The story of Tamil Nadu election 2021, as the election itself drew close, was judged by non-brahmins in the state as one that was not going to be who the winner is – the ruling party or the opposition, but the faceoff between the outgoing Chief Minister Edappadi K Palanisamy vs BJP-backed-dy-CM-O Panneerselvam staking claim on the AIADMK and the ongoing war within the AIADMK and outside of it by the BJP, for control of AIADMK voters. The unpopularity of the AIADMK leadership was quite widespread. Yet the nervousness over the result of the election, whether there would be change of regime, remained for a good reason.
AIADMK is the largest party in TN in terms of its vote share, which stood at 40.8 percent in 2016 TN Assembly election, and dipped to 18.48 in the Parliament election 2019, where it lost all but one seat, of 39 seats, to DMK. In the 2021 election, the AIADMK has maintained 33 percent vote share while the DMK has shown 37 percent votes in its favour. The DMK won with 133 seats on its own bringing it to power in Tamil Nadu and along with its allies has a comfortable majority of 159 seats in the 234 seat Assembly with the AIADMK alliance getting 75 seats. Nevertheless, AIADMK has maintained a steady vote bank even in the face of its current leadership’s unpopularity, fluctuating as per AIADMK policies. And this vote bank has the BJP salivating on the sidelines to gain entry into TN electoral politics by capturing or breaking the AIADMK.
The previous 2016 assembly election, whose tenure ended in May, 2021, was unique as both DMK and AIADMK led by late M Karunanidhi and late J Jayalalithaa, respectively, faced each other directly, almost without allies. The recognizable smaller parties in the state had either formed a third front or contested alone in that election. They came a cropper in that poll.
Of course, 2016 was the last election that the formidable leader of AIADMK, J Jayalalithaa, faced. Deeply insecure and corrupt, Jayalalithaa commanded not just voters’ confidence but also demanded complete loyalty – nay, surrender from party cadres to the extent of expecting party functionaries to fall at her feet at every opportunity to prove their loyalty to her. She was to rule for only about four months after winning the 2016 May election before being taken to the ICU where she remained for a record 74 days. No one except AIADMK and the BJP of the union government, whose leaders consulted with the hospital and with Jayalalithaa’s friend Sasikala, knew what was happening inside the hospital where she was admitted. She was announced dead on December 5, 2016.
Ahead of it, in the 2014 Parliamentary election campaign, the BJP had damned the Jayalalithaa regime and Jayalalithaa tore into Modi, asking whether “Modi or this lady” is a better administrator and tore up BJP’s much touted Gujarat model. Till 2017, BJP remained a diffident, unnoticed, an outsider party in the state. It had not been successful in getting into a coalition with any of the two Dravidian majors since the 2004 parliamentary election when DMK forsook it after a one-time alliance with that party and discarded it in 2004 election to the Parliament. AIADMK aligned with it in 2004, only to lose. Since then Jayalalithaa swore she would never align with the BJP ever. The BJP attempted to hobnob with smaller parties in the state in 2014 but only as an insignificant ally. The AIADMK won 37 seats in the 2014 Parliamentary election. Caste party PMK and BJP’s long time local face from Kanyakumari district, a hindu rightwing loyalist won on the split in Christian votes in Kanyakumari district, to take one seat each in that election.
That is for history, but what followed since Jayalalithaa’s demise was an incredible drama staged by the BJP, which openly put on display all its strength derived from the powers granted to the central government, including those believed to be autonomous institutions displaying strange coincidences. BJP which has no mass following or party strength in the state till date suddenly became powerful in TN in the last two years without even being in power.
The controlling caste of the BJP party, the brahmin caste, present in the other Indian national party, the Congress, too, and which promotes Indian nationalism as against state autonomy, has been watching for an opening for decades to gain power in TN since 1967. Something that is only possible clandestinely given the brahmin’s exclusionist ideals that promote the interests and prosperity of the brahmin savarna castes. Promotion of brahmin prosperity at the cost of the rest of the society was the very reason that the other Indian nationalist party, the Congress, lost its currency in Tamil Nadu.
