The Intriguing Drama of Jayalalithaa's Succession

The Intriguing Drama of Jayalalithaa's Succession


Last word on Jayalalithaa's succession has not been spoken as yet


The expected has happened. Sasikala Natarajan has been anointed as the general secretary of All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) putting to rest all speculation to the contrary. It was a somewhat unique general council meeting in which Jayalalithaa's empty chair brought in a separate car was placed in the centre with a garlanded portrait signifying her spiritual presence.

Though a bit surreal and reminiscent of Rama's Paduka enshrined on the throne of Ayodha during his exile, it is not entirely unusual for a state where an acting chief minister ruled under the glare of his absent boss' photograph.

In the coming days, Sasikala would need a lot more of such symbolism to cement her elevation as the political heir of Jayalalithaa. To be able to neutralise opponents within the party, who feel with some justification that she has usurped the legacy of Jayalalithaa, she will have to portray to the masses that she is actually the one chosen by their beloved Amma to succeed her.

Through signs of reluctance, humility and public display of devotion she will have to demonstrate that Jayalalithaa's values and vision are safer in her hands than with those from the late Amma's family.

But, what swung the scales so decisively in her favour when it is common knowledge that her relationship with Jayalalithaa had periods of ups and down? At one time, she was expelled from the party and her family was made persona non-grata. If, indeed, Jayalalithaa was grooming Sasikala as her eventual successor she did not reveal her cards.

In fact, it is believed to the contrary, that Sasikala was re-admitted to the party and Jayalalithaa's inner circle after her expulsion in 2011 on the explicit undertaking that she will not aspire for political office. Of course, it is quite possible that Jayalalithaa did not anticipate such an early exit and, therefore, did not get the time to nominate a second-in-command.

So, what in the days of dynastic and identity politics determine succession? Normally, one would assume it is heredity. Therefore, in the absence of a direct heir, close family members stand the best chance to succeed. Unless, as in the case of Jayalalithaa herself and Mayawati, their mentors decided to pass on the legacy to their protégées.

However, there are no absolute rules. We have a son-in-law (Chandrababu Naidu) stepping into the shoes of his iconic father-in-law (NT Rama Rao) or Sheila Dikshit taking on the mantle from her father-in-law. But, there are sons, sons-in-law, and grandsons of former prime ministers, who have either been marginalised or relegated into oblivion.

The same is true for many chief ministers and regional leaders.

Among cousins - where fate stole both their very powerful fathers in untimely mishaps - one was immediately elevated as the new owner of the parent's constituency (without much prior political experience), while the other was unceremoniously shunted out of reckoning by various forces. The young scion of a well-known Maharashtrian politician was automatically made an MP after his father's death and even offered a berth in the Union cabinet and the son of a formidable chief minister from the South soon ended up in jail.

Similarly, we have cases of daughters of ailing politicians being pulled out of domesticity to be groomed for succession and also to keep at bay ambitious cousins. Also, reluctant sons parachuted, giving up the good life overseas, to take over the father's mantle purely on principles of lineage.

However, by connecting the dots, a pattern does emerge. The common denominator in all these transitions seems to be: who has the custody of the "war-chest" or "tijori" as it were. That is when the apocryphal story about a famous leader rushing to the spot of her son's air-crash to collect his watch and locker keys begins to make sense.

The last word on Jayalalithaa's succession may not have been spoken yet. There could be further twists and turns in the tale - especially after the comments made by the Madras High Court.

If there was any truth in the rumours around the timing of announcing (the half-mast flag at AIADMK headquarters that was quickly put up again following withdrawal of the news) - there may be some surprises in store. The gauntlet thrown at the party by the chief secretary, daring the chief minister to remove him from office, adds another dimension. It is difficult to predict how much traction Jayalalithaa's niece and the other Sasikala (Pushpa)'s counter movement will gather.

For now, it is game, set and match for Sasikala Natarajan and one can only guess from which vault she draws her power.

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