At 50, can AIADMK reinvent itself?

The AIADMK’s staying power is not in question, but it has to regain the winning streak.
That will require its leaders and leadership to re-wire themselves, to be able to re-think situations in ways different from what they had been accustomed to, suggests N Sathiya Moorthy.

Theories abound as to why actor-politician, the late M G Ramachandran, popularly known by his initials as MGR and fondly remembered by the honorific Puratchchi Thalaivar, or ‘Revolutionary Leader’, broke away from the parent Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and founded the Anna DMK, named after the parent-founder, C N Annadurai.

Yet, there is no other instance in political history where two sides of the same electoral coin have shone for over 50 long years, in which the sum of the divided parts has gone on to become more, not less, than the parts, dulling the anticipated brilliance of usurpers and challengers alike.

Come October 16, and the ‘MGR party’ completes 50 long years, after breaking away from the then ruling DMK.

As DMK treasurer, MGR demanding organisational accounts from then party president and then Tamil Nadu chief minister Muthuvel Karunanidhi was only the proverbial tip of the iceberg — or, the last straw.

More palatable reasons include Karunanidhi wanting to cut MGR to size by denying him a sought-for ministerial position after using him to win the post-Annadurai show of strength within the party, and fielding his first-born Mu Ka Muthu, now 73, to ape and try upstage MGR on the silver screen, to disastrous consequences in every which way.

Yet, political theorists now haltingly concede that the DMK split actually helped the larger Dravidian movement electorally, as the young and vibrant AIADMK left no political space for the erstwhile ruling Congress rival to operate effectively.

The Congress space shrunk further with MGR’s first major electoral outing in 1977. Analysis shows that a substantial share of Congress votes, especially of those that hated the DMK’s anti-god ideological posturing inherited from ‘Periyar’ E V Ramaswamy Naicker’s Dravida Kazagham parent and also the ‘corruption and lawlessness’ of the Karunanidhi government, went the MGR way following the death of Congress stalwart K Kamaraj, never to return.

MGR hyping the DMK corruption while in power was both a cause and effect of this voter transition, which Kamaraj had sought to dismiss by declaring that the two Dravidian parties belonged to the same (corrupt) stock (orey kuttaiyil ooriya mattaikal).

Successive elections have shown how a high share of the god and religion-based, 2-3 per cent Brahminical vote-bank of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party at the Centre has merged in the traditional AIADMK vote in the state.

This also explains why the AIADMK had to prefer the BJP as a national ally when MGR’s screen queen Jayalalithaa ended up succeeding him as party boss and the saffron party had come on the top of the Congress rival at the national level, since the nineties.

This also explains the greater transferability of BJP votes to the AIADMK than to the DMK (1999, 2001), as allies.

Otherwise, the MGR charisma sending out Karunanidhi and the DMK to 14-year-long vanvas (1975-1989, including stints of President’s rule) and the AIADMK cadres preferring a relatively experienced Jaya to MGR’s widow Janaki Ramachandran on his death in end-1987, when the leader remained chief minister and party boss with a non-functional right hand and slurred voice, are all part of the Dravidian political folk lore of the previous century.

So are Jayalalithaa’s ultimate succession, outshining Karunanidhi in her own added ways, yet not living up to the image of the MGR socio-political legacy.

If there was no political space for the Congress rival post-MGR, and for the BJP since, it owes to the non-negotiated tactical understanding between Karunanidhi on the one hand, and the MGR-Jaya duo on the other in their respective times, which pushed the obvious alternative into a corner from which it/they could not come out at will.

The over-ambitious desire of the Congress/BJP to corner all 39 Lok Sabha seats from the state, where the ‘winner takes all’ dictum supposedly worked, did them in then. It does do them in, since.

The deaths of Jayalalithaa (December 2016) when chief minister and Karunanidhi (March 2018) after he had ensured a smooth transition to politician-son M K Stalin ensured a level-playing field for the two Dravidian majors even without the domineering presence of charismatic stalwarts.

To Jayalalithaa’s ultimate successor, Edappadi K Palaniswami (EPS), should go the credit of upping his political and electoral stock in the short period he was AIADMK chief minister and de facto party boss, to be compared with the more experienced DMK rival Stalin with his vast and varied exposure.

EPS’s continued competitor and immediate predecessor O Panneerselvam (OPS), who was chief minister in three short stints over a 15-year period, possibly proved to be a better administrator at the height of the 2016 Vardah cyclone in Chennai.

In comparison, OPS might not have been a politico-electoral match for Stalin compared to successor EPS.

But it is also EPS’s bluster even before he had reached Jayalalithaa’s heights, to be accepted as such by party cadres and the voters alike, that caused the AIADMK its twin electoral defeats, post-mentor.

The cadre-conviction that the AIADMK’s huge defeat in the Lok Sabha poll of 2019 and a respectable loss in the assembly election in April 2021 owed mostly to the inability of the EPS-OPS to stand up to the ‘communal’ BJP ally at the Centre is only partially true. The vote and seat-shares in the two polls prove the point.

However, in political terms, the EPS camp too does not seem to have learnt its lessons in humility and cleaner politics, which are the requirements of 21st century Tamil Nadu — at least in the post-Jaya, post-Karunanidhi era.

On the eve of the low-profile, de-motivating celebrations for the AIADMK’s golden jubilee, the party was swept away in the nine-district rural civic bodies polls to panchayats and panchayat unions.

Already, some media analysts have written off the party, arguing that the AIADMK’s BJP and PMK allies, among others, would further cut into its traditional vote bank, even more, in the coming months and years.

