing that this is Jayalalitha in a new avatar.

Maybe she is right and we will once again prostrate before this new queen. That she has always been a powerful political entity was not unknown, yet we went along with the farce only because the face of the party was the ever-endearing “Amma”, Jayalalithaa. Therefore, to believe that Sasikala will with immediate effect become politically irrelevant if she is not given the chief ministership is rather naive.

Looking within

But we have to be utterly honest to ourselves: why are we objecting to Sasikala? Where does this chhi-chhi response, this disdain come from? Do we have a problem with the way she was elected or because we have disliked her and, even more, the fact of her?

It is predominantly the latter that has created this reaction and I have a problem with that being the reason. Let us, for argument’s sake, say that Sasikala was “cultivated”, perhaps a little conservative, convent-educated and therefore highly likeable – we would then have been rejoicing. But she is not that and hence the objection. How is that acceptable?

The very fact that any arbitrary person can be chosen as chief minister by party MLAs based on their selfish, self-serving needs must be opposed. Keeping the texture of the person aside, it is the very unethical nature of this constitutionally valid process that is utterly disgusting.

We were after all ruled for years ( until a few months ago!) by a chief minister who was under the scanner and every time she went to Jail, O Paneerselvam, the obedient follower filled in. Did we protest, object ? No, in fact on her passing, we made her a demi-god. Today, Paneeerselvam has all of a sudden acquired a much-needed voice and is seen as the knight in shining armour. These startling new developments certainly come from concealed political agendas that we are not privy to. We know nothing about Sasikala or the reasons for Panneerselvam’s turn around except what the media has told us explicitly and in whispers. My point is that as much as Sasikala disturbs us, it should bother us even more that we would have smiled, accepted her and ignored Panneerselvam if only she had maintained a genial image. So all this social media outrage that we are targeting at Sasikala needs to be directed right back at us. And that shows us for who we are.

Electoral revamp needed

The possibility of Sasikala becoming chief minister should raise larger questions about electoral politics. We have to ask ourselves whom we vote for. Is it the symbol, party name, the charismatic leader or the MLA or MP? I am no constitutional expert, but in my understanding, until the anti-defection law of 1985, political parties as units were not mentioned in our Constitution. We were, and are in essence, electing our local representative.

Unfortunately we have to concede that the merit of the MP or MLA comes in last in the list of voting priorities. We are intoxicated by a charismatic chief ministerial candidate, or we hearken to the symbol. Effective marketing ensures that these invisible hands coerce us to push the appropriate button on the Electronic Voting Machine.

There is an urgent need for reflection and some creativity in political reforms.

Can we force political parties to come back to the voters in case of the demise or removal of the chief minister, if they fought and won the elections in the name of that prospective chief ministerial candidate? If they won on the collective strength of the party, then they must be allowed to elect a replacement internally. There are many loopholes in this suggestion but we have to think along these lines if we want to be truly a representative democracy and not a masked autocracy.

It is also time that symbols are not handed to parties for perpetuity. The association between the party and the symbol has to be broken periodically (say once every four elections) compelling the party to re-establish its image. This will also provide better opportunity to newer parties and independents who want to enter the fray. Today, they begin with an unfair disadvantage.

There are many sound reasons for someone to be upset by the prospect of Sasikala becoming Tamil Nadu’s next supremo, but unless we reflect upon our own selective prejudices we cannot change the nature of our democracy.

This too shall pass. The direction of our political journey is unknown. But I am certain that we will lump whatever is dumped on us without as much as a whimper. I hate myself for saying this, but that is what we are and have been for long. It will take many years for us to come out of this disfranchised mindset and enable that which we need: an honest, strong, fearless political leadership. Today, that is entirely missing. This piece reads like an obituary. Unfortunately that is how I feel.