There’s one question that right now plagues many minds in Tamil Nadu. Will O. Panneerselvam be the chief minister for the next four years? When he was handpicked by J. Jayalalitha to be CM in 2001 and 2014, everyone had a fair idea that he was more of a Dravidian version of Gulzarilal Nanda. He wouldn’t even sit in the chair meant for the CM in the state secretariat. He himself said it was meant for Jayalalitha and he was only standing in for her. Now that she is gone, will he be able to sit comfortably (and for how long)? Subaguna Rajan, Tamil writer and a keen political observer, brushes aside the argument that caste had a role in Panneerselvam’s ascension. “He became the CM only because he was Jayalalitha’s choice twice earlier.” Citing the talk about a possible rift between Sasikala and Panneerselvam, Rajan says that the pro-Thevar lobby is not as cohesive as it is made out to be.
He may have a point there. Sasikala is a Kallar from Thanjavur, while Panneerselvam is a Maravar from the south. Southern Thevars may understandably resent the idea of a Thanjavur Kallar taking over as the party’s general secretary, says Rajan. “You never know what happened when Venkaiah Naidu flew in before she was announced dead. We cannot also gloss over how Rahul Gandhi was seen hobnobbing with Natarajan (Sasikala’s estranged husband) at the funeral. Modi was seen talking to Panneerselvam more than twice. There’s more than what meets the eye. It’s not just caste dynamics. Not even regional dynamics,” he says. Rumours are already afloat about how the BJP might use this opening to make a decisive, if tangential play for political space in Tamil Nadu. The Congress too might try to capitalise on the political void created by Jayalalitha. “Much remains to be seen about how the DMK will use this. They have not even started strategising. And Vanniyars, the single largest community, are lying low now,” says Rajan. The Gounders too are watching quietly.
Sasikala too has a tough task ahead of her. She has to handle the disproportionate assets case on her own now. She has also to begin working on finding larger political acceptance—not just among cadres but among the masses as well. Stories of her ‘letting down Jayalalitha’ during the hospital days have been emerging even in the mainstream media. But if she handles things well, Sasikala might have a stronger grip over the party. As Dalit scholar Stalin Rajangam points out, she should be accommodative of other communities to emerge as a leader “like Jayalalitha, who enjoyed support across caste lines”. The mutual balance of power between Sasikala and Paneerselvam anyway plays out against larger caste rivalries. As for the latter, a long-term associate says, he would sidestep a real battle. “He is wary of confrontationist politics” he says.