Chennai: With little clarity on the malaise afflicting its supremo and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa or any specific progress reports of her recovery, the AIADMK, as a party, is finding itself on the edge.
Even as the Centre, BJP and Congress are monitoring the situation closely, a visible sense of uneasiness is growing among the AIADMK rank and file in the state. Rigidly a personality-centric party, the AIADMK has no second-rung leadership which can hold the party together, be it in Parliament, the state assembly or at the organisational level.
So with Jayalalithaa in the infirmary for almost two weeks, who exactly is running the show in Tamil Nadu and the party?
“We don’t answer such questions,” said AIADMK spokesperson V Maitreyan. “She is better and will be discharged after a few more days,” added Maitreyan.
People close to the CM say that the party in her absence is being run by her confidante Sasikala Natrajan. “The AIADMK has no formal hierarchy in organisational structure. In her absence the party is run de facto by Sasikala and her loyalists. The party was being run when she was in prison and so it will be managed the same way now,” says political observer Gnani Sankaran.
But there is a stark difference between a Jayalalithaa in control of the party from jail and the Jayalalithaa behind a curtain of medical ambiguity incommunicado with her party brass. Reports suggest that even the acting TN governor Vidyasagar Rao wasn’t allowed to meet her in hospital and had to contend with meeting her doctors instead. Sources revealed that the chairman of Apollo Hospitals, Dr Prathap Reddy, was personally involved in the treatment of Jayalalithaa’s “infection”.
Meanwhile, there is a growing distrust of Sasikala in the party, with even leaders of her own Thevar community bearing a dislike towards her. In Jayalalithaa’s absence and with the local body polls scheduled on October 17 and 19, the cadre has been left without the leader on whom the party’s existence rests.
The AIADMK, like its rival the DMK, has an organisational structure. But unlike the DMK, the AIADMK leaders do not harbor an opinion different from their leader. The other prominent faces of the party are former CM Paneerselvam and the party’s leader in Lok Sabha and the lower house’s deputy speaker, N Thambidurai. Paneerselvam has twice served as acting chief minister in Jayalalithaa’s absence – in 2001 and in 2014. In his second stint lasting over six months, Pannerselvam refused to shave or eat meat till Jayalalithaa was released from jail. Party observers revealed that both of them have little authority over Sasikala and her loyalists.
This lack of clarity on where AIADMK stands minus Jayalalithaa is what has made the Centre anxious and the BJP and Congress curious. The Centre is worried about the impact on law and order in the absence of credible information on Jayalalithaa’s actual health parameters. Reports from across the state suggest that AIADMK cadre are running out of patience with the customary “responding well to treatment” bulletins being issued by the hospital. AIADMK cadre on the streets want to know just exactly what treatment is their leader responding to. The Centre fears that with little news on their leader’s health, AIADMK cadre may let their emotions get the better of them.
The BJP is curious because apart from being PM Modi’s ‘friend’, the BJP’s top brass has earmarked TN among six other states (including the North-East), where the party wants to increase its vote share in the 2019 parliamentary elections. The Congress, the only non-Dravidian party to rule TN over four decades ago, is sensing an opportunity to revive its dormant fortunes in the state. With Sasikala now calling the shots in the AIADMK, the two national parties are playing a wait and watch game.
BJP leader Subramanian Swamy said, “There is no semblance of anyone capable of filling her shoes in the party. Her special friend Sasikala is not acceptable to other AIADMK leaders. In the absence of Jayalalithaa, I expect the AIADMK to break into pieces.”