For long two political stalwarts on the opposite sides of the political spectrum in Tamil Nadu— J Jayalalithaa and M K Karunanidhi – had ruled the state with an iron hand laced with unprecedented charisma and grass-root support. Their deaths in 2016 and 2018 respectively had resulted in coinage of a new term in the political lexicon namely ‘vacuum’.
There has since been a debate on whether the vacuum is filled or otherwise. Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami is the biggest casualty of this debate as his supporters in the AIADMK suspect that BJP is trying to evaluate his performance in the backdrop of this “artificially” created criteria.
The chorus over ‘vacuum’ has reached a crescendo in the past few days and BJP is cleverly using the term ‘on the one hand’ to hit out at its rivals such as DMK, belittle its own alliance partner AIADMK and on the other hand to prop up Superstar Rajnikant as the only possible option who could fill in the big shoes left behind by the deceased stalwarts.
It’s been an uphill task for the AIADMK leaders to steady the ship after the death of Jayalalithaa as she was a tall leader without a parallel and no leader was anywhere near her stature, charisma, political acumen or mass following.
She had never groomed, designated or even indicated anyone as her successor. It was left to the party men and women to slug it out and discover a new leader among themselves. The AIADMK leaders had to tackle two forces— one represented by N Sasikala, who wielded extra constitutional authority within the party and second BJP who in is eagerness to get a foothold in the state politics played the role of a mediator who was neither honest nor impartial.
Soon after Jayalalithaa’s death, Sasikala tried to capture the party. The disproportionate income case whose verdict was pending for a while came handy. The timing of the judgement proved to be disastrous for Sasikala as she had to go to jail on being convicted cutting short her ambitions.
The fortunes seem to smile briefly in favour of O Panneerselvam who was twice caretaker chief minister when Jayalalithaa was alive and therefore seen as a natural choice who would keep the seat warm till Sasikala returned from her sentence. He was therefore automatically elected as chief minister. But he failed to emerge as a leader as Sasikala tried to bring the party under her control through her nephew TTV Dhinakaran.
It was Sasikala and TTV Dhinakaran who handpicked Edappadi K Palaniswami as next chief minister in place of Paneerselvam. But when Sasikala was sentenced, EPS started sidelining Dhinakaran. It lead to division of the party into two — Dhinakaran floated Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam (AMMK) and contested in the RK Nagar Parliamentary by-election successfully.
The rousing reception Dhinakaran received after the electoral success led many to believe that he would emerge as next big leader to run the state. But the limelight Dhinakaran received ended shortly. After the debacle in the Lok Sabha and Assembly bypolls, many senior leaders like Senthil Balaji, Thanga Tamil Selvan, Pugazhendhi who left AIADMK and stood behind Dhinakaran, deserted him and shifted their loyalties to DMK and AIADMK.
But the theme of vacuum in politics surfaced in DMK too after the death of Karunanidhi though he had groomed Stalin as his successor for a while. By winning 38 out of 39 Lok Sabha seats and winning 13 out of 22 seats in the Assembly bypolls, under Stalin’s leadership DMK tried to position him as next big leader. However, DMK somewhere along the way seem to have lost steam by doing badly in just concluded Nanguneri and Vikkiravandi assembly bypolls.
Winning of Nanguneri and Vikkiravandi bypolls came as a shot in the arms for AIADMK. In a meeting held in Vikkiravandi, EPS declared triumphantly that there was no leadership vacuum in Tamil Nadu politics. His comment came as a retort to Superstar Rajinikanth who said that there was a vacuum in the state leadership.
Carrying forward Rajinikanth’s comment, the former BJP minister Pon Radhakrishnan too said that there were no contemporary leaders in the state politics who could equate themselves with Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa. This was a tactical ploy to suggest that it was only Rajnikant who could fit the bill. BJP has been quietly nursing a hope that ultimately Rajnikant would come around and support the saffron party in the state.
When asked to comment on this, Semmalai, senior AIADMK leader told The Federal that both Rajinikanth’s and Pon Radhakrishnan’s comments were surprising.
“On what basis would they determine leadership qualities? Or how would they evaluate charisma? Are they trying to project themselves as charismatic leaders or are they trying to undermine the leadership qualities of the present chief minister? Clearly there is a motive behind such comments,” he said.
He also added that comparing one’s leadership qualities with the other is wrong. “Both MGR and Jayalalithaa had a different kind of leadership qualities. It is wrong to expect both their leadership should be same. Likewise, comparing the leadership qualities of EPS with others is meaningless. He learnt his leadership qualities by observing MGR and Jaya’s leadership as like Eklavya learnt his archery skills observing Dronacharya. It is surprising that Pon Radhakrishnan is accepting Rajinikanth’s comment, though he has longer experience in politics than Rajini” he said.
In order to bring Rajini under their fold, there are possibilities that Pon Radhakrishnan could have reflected the former’s view, said Semmalai. “As for as AIADMK is concerned, there is no lack of leadership in the party” he claimed.
KT Raghavan, one of the state secretaries of TN BJP trying to explain the controversy said that his party leaders were only trying to describe lack of charismatic leadership as ‘political vacuum’.
“It is our opinion, saying there is no charismatic leadership in the state after Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa, who had more than 40 years of control over the state. EPS may voice his opinion saying that there is no political vacuum in the state. It is not about EPS or OPS or Stalin or even BJP. We are speaking about ground reality. Fact is different from alliance” he said. BJP and AIADMK have been in alliance in the parliamentary elections.