In the death of Jayalalithaa, the BJP or rather the brahmin caste saw an opportunity to gain power in Tamil Nadu, not openly, but on the sly. The Congress, led by non-brahmins in the state, and disempowered in the union government due to bad performances across states, had stayed put with DMK and vice versa.
The percentage of brahmins in Tamil Nadu is three percent of the total population. Brahmins practice isolationism in society. Their presence in positions of power and opportunities and use of it to deprive others of their opportunities were the basis for anti-brahmin politics in Tamil Nadu since 1912, when the Justice party was founded. Justice Party later transformed into Dravidar Kazhagam from which emerged the DMK. The DMK came to power first in 1967 on the strength of anti-brahmin politics and since has been returning to power.
The AIADMK split from DMK in 1972 and both AIADMK and DMK had been ruling TN after AIADMK came to power as an alternative to DMK in 1977. Cut to Feb 9, 2017, and the demise of Jayalalithaa in December 2016 after gaining a comfortable majority was hardly something that the BJP was willing to pass by. While the stage was set for the post of CM, to be handed over to Jayalalithaa’s friend, confidant and her cohabitant, Sasikala, unknown otherwise in active poltics but who ran politics behind the scenes, in Feb 8, 2017 with necessary support from AIADMK MLAs to show majority, things stranger than fiction started to happen in TN with all fingers pointing at the machinations of the brahmin caste and their party, the BJP.
Sasikala, friend of Jayalalithaa since the beginning of the latter’s political career, had been an independent non-brahmin women in the company of Jayalalithaa who had otherwise declared herself a brahmin. Hence, cushioned under the false premise of dissolution of caste bias due to her living arrangements with Jayalalithaa, Sasikala did not anticipate what was to come from the brahmin caste quarters outside of her quarters with Jayalalithaa, which was hungry to run affairs in TN to their benefit.
On 29 December, 2016, Sasikala was elected as interim general secretary of AIADMK soon after Jayalalithaa’s demise. It was followed by her election as leader of legislative party on February 5, 2017. Tamil Nadu’s current Deputy CM, O Panneerselvam (OPS), was the Chief Minister from the day of Jayalalitha’s demise on 5 December, 2016, till he put in his papers on 5 February, 2017, on instruction from Sasikala who wished to take over.
The brahmin caste quite brazenly ruined it for Sasikala on the premise that she was a non-brahmin, an independent power centre who had no need to take instructions from a brahmin. Sasikala exhibited all signs of being free from any sort of pressures to compromise her own priorities in gaining power. Also Sasikala was backed by her own large web of family members who exercised control over the AIADMK party and its MLAs since they were her appointees whose candidature went through her to Jayalalithaa. She had her own loyalists within the AIADMK party and had identified effective functionaries capable of results for the party. Jayalalithaa trusted Sasikala’s choice.
Deliberate and inordinate delay by the Governor to meet Sasikala since 9 February, 2017, when she staked claim to form government and lead the government was the first inkling that something was going to be wrong. Sasikala had a list of 124 AIADMK MLAs supporting her as CM, in an Assembly with a total strength of 234. Reaching 118 is the number for majority in Tamil Nadu. The Governor refused to set foot in Tamil Nadu or take her calls until the Supreme Court verdict on the disproportionate assets corruption case pending against Jayalalithaa came on 14 February. BJP functionaries supported the Governor not meeting Sasikala citing the SC case in which she was A2 while it was not known when the SC would take up the case or what its verdict would be. Apparently, as if independent of SC happenings, locally it was followed by high handed intrigues conducted by BJP supporters with Sasikala-ousted-O Panneerselvam which lasted from 6 February 2017 to 14 February 2017, the day on which the Supreme Court suddenly hurried up and decided to award a long awaited verdict in the disproportionate assets corruption case in which late Jayalalithaa was the A1 accused. It sealed the ‘misfortune’ for Sasikala from assuming office as CM, just as BJP supporters had begun to claim, “we will never let Sasikala become CM.” The SC awarded a four year prison sentence to Sasikala.
