‘The Chosen One’: Panneerselvam Throws The Hat In The Ring

‘The Chosen One’: Panneerselvam Throws The Hat In The RingV K Sasikala and  O Panneerselvam (PTI photos)
Snapshot
  • Both Sasikala and OPS are from the Thevar community that is the strongest support base of the AIADMK.

    The looming disproportionate assets case against Sasikala can upset the balance of power quite decisively.

”Power is a curious thing, my Lord...Power resides where men believe it resides; it's a trick, a shadow on the wall, and a very small man can cast a very large shadow', tells Varys to “Little Finger” in one of the many memorable verbal duets in the “Game of Thrones”.

An erstwhile video-shop owner and an erstwhile tea-seller are casting their long shadows on Tamil Nadu politics. They executed the transition of power last month in Chennai after the death of J Jayalalithaa so clinically that a case study on it should be written and taught in Political Science classes.

O Panneerselvam, who is no muck as media is projecting him to be, used his moral authority as the chosen-by-amma one. The powerful visuals of the mid-night oath taking will be etched in people’s minds. He retains all powerful portfolios that Jayalalithaa had. He and Sasikala brought complementary strengths to the table. He had the saintly image (the white-beard and “vibhuthi”) that was loath to power-broking. She had the actual power in terms of money and cadre backing. This metastable equilibrium brought about by circumstances is what Tamil Nadu is relying on. Journalists from Delhi have made a poor analogy comparing the duo to Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi, but OPS has more say in the game than MMS ever did.

This partnership will stay strong only as long as both are aware of their weaknesses. The equilibrium will be disturbed the moment Sasikala gets insecure or if OPS tries to consolidate power through goodwill and good governance. One-upmanship is bound to breed issues. The reason behind the unease in late December was the clever attempt by OPS to consolidate his alliance with the central government. The bonhomie he enjoyed with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the subsequent interview by Venkiah Naidu reiterating the centre’s support for “the elected government of state” caused great consternation.

The stage is also set for eagle-eyed Amit Shah who revels in such circumstances. But the first salvo from BJP was fired by Prime Minister Modi who sent a strong signal with the raid on former Chief Secretary Ram Mohan Rao that the centre will not passively brook corruption. This hits directly at the core operational strategy of Sasikala. The first risk for Sasikala is that the mansabdari system that she has set up needs to be managed properly for the arrangement to thrive. When the riches of the spoil (tax payers’ money and power of office) are distributed away, the ensuing disgruntlements have to be assuaged. There will be people that will play one against the other.

BJP has done its first round of flirting with the ADMK cadre. The Prime Minister has already invoked his personal friendship with Jayalalithaa. People have been reminded that their Amma had aligned with BJP in 1998 and 2004. In the coming months, the roles of the BJP Prabhari to Tamil Nadu, the state President and the Governor all become more important in the action packed scenario. The looming disproportionate assets case against Sasikala can upset the balance of power quite decisively.

The caste base of leaders is another source of risk. Both Sasikala and OPS are from the Thevar community that is the strongest support base of the AIADMK. But OPS is a mass leader from the Thevar belt near Madurai constituting Periyakulam, Theni, Usilampatti, Vattalagundu etc. The Gounder community leaders like Thambidurai, Thangamani, Sengottaiyan and Velumani have agreed to a play a role in the second rung of the pyramid. If they feel side-lined they can break away and they will have willing partners in the many Kongu parties.

The BJP has realised that it lacks a magnetic leader within its ranks, and hence it is best to align with the Thevars. Add to that, the Thevar community has a history of fierce nationalism, and were staunch supporters of Netaji Subash Chandra Bose during the freedom struggle.

But social engineering is very difficult in Tamil Nadu due to two reasons. One is geographic distribution of caste; caste groups are spread out except for a few pockets. Secondly, no party has totally appropriated particular castes. The Vanniyar group is a classic example they are spread over a few districts in North Tamil Nadu. Though the Paataali Makkal Katchi (PMK) sees them as their main support base, there are Vanniyar leaders in all parties.

The third risk is of governance and public perception. Lack of a strong leader and corruption imply governance is going to suffer. Sasikala’s very-extended family and loyal officers at perhaps every level of the government, have to be kept on leash. The ultimate practitioner of “access politics” will be tested in her own game. If OPS can deliver on governance and improve his power position, it will not just improve his stature. Counter-intuitively, it will unsettle the balance of power and cause the system to crumble taking him along.

The swift clean-up in the aftermath of Cyclone Vardah earned him many kudos. The path of least resistance is for him to expand the fiscally demanding Amma schemes. With policy taking a backseat vis-a- vis competitive politics, there are doubts that Tamil Nadu will retain its pre-eminence as an economic powerhouse.

The survival of the AIADMK government depends on whether Sasikala and OPS manage to incrementally consolidate their positions without upsetting the apple-cart. Being shrewd players themselves they know that a systemic loss is nobody’s gain. If they manage the tightrope walk for the next two years it will be quite an achievement, given that the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) is consolidating behind MK Stalin and constantly looking for cracks in the opposition. The first major event that could quell the tranquility will be the 2019 parliamentary elections. (But remember Archduke Franz Ferdinand and World War One). There will no Amma to quell any dissent on ticket distribution. Forces beyond anybody’s control will be at play.

Paradoxically, when images and symbols are appropriated, there is a risk of people realising the deliberate copying from the past for usurping power, thereby weakening the very objective of the act. While Sasikala, OPS, other ADMK leaders, DMK, BJP and others are watching each other, the voters of Tamil Nadu are watching them. And the Tamil people who love their drama would have finished their popcorn and will vote decisively as they have always done.

This is an abridged version of the article published on 18 January. Read the original article is here.

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