Tamil Nadu’s Game of Thrones

Understanding the AIADMK’s internal fracas and what it means for the future of the AIADMK and Tamil Nadu politics.

Gunther Denk

(L-R): Sasikala Natarajan, O. Panneerselvam

(L-R): Sasikala Natarajan, O. Panneerselvam

Jayalalithaa Jayaram (Amma) was a figure larger than life - a former actress who came to be the leading political figure of Tamil Nadu for decades. Her followers were so obsessed that supposedly hundreds of people committed suicide in response to her disproportionate assets conviction, dozens by self-immolation. However, Amma is no longer with us, and in her wake is left a cast of characters who may be equally corrupt but cannot compete with her extraordinary charisma and Teflon-like ability to let all scandals slide. Following her unfortunate demise, the party has been very publicly divided in two camps - Amma’s closest confidante Sasikala and her political heir O. Panneerselvam.

A strong candidate to replace Jayalalithaa, V.K. Sasikala was Amma’s right hand woman for years and was rewarded with the acting general secretary position after the latter’s death. On the other hand is O. Panneerselvam. Appointed as President of the AIADMK (and subsequently Chief Minister of the state), he has twice before served in this role while Jayalalithaa was barred from holding office by Supreme Court investigations into a corruption case in which she was indicted. It was originally believed that Panneerselvam and Sasikala had come to an agreement where Panneerselvam would continue as Chief Minister but Sasikala would become President of the party. However on February 4th it was announced that Panneerselvam had resigned and would be replaced by Sasikala. She had forced her rival out with brute political strength, and it seemed as if Tamil Nadu was hers for the keeping. However, on February 14th, the Supreme Court found Sasikala guilty in the disproportionate assets case and sentenced her to four years in prison for her role in the money laundering and corruption operated out of Jayalalithaa’s Poes Garden residence.

Sasikala now resides in Bangalore’s Parappana Agrahara jail along with her sister-in-law and cellmate Illavarasi.  However, rumour has it that a political ploy is already in place to have Karnataka transfer her to a prison complex within Tamil Nadu, from where she can influence the running of the government and party affairs via her supporter Palaniswami, who currently presides as the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, thanks to the support from Sasikala.

(L-R) - E. Palanisamy, Jayalalitha. 

(L-R) - E. Palanisamy, Jayalalitha. 

Sensing this development, Panneerselvam announced that he would change his resignation decision if the people want him to be Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. He accused Sasikala and her family of forcing him to resign his post, confirming previous suspicions. This prompted the Tamilian public, especially the poorer classes and women, to begin to openly speaking out against her. However, several  Members of Legislative Assembly (MLAs)  and party office-bearers continue to obediently pay tribute to Sasikala and behave like her vassals.

As it stands, Panneerselvam, if he is to recapture power, he must obtain the majority support of his party’s MLAs. The AIADMK still has four and a half years to be rule the state and continued internal fracas in the party would only push the centre to impose President’s rule due to a breakdown in constitutional governance in the state (Article 356). Panneerselvam has to tread this line very carefully, because if he doesn’t gain party support his efforts to do so could very well lose the AIADMK it’s mandate giving opposition parties the political initiative.

These dynamics hold interesting prospects for Tamil Nadu politics. The 2014 elections saw AIADMK win 37 of 39 available Lok Sabha seats, whilst DMK won 0. In the May 2016 regional elections, AIADMK won 136 of 234 seats, 14 less than the 2011 elections, whilst DMK won 98, a gain of 66. However 2014’s blowout and 2016’s 38 seat margin masks the much closer popular vote with AIADMK being victorious by less than half a million votes.
This translates into tremendous potential for DMK in the 2019 general elections and the 2021 statewide elections. The parties have very little difference policy-wise and win their votes primarily based off loyalty and individual charisma, meaning AIADMK’s dysfunctional leadership and corruption scandals could result in a drastic swing come election time. DMK has the raw numbers to win big and could become firm favourites by the time the next elections arrive. The national parties like Bharatiya Janata Party and Congress also stand to gain. As voters of Chennai get increasingly disillusioned with the populism of DMK and AIADMK, we could see a more even contest come 2019. Any gains for national parties in Tamil Nadu Lok Sabha elections would have a huge bearing on the state elections later on. So while the tussle for the Chief Minister’s position goes on between Sasikala and Paneerselvam, Tamil Nadu remains a state to watch out for.

Gunther Denk is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University majoring in Regional and Comparative Studies.

(Disclaimer: The views expressed are the personal opinion of the author and do not express views of GU India Ink)