Not surprisingly, Sasikala not assuming the CM’s post, was a cause for celebration by the brahmin caste not only in Tamil Nadu, but also by Savarna journalists across Indian media. A number of brahmin journalists from TN had started a campaign calling the 12 MLAs (out of 134 AIADMK MLAs) supported O Panneerselvam’s ouster from AIADMK as a “split of AIADMK.” On receiving the court verdict, Sasikala announced Edappadi Palanisamy(EPS), the CM candidate in her place and went to jail in Karnataka, following a much debated verdict in TN of the Supreme Court judgment in the Jayalalithaa disproportionate wealth corruption case. The debate was how a person not in government, which is Sasikala, can be awarded a lopsided and bigger punishment to that of Jayalalitha who according to the verdict was excused due to her demise though she was A1 accused and was described in the verdict as the prime reason for the corruption to take place. Interestingly the verdict never came when Jayalalithaa was alive or even in ICU. Sasikala’s choice of candidate for CM, Edappadi Palanisamy, became Tamil Nadu Chief Minister on 16 Feb, 2017. He proved his majority in the TN Assembly on 18 February.
The ousted OPS had no support from the AIADMK party of which Sasikala still remained the elected general secretary, though she went to jail. To non-brahmin onlookers, it appeared that the drama had died down with the BJP kept out. However it was not to be. The brahmin tirade against Sasikala carried on even up to Delhi where Tamil unknowing and Hindi speaking Delhi English channels began airing support for and ran sympathetic stories for the ousted OPS, from 6 February onwards when he was appointed as caretaker CM after he resigned as CM on instructions from Sasikala. NDTV even played a cartoon caricature of a gentle and benevolent Jayalalithaa’s spirit guiding Paneerselvam into the party headquarters and kicking out “greedy” Sasikala for taking charge of the AIADMK, the cartoon being a total misrepresentation of incidents in Tamil Nadu.
Sasikala had sidelined Panneerselvam on charges of being disloyal to her. Since Jayalalithaa’s demise, Panneerselvam was the Chief Minister with Sasikala’s consent and subsequently, Sasikala, in an expected move, had taken control first of AIADMK party in December end. On gaining suspicion over Panneerselvam, Sasikala removed Panneerselvam from the party and made him resign as CM in a swift move on 6 feb, 2017, wanting to make herself the CM. The party MLAs were kept as a captive bunch in a resort outside of Chennai to prevent their being poached until Sasikala staked claim to be the CM.
Cut to the chase, BJP which gains power across states by capturing MLAs of other parties and not through campaigning its party ideals among the people, captured the thrown out Panneerselvam on 6 February itself. It couldn’t reach those in the resort. Panneerselvam was since commissioned into RSS S Gurumoorthi’s designs for the AIADMK and through it the BJP’s and brahmin designs in TN. Gurumoorthy himself admitted later speaking at the brahmin magazine Thuglak annual function in Chennai, in a speech filled with misogyny and non-brahmin hatred, that it was he (Gurumoorthy) who had asked Panneerselvam: “Aren’t you a man? How could you fall at that women’s (Sasikala’s) feet?” The audience included Panneerselvam himself who sat silently as always. Gurumoorthy’s was a lopsided quip, as Panneerselvam for years had been falling at another woman, Jayalalithaa’s feet at every occasion before he fell at Sasikala’s. Not just Panneerselvam, every other MLA /Minister of the AIADMK was prepared to replicate the public display of reverence shown to Jayalalitha to Sasikala. The BJP later advised induction of Panneerselvam into AIADMK of which Sasikala was still the general secretary and was led by Palanisamy who had fallen at Sasikala’s feet.
