Next poll stop in Tamil Nadu

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Next poll stop in Tamil Nadu

Wednesday, 28 October 2020 | Kalyani Shankar

One thing is for sure, the Sasikala and Rajinikanth factors will certainly play out in the 2021 elections in the State

The ruling AIADMK in Tamil Nadu (TN) is quietly preparing to face the Assembly elections scheduled for early next year.  With just a few months left for the polls, the party is sorting out its internal problems by declaring the incumbent Chief Minister E Palaniswami (EPS) as its chief ministerial candidate and sidelining the other claimant and Deputy Chief Minister O Panneerselvam (OPS). Significantly, the 2021 polls will be the first without the two icons, M Karunanidhi and J Jayalalithaa, and will be a litmus test for the AIADMK and DMK leadership. In fact, none of the two parties has a charismatic leadership and more importantly, no party has ever had a hat-trick so far.

Though the fight is between the two major Dravidian parties, there are two X factors. The first is Sasikala Natarajan, companion and confidante of Jayalalithaa for years. Sentenced to four years in jail in a disproportionate assets case, she will come out of prison in February 2021. She has enough money and political skills to either take over the AIADMK or join hands with her nephew TTV Dinakaran. He has floated an outfit (Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam) of which Sasikala is the chief. So far Sasikala has kept her cards close to her chest. Chinnamma, as she is affectionately called by her followers, Sasikala has many loyalists within the AIADMK, too, as she was a major force during Amma’s time.

Sasikala’s re-entry in the Tamil political scene at this time might ruffle many feathers. The only consolation is that as per law she cannot contest elections for the next six years. The party backed Sasikala soon after the demise of Jayalalithaa but after her sentencing, it united under EPS. The Chief Minister believes that his Government has managed to deliver on several fronts, including the management of the Coronavirus crisis, and he has strengthened himself within the party and the Government. Second, it is not clear whether Chinnamma will continue to have the same clout in the influential Thevar community, whom she empowered earlier. Third, Sasikala could also break the AIADMK and draw the disgruntled elements in the party to her side.

Fourth, the party faces several other challenges, including anti-incumbency, internal instability, the absence of a charismatic leader, and the onslaught of the DMK, which has been painting the EPS Government as weak and a pawn in the hands of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This is not surprising as the BJP has so far controlled the AIADMK Government from Delhi as EPS has a good equation with the Centre. The BJP has also worked to keep the party united in the State. It has no interest in dealing with Sasikala or her nephew and the sudden raid on Sasikala’s property in Poes Garden last month reveals the party’s strategy. Sasikala plans to move into the palatial mansion which she is currently constructing opposite Jayalalithaa’s house in Poes Garden. As many as 64 of her properties have been attached, too.

The second unknown factor is the Tamil superstar Rajinikanth. Though he is depending on his fan clubs, it is not known whether he has the skills to organise and run his proposed party. Though wooed equally by the Congress and the BJP, it was only in 2017 that Rajinikanth announced his intention to launch a political party, ending two decades of suspense. In March he announced that his proposed party would contest all 234 seats in the Assembly elections. Rajinikanth is now focussed on strengthening Rajini Makkal Mandrams (a political variant of his fan clubs).

He also stated that issues such as power-sharing in case of an alliance with fellow superstar Kamal Haasan, who had floated his Makkal Needhi Maiam (MNM) last year, would be discussed only ahead of the polls. Together, the two superstars would certainly draw a huge crowd but their vote-catching capacity is as yet unknown. Rajinikanth has been out of touch with the masses due to the contagion while Kamal’s party got just two per cent votes in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls and failed to win any seat. Rajinikanth wants to fill the huge political vacuum left by Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi. “This is the opportune time to create a movement (to oust the Dravidian behemoths). If not now, it will be never,” he commented some time ago. The superstar once declared that he would not project himself as the chief ministerial candidate and would prefer to nominate someone young for the job in 2021. This clearly shows that he wants to be a puppeteer. However, many of Rajinikanth’s fans believe in his famous dialogue from the blockbuster movie Muththu, “Nobody knows when I will come, how I will come, but I will be there when the time comes.”

The political momentum and regrouping of parties will pick up in the next few weeks. As of now, it will be a huge challenge for Rajinikanth to fight the cadre-based Dravidian parties.  He might have an alliance with the BJP given his Right-wing sympathies. The forthcoming polls in TN will show whether the arithmetic or the chemistry of the players wins. One thing is for sure, the Sasikala and Rajinikanth factors will play out certainly.     

(The writer is a senior journalist)

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