They forget that the two allies and outsiders like the pan-Tamil Naam Tamizhar Katchi have fared worse, and there is greater chance of cadre/voter migration to the DMK and also to the AIADMK, to a greater or lesser extent.

It is true that the AIADMK is yet to adjust to the Stalin style of governmental functioning and organisational behaviour in the ruling DMK. There is a greater expectation from the government more than ever.

Even months after becoming chief minister in May, Stalin still carries the people with him, and they are convinced that here is a ‘Dravidian leader’ who is trying to do things differently, and differences that required government’s time and their own patience.

Stalin’s appointment of an Economic Advisory Committee of experts was well received by the industry and others alike. So did his choice of talented, educated men for key economic and community-centric ministerial portfolios.

P T R Palanivel Thiagarajan for finance, Thangam Thennarasu for industries and Anbil Mahesh Poyyamozhi for school education are only three among many.

Seeking to give a go-by to the Karunanidhi era imagery of lawlessness attaching to the DMK rule, the chief minister has looked the other way as the law took its course whenever party men were involved in heinous crimes. The list includes two DMK members of the Lok Sabha. It remains to be seen how he acts/reacts as party chief if the courts found any or all of them were guilty.

In the public eye, it is a break from the EPS past, when the ruling party and the government sought to cover up instances of large-scale corruption even after high court directions, women-related crimes, involving party men and even senior police officials, giving the impression that the entire establishment had been corrupted in every which way.

As chief minister, EPS failed on this score, not realising the power of the social media, in exposing the corrupt and mighty, when caught in the act.

It remains to be seen if Stalin is able to sustain the momentum of his campaign, or if it would pay off electorally. Before him, father Karunanidhi lost the 2001 assembly polls after giving a relatively clean government for five years from 1996, as his new ways only displeased and discouraged DMK cadres.

Else, the AIADMK would be found asking how to tackle the new Stalin factor, which may still not be close to the MGR-Jaya charisma or Karunanidhi’s dominating/domineering presence, both in the party and government.

Yet, the results of the nine-district panchayat polls is nothing for the AIADMK to really worry about. Yes, it will impact on the cadre-strength and motivation as the party may not have elected representatives at the grass-roots level, whom the local people could approach for resolving civic issues on a day-to-day basis.

But then, in the Tamil Nadu of the past three decades or so, the ruling party alliance has always swept both legislative by-elections and also local bodies polls, whenever held. Corrupt practices of the ruling party at all levels are a factor, but that is not the only one.

The AIADMK did substantially well in the first phase of panchayat polls, covering a higher number of 29 districts, when the party was in power. Now, elections to the long-delayed urban local bodies, comprising city corporations and town municipal councils, are due. The DMK had swept the assembly polls in this segment.

Thus, giving the ruling party a fitting fight should be the rival’s goal, and not possibly winning. Whatever seats the AIADMK wins should be considered a bonus, at this stage.

Today, the AIADMK leadership’s greater worry centres on Jaya’s confidante Sasikala Natarajan’s threatened re-entry into active politics.

Sasikala had no sympathies otherwise in the party and outside, yes, as she was seen as the evil power’ behind Jaya’s throne. Yet, her serving a four-year jail-term, purportedly in Jaya’s stead in the wealth case’ where the latter was A-1, has warmed a few hearts, especially inside the AIADMK.

But those numbers are not enough for a hurt Sasikala to try and oust either EPS, or OPS, and more so, both, from their positions within the party. She is hurt because EPS especially stabbed her in the back after she had identified him as chief minister to succeed OPS, who was following a line independent of her in the weeks and months immediately after Jaya’s death.

But Sasikala’s immediate reason for a political entry owes to periodic raids and follow-ups by the BJP Centre and political attacks by the EPS faction. Today, she requires the party more than the other way round.

Sasikala is scheduled to visit the Jayalalithaa memorial in Chennai, recalling memories of her wordless, fisty and fiery vow before going to the Bengaluru prison at the same venue. It was believed to be a vow to teach EPS a lesson on return, and also put the BJP, then ruling the Centre as now, in its place in Tamil Nadu politics.

The latter, the TN voter has taken care of — or, so it seems. The former is becoming increasing hard for Sasikala to achieve, as the AIADMK legislative party especially is weighed in EPS’s favour.

At the organisational-level, too, EPS is not a throwaway as some supporters of OPS would make out. Much as OPS may — or, may not — want to play a ‘South versus West’ organisational war, any attempt to rope in Sasikala would have consequences that go beyond their common Mukkulathore caste identities, and beyond the AIADMK as a party.

This, and not any fear of losing vote-base to the BJP or PMK, should be of concern the AIADMK as it celebrates the golden jubilee.

Unlike often floated in the social media especially, the AIADMK’s staying power is not in question, but it has to regain the winning streak. That will require itsleaders and leadership to re-wire themselves, to be able to re-think situations in ways different from what they had been accustomed to.

That will be a larger task than tackling Sasikala — admitting her or opposing her. But then, the AIADMK has no clue as to what is wrong with the present, and what needs doing — and how.

To that limited extent, the AIADMK is at the cross-roads. Yet, for the larger part, it crossed the cross-road long ago, after MGR founded the party and won the first Lok Sabha by-election from Dindigul, as early as 1973.

That was when K Maya Thevar pushed the ruling DMK rival to the third place, with the common Congress rival at second in the southern Dravidian citadel!

N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist, political analyst and author, is Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation.

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