The drama in AIADMK did not end with Palanisamy becoming CM. With the BJP’s backing, Panneerselvam even claimed to the media initially that the spirit of Jayalalithaa had spoken to him and also raised suspicion over Jayalalithaa’s death. As events unfolded, on 22 March, the election commission froze the AIADMK symbol citing a technical detail as the Panneerselvam group laid claim to it when the by-election to the seat vacated by Jayalalitha was to be held. To non-brahmin onlookers it appeared to be an elaborate script by the BJP to bring OPS into the AIADMK and the party name and symbol frozen by Election Commission was a blackmail of the EPS led party to give in to demands to let BJP backed OPS in. The farce played out through April 2017 up to August 21 2017 until OPS returned to AIADMK. The two ‘factions’ were announced merged with OPS, leading 12 mlas, being made Deputy CM and also announced as coordinator of the AIADMK party with EPS being reduced into joint coordinator in the AIADMK in negotiations held back door in BJP’s board room amidst a slew of unceasing IT raids over various AIADMK minister’s premises for months. Subsequently, Sasikala was thrown out of party on Sept 12, 2017 and Dinakaran, Sasikala’s nephew who was appointed as Deputy General Secretary on 15 Feb, 2017, to take charge of the party in her absence, was expelled. Post these expulsions and merger, the EC decided to allot the frozen two leaves symbol of AIADMK to EPS-OPS combine on 23 November.
While OPS signed many legislations depriving TN people of their education and employment rights by allowing NEET, an all India entrance exam for medical education, GST, a centralized taxation scheme and Uday electricity policy to nationalize state electricity production, all of which were opposed by Jayalalithaa, and even brought a government order to encourage people from outside Tamil Nadu to gain employment in the TN public service without knowledge of Tamil. The four years of the collective governance with BJP as a shadow presence and EPS as a formal representative, revolved around a spate of Income Tax raids and administrative decisions that eroded state autonomy completely and presented a very deteriorated administration in which the CM, Palanisamy, remarked that he never knew about the killing of protesting people seeking closure of Sterlite Tuticorin smelter copper plant in 2018 and realized it only after watching television news. Going against even what Jayalalithaa had stood for, looks like a minor and irrelevant offence by the present standards of the party and the state of governance given by the AIADMK leadership to Tamil Nadu.
From supporting EWS quota to CAA, the AIADMK in Parliament was a reason for gloom not only for those from TN, but also for social justice for the rest of states as the AIADMK supported or conveniently abstained for the BJP in all this. The AIADMK did everything that the BJP commanded. The AIADMK leaders had quietly replaced Jayalalithaa and Sasikala with BJP itself, much to the satisfaction of the BJP.
As the Assembly 2021 election campaign approached, bringing an end to the last five year mandate of the AIADMK, BJP wanted to break the AIADMK, hand over AIADMK symbol and party to OPS, who they believe is their complete loyalist incapable of dissent. And forge a BJP-AIADMK alliance with OPS, include a curbed Sasikala who had completed her prison sentence and returned to Chennai, exclude present CM Palanisamy who had shown rare streaks of resistance to BJP’s inconvenient designs for him in view of his own political future and interests. And face the election hoping the AIADMK vote bank will swing towards Jayalaithaa-less AIADMK because of the symbol, and that they get to run AIADMK and TN for another five years in order to destroy both completely by 2026. As BJP set forth its plans all of which did not fructify, the least it managed was to wrench a 20 seat alliance with AIADMK and set forth a competition between Palanisamy and Panneerselvam on showing loyalty to BJP. Hence Palanisamy turned against Sasikala while Panneerselvam grew softer towards Sasikala, with the trio itself operating to the tunes of BJP.
After May, the BJP is expected to settle for converting or capturing AIADMK as it did other political parties in other states into itself. What BJP does to AIADMK from here on, as it has another three year mandate in New Delhi running the union government, will be another story to tell in some time.
Radhika Sudhakar is a journalist from Chennai. She had worked with mainstream publications; presently makes contributions for certain publications, on and off, in Chennai.