There is something about Tamil Nadu that has become a site for thought experiments, for providing an infinite variety of interpretations of the same event. Here the comic, the sinister and the cruel combine with the everyday, providing a lightness of being to issues which smell of scandal. In a way, it started with Jallikattu, which contemporary Tamil Nadu reinvented for itself as a rite of passage for manhood, a symbol, a token of its defiance of Delhi, a quiet reminder that the law often fails to understand the forces shaping an event.
If Jallikattu was one kind of drama, the ongoing battle for succession between O Pannerselvam and Sasikala is another kind of fable. It lacks the lightness of the Jallikattu episode and appears sordid and Byzantine. It shows, firstly, that the sordidness of succession battles are required to deify an ancestor. Jayalalithaa, as Amma, appears a rosy, maternal figure after Sasikala enters the stage. Secondly, it shows that the backstage of an event follows a different logic. Jayalalithaa was corrupt but she literally used her corrupt style to create a potlatch of gift giving that she called her electoral welfare state. When the reader discovers the scale of property she left behind, one almost brushes it aside, feeling she gave a little bit to everyone. It did not matter if it was an unequal exchange, toasters-mixies for the citizen and acres of real estate for Sasikala. Corruption with its folklore becomes a part of storytelling rather than reform.
Good cop, bad cop
Jayalalithaa looks prim and Victorian next to Sasikala. The latter comes across as a mafia don who has forcibly taken over Tamil politics. The sordidness increases as one meets the possibility that the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam might be propping candidates against Sasikala. Sasikala, from a back-room prompter, becomes an unadorned Jayalaithaa, a version of the former chief minister without the costume ball of film or the aura of MG Ramachandran, the founder of All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. One ponders at the level of seduction in a corrupt society. Jayalalithaa suddenly looks different – almost a victim of her “family”. The plot deepens in a Mughal way as senior politicians, long unemployed, demand an enquiry into her death, claiming that it is an untold story.
The Jayalalithaa-Sasikala double is fascinating, projecting almost the banality of evil. It is a rapacious pair where Jayalalithaa plays good cop to Sasikala’s bad cop. The act works beautifully, not only sanctifying Jayalalithaa but presenting Sasikala as the tough, loyal, no-holds-barred successor that Chennai needs. Sasikala provides the touch of the sordid that adds realism to power. One cannot split the double because the minute one does so, one creates a reading which is almost middle class in its biases. Jayalalithaa becomes angelic because she suddenly appears materially middle class and Sasikala appears like something out of the woodworks, like something demanding a once-over. Yet what is surreal is that most of the people feel she can inherit the chief ministership. I am not talking about property, something that Sasikala must already have. I am talking about power, where the idea of inheriting a chief ministership seems almost Byzantine.
Power as inheritance
The idea of power as an inheritance becomes almost surreal. One is reminded of Russia in the 1920s, and Joseph Stalin taking over from Vladimir Lenin. Jayalalithaa looked immobilised, helpless, already a photograph to be worshipped and hung in offices before she died. The new pictures say it all. They present a larger-than-life Jayalalithaa looming over Sasikala. She is like a Bharata carrying Rama’s shoes, ruling in his name. Yet if one stirs the picture, Jayalalithaa appears like a ventriloquist’s dummy, Sasikala the real power. It is a take-over of a Byzantine kind. She now has the money, the organisation to fight any battle for power. It is an almost Stalinesque takeover of the erstwhile Soviet Russia, after Lenin’s death. OPS looks like an effete Trotsky who cannot produce the right magic. Even backed by the DMK, he lacks the sense of power, the gravitas that power needs. He is the clown who plays his role and moves on, ever substitutable because he lives a farce, a stepney to be forgotten when the car moves again.
Electoral politics becomes a farce. Democracy becomes empty. The political struggles that Dravidar leaders such as Periyar EV Ramasamy, CN Annadurai and MGR fought become a parody as Sasikala takes over. It is naïve to say that Jayalalithaa appeals to middle class aesthetics and Sasikala does not. It is not a question of ethics, but a sense of evil, of a takeover of a major party from inside by a woman who understands power but little of the creative possibilities of power. It looks like a sordid farce as groups battle over the loyalty stakes. If Jallikattu talked of a new politics, the Sasikala drama emphasises that evil has an inventive power we need to understand. These are bad days for a great state. To brush away such an event by saying she is just another joker in the pack adds little to understanding. There is a sinisterness of power and a sordidness of corruption we fail to face when we see in Sasikala’s succession another event in the everydayness of politics, which our middle class sensibilities cannot confront.