Chennai: With DMK supremo finally deciding to make son MK Stalin the ‘working president’ – thus clearing the succession issue once and for all – Tamil Nadu is entering a new era where the two chief claimants to power are both from outside the tinsel town.
It’s MK Stalin Vs VK Sasikala now. Or as the fans would call it Thalapathy Vs Chinnamma.
Sure Stalin dabbled in movies a bit, but he is more known for his stint as the young Mayor of Chennai Corporation who set about modernising the administration with limited success. Sasikala’s link with cinema is limited to her early career as a video-shop owner, and of course her decades-long stint as J Jayalaithaa’s de facto chief-of-staff.
For Tamil Nadu this time, the contrast is sharp. Stalin is pretty much an open book while Sasikala remains an enigma whose first political speech is just a week old.
Stalin had his brush with a controversy or two but he redeemed himself as the Chennai Mayor.
In 1997, a year after he took over, the City Corporation threw a party for its employees at a star hotel. A whole lot people, including corporation employees, people associated with the corporation and journalists were in attendance. Veteran journalist RK Radhakrishnan was one among them. He remembers Stalin, clad in a full-sleeved yellow shirt and dark green trousers, welcoming guests at the function held in Chennai’s Hotel Breeze.
“Stalin presented himself as a leader in tune with the times. He was among the first to arrive and the last to leave. It didn’t look like a government function by any stretch of imagination. Stalin made a bold speech about the future of Chennai Corporation,” he recalls.
The strategist that he is, Stalin must have war-gamed himself for a protracted battle with Jayalalithaa for the throne in Fort St George, Tamil Nadu’s seat of power. Instead, he has got a new opponent — enemy, if you know the rancour that threads Tamil Nadu politics. In fact, it’s not just Stalin, not many know of VK Sasikala as a politician. They have heard the stories of Mannargudi clan — the parallel state allegedly run by her family during Jayalalithaa’s first stint in power — but after three decades in close proximity to power, one heard Sasikala speak for the first time only last Saturday.
At the party HQ in Chennai, she read out an eloquently written speech. Sasikala paused at the right moments, gesturing markedly for emphasis, and her voice quivered every time Jayalalithaa came up.
One of the key takeaways of her maiden speech was that she signalled no one is above the party icons — CN Annadurai, MGR and Jayalalithaa — and the primary goal of the party was to run it as though their Amma was alive. “We will lead this party forward in a way even our critics have a change of heart and follow us,” she said.
By all accounts, the Stalin camp is amazed at Sasikala’s unhindered elevation. They have acknowledged a new arch-rival, and a new legendary rivalry is in the making in Tamil Nadu politics.
Last Thursday, immediately after the AIADMK General Council decided to make Sasikala the General Secretary, the huge banner bearing the smiling face of Jayalalithaa was taken off as surprising party workers and journalists gathered outside the venue in Chennai. Another banner projecting Sasikala was swiftly put up in place — symbolically asserting that Chinnamma can, and will, fill the shoes of the Puratchi Thalaivi (revolutionary leader).
Receiving petitions and calling all the shots from Poes Garden, Sasikala now holds the fort. Besides the speech on Saturday, any attempt to gain an insight into her persona draws a blank. She is also a sharply polarising figure. Among political observers who say they know little of her capacity, she is someone to watch out for, someone “ambitious”. But, among the party, the refrain is not dissimilar to what they had to say of Jayalalithaa —“caring and affectionate”.
Apsara Reddy, a transwoman media personality and a member of the AIADMK, was won over by what she calls Sasikala’s lack of prejudice towards her community. “I went to Arakkonam to join the party. AIADMK members were against me since I was a transgender woman,” recalls Reddy. “Chinamma saw my application and thought why shouldn’t a transgender woman join the party? When I did meet her at Arakkonam, she was very warm and waved to me, and had a beautiful smile,” she said.
If Sasikala had transcended gender lines for Reddy, Stalin, too, had similar touches to his administrative acts, making it clear he had little patience for the old ways and had no qualms disrupting set practices. A seasoned politician for decades now, Stalin’s public statements prove his style of politics is distinct from his father’s. Where Karunanidhi ensures a strong anti-AIADMK, anti-Jayalalithaa strain in every statement or move, Stalin has proved to be sober and statesman-like.
Author Vasanthi, who has written a biography of Jayalalithaa, would rather not underestimate Sasikala. “I feel one cannot underestimate her intelligence. If she is not intelligent, she wouldn’t have survived with Jaya as Jaya could not stand fools. She must have been extra-ordinarily intelligent to have been with Jaya,” she says.
RSS ideologue S Gurmurthy, however, has a different view. “So far her capabilities have been only as a backroom activist by Jaya’s side. Not too much is known about her leadership. With very little charisma, she will find that replacing charismatic Jaya is not easy. Manipulations cannot fetch mass attraction. It is not advisable for her to have accepted leadership. Even now, if she does a Sonia she will have huge backroom power,” he said.
With VK Sasikala and MK Stalin all set to lead their respective parties, would the hate politics continue? Political observers believe that the hate politics between Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi will morph a little.
Gurumurthy, who has replaced Cho Ramaswamy as the editor of influential Tamil magazine Thuglak, feels animosity will persist at cadre level especially in AIADMK which was born as an anti-DMK party. “In fact a large vote share of the AIADMK is anti-DMK. So at lower levels, animosity will persist which will be bottom upwards and not top down like when MGR or Jaya was there,” he says.
Analyst Mani goes a step further to explore the concept of whether this rivalry was the lifeblood of Dravidian politics. By hating each other at the cellular level, did they sustain the relevance of Dravidian ideas? “The enmity that they hold against each other can be highly disastrous for both the parties. Rivalry should exist at all times for the betterment of the two Dravidian parties,” he says.
Stalin has indicated that the rivalry will go on. Last week, Stalin demanded an enquiry into the circumstances of the Jayalalithaa’s death. He has also wondered about official security accorded to Poes Garden when no government personnel stays there. For Sasikala, though, that question will be dealt with later.
The challenge now is to brace for what will transpire at the Madras High Court, where it looks like a full-blown enquiry into Jayalalithaa’s hospitalisation and subsequent death could be ordered. Making a doomsday prediction for Sasikala, Gurumurthy says: “Not only does she not have the support of the cadre, they suspect her as a cause of their beloved Amma’s death… may be totally unfounded or irrational, but they hate her. How can she lead the party with such questions over her? AIADMK will get into serious issues soon.”
But Sasikala has so far held her flock despite many predictions of a 1987-like split in which Jayalalithaa was singled out against a larger faction led by the widow of her mentor MG Ramachandran. Not only has the AIADMK realigned itself in a well-oiled manner, Sasikala has also grabbed the throne as far as the party is concerned.
There is already talk of Sasikala taking over as Chief Minister – one of the senior-most leaders Thambi Durai who is also Lok Sabha deputy speaker has said it on record – but political observers say with the disproportionate assets case hanging over her head, that dream will take a while to fulfil.
The jury is out on how this could impact her current status as the AIADMK chief, but a conviction when she takes over as Chief Minister could be disastrous. Once her backyard problems settle, she would turn to what awaits in the political arena: Stalin. A star campaigner who walked across districts ahead of the 2016 elections to garner votes and contributed to the DMK getting back as a strong Opposition in the Assembly.
There are multiple predictions about Sasikala taking the electoral plunge, with some sections saying she would play it safe by not foraying in RK Nagar. Still, as a party chief in a state of roaring rhetoric, she may have to come face to face with the people, and get their acceptance; her ultimate litmus test.