When M. G. Ramachandran died in 1987, the cabal around him roped in his widow Janaki as the AIADMK’s face and limped along until the election of 1989 swept them into oblivion. In 1991, the murder of Rajiv Gandhi prompted another coterie to name the hitherto obscure Narasimha Rao as prime minister. Contrary to all expectations he proved decisive, reformist and almost prised apart the Nehru family’s claws from the Congress party’s throat. But the voter rejected his overtures and he died forgotten and forsaken.

Now in Tamil Nadu we have a repeat of 1987 with the death of Jayalalithaa. The cabal of sycophants surrounding the late chief minister has reached its natural size with the inclusion of her long-time aide, alter ego, financial proxy and extended family member Sasikala.  She is, moreover, being projected as the successor to “Amma” though she has never been a public figure or had any public support, never held elected office of any kind, nor gone close to a government post except through the backdoor. But by some mysterious alchemy she has become the logical choice to take the place of a chief minister who for all her faults was a formidable politician with a sure feeling for the public pulse. Maybe some of Amma’s magic has rubbed off on “Chinnamma” through long association.

It is a measure of Jayalalithaa’s dominance that no one in the AIADMK or the government has even tried to take control. There are few recognisable figures, it is true, but one of them, M. Thambidurai, is Deputy Speaker of the Lok Sabha and the acting chief minister, O. Panneerselvam, is also a long-time party man. Yet neither has staked a claim to the throne or Jayalalithaa’s legacy. They have been gelded politically; they will not seek office but take it if offered and follow orders to the letter. They feel the weight of the dead hand.

But with this approach they are sealing their own and the AIADMK’s political fate. The Dravidian movement, such as it is, has been an exercise in delusion for a long time. It borrowed its principles from the former Justice movement and retained the shadow of it through competitive populism, the beginning and end of its ideology. But both the AIADMK and its opposite were built on charismatic leaders and personality cults, the twin foundations of populism. In this case there is neither leadership nor charisma, just a band of domestic servants wondering what to do with the house now that the mistress is gone. To an outsider it looks like lemmings on suicide detail.

For one thing, there are so many shadows surrounding Sasikala that every day in the limelight is an opportunity for an ambitious opposition. As Jayalalithaa’s proxy she is rumoured to have a hand in innumerable shady deals. One instance is the sale of Luxe Cinemas, an 11-screen multiplex in Chennai to Jazz Cinemas, co-owned by her relatives who are also directors of Midas Golden Distilleries, a major in the state’s liquor industry. Sasikala was found guilty by the trial court along with her mentor in the corruption case and with the Centre suddenly taking a keen interest in corruption in Tamil Nadu she is extremely vulnerable. The BJP sees a chance and with a friendly governor in Raj Bhavan might be tempted to repeat the events of Arunachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand.

But the major question is how to keep the flock together. As long as Jayalalithaa was around rebellion was unthinkable but now it might seem an attractive option as the future looks so uncertain. AIADMK leaders must have a plan in case their MLAs have sudden attacks of wanderlust. Luckily for them, elections are still at least four years away but an opposition charm offensive to seduce party representatives is all but inevitable. The possibility of party MLAs and MPs and perhaps even lower rung cadres changing loyalties remains high. There have to be serious doubts about Sasikala’s ability to cope with these challenges. Dealing with the Centre is a problem of a different magnitude as it is unlikely to show her the deference it did to Jayalalithaa. She is, after all, an interloper whose public standing is negligible.

The outreach to Sasikala seems to be nothing more than a desperate attempt to revive the old magic, but chanting “Namma Amma Chinnamma” is a sign of ineptitude and cowardice rather than an appeal to Jayalalithaa’s legacy. It is almost certain to earn them lasting humiliation in everyone’s eyes.

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