In the period after MG Ramachandran’s demise in December 1987, the clamour for his political legacy was extremely ugly. From the manner in which Jayalalithaa, who fancied herself as his political successor, was pushed out of his cortege to the ugly split in the AIADMK, the slugfest between the Jayalalithaa and the Janaki Ramachandran (MGR’s widow) factions was out in the open for everyone to see.
Not a surprise, given that a lot was at stake. To be successful in Tamil Nadu politics, both camps needed to be seen as MGR’s chosen one as only that would ensure electoral success.
Forward to 2017 and Amma’s boys — Edappadi Palaniswami and O Paneerselvam — have copied the MGR template. That explains their decision to anoint Jayalalithaa as the eternal general secretary of the AIADMK. With the powers of the general secretary in the real world vested in the convenor (OPS) and deputy convenor (EPS), this is their way of saying they are the inheritors of Amma’s legacy. This is also an acknowledgement of the fact that but for Brand Jayalalithaa, they are politically irrelevant.
Not that there was no politics behind this life-after-death appointment. Hard bargaining in the days preceding the merger meant both EPS and OPS camps could not agree on who will be the general secretary. With both leaders unwilling to make way for the other, Jayalalithaa was chosen as the compromise party chief in eternity and it was decided that the top job will no longer be called general secretary. The nomenclature was changed to the twin posts of convenor and deputy convenor who will, for purpose of public posturing, rule in Amma’s name.
Such theatrics are not new to Dravidian politicians. When the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) was founded in the 60s, CN Annadurai kept the president’s post vacant, arguing that only Periyar had a right over the seat. Though of course, Periyar was alive at that time. Subsequently, Karunanidhi became the President of the DMK himself and continues to this day, with MK Stalin now made working president.
Though the AIADMK was founded by MGR, after his exit from the DMK, Jayalalithaa cast the party in her own mould and made it her own. She never made MGR the eternal general secretary of the AIADMK and ensured she occupied that post till her death in December 2016. By letting her continue in the post eternally, her band of followers has ensured that AIADMK is Amma and Amma is AIADMK. MGR’s visage has been relegated only to the photo exhibitions organised during his 100th anniversary.
The process of sidelining MGR and using him only when he was needed started with Jayalalithaa, points out senior political commentator TN Gopalan.
“For a year after she came to power in 1991, Jayalalithaa did not use his photograph anywhere or talk about him. She resented the control MGR wielded over her when he was alive. It was only after an electoral debacle that she went back to using MGR’s photographs at party events and campaigns,” says Gopalan.
But Jayalalithaa, by virtue of having been a successful cinema star (a huge draw in Tamil Nadu), still could hold her own. EPS and OPS pale in comparison when it comes to charisma and have to necessarily fall back on the Amma name for political sustenance.
But the ‘mere paas Amma hai‘ card is also strategic because it positions the ruling AIADMK as Jayalalithaa’s party. With TTV Dhinakaran threatening to “send this government packing” if the governor allows a trust vote, it will allow EPS and OPS to accuse Dhinakaran of overthrowing “Amma’s party’s government” should he succeed in his mission.
Two, it is to kill any chance of Sasikala trying to return as party general secretary. For Sasikala, replacing Jayalalithaa would not be seen as the sentimentally right thing to do. It makes the battle between OPS and EPS and Dinakaran as the clash between AIADMK (Amma) and AIADMK (Chinnamma).
Three and most important, EPS and OPS want to retrieve the two leaves symbol from the Election Commission, that froze it ahead of the RK Nagar byelection in April. Having Jayalalithaa as the eternal general secretary would improve the party’s bargaining power at Nirvachan Sadan.
So is the eternal general secretary going to be truly forever? Given that the politics of AIADMK is also the politics of betrayal, it is anyone’s guess. After all, just a few months back, EPS and OPS respectfully referred to Sasikala as Chinnamma, fell at her feet and asked her to be party general secretary. The same set of leaders have now dumped her unceremoniously.