By Rakesh Choudhary
The death of J Jayalalithaa on December 5 brought an end to an era which is comparable only to that of M G Ramachandran, her political mentor. Now that the emotional reaction to her demise is gradually subsiding, it is time we consider the implications of the void created by her death in Tamil Nadu politics.
Changing dynamics in Tamil politics
Traditionally, Tamil politics has been dominated by regional parties. The DMK and AIADMK are the largest parties and power often alternates between them, creating a bipolar conflict at the state level. National parties, such as the Congress and BJP, have only been marginal players.
Under present political uncertainty, while DMK and BJP will fancy their chances, the AIADMK will have to survive an internal power tussle between its leaders to remain politically relevant. Tainted by corruption allegations during the UPA regime, the DMK witnessed a dramatic fall in its graph of electoral politics. However, with their strongest adversary now gone, they will be hoping for a revival.
On the other hand, after losing Karnataka to the Congress in the last assembly elections, the BJP once again drew a blank in the southern states. Increasing its foothold in the south has always been high on the BJP’s agenda.
The political vacuum created by Amma’s demise will give them an opportunity to create their own cult-based politics in the Dravidian state. However, the BJP will have to revise its federal strategy since contentious issues like the GST and demonetization have already strained Centre-State relations.
In pursuit of charting independent political aspirations in the state, the BJP will not want its relationship with an important state government to deteriorate because this will only isolate it further amongst the non-BJP ruled states.
Impact of personality cults in Indian politics
As with all parties based on the personality of a singular leader, the death of Amma has created an identity crisis for the AIADMK. Multiple claims have already emerged for the leadership role and a bipolar power tussle seems to be brewing between Shasikala Natarajan and the new CM, O Panneerselvam.
The party may face an existential crisis similar to what the Congress faced after the tragic death of Rajiv Gandhi.
BJP leader and veteran in Tamil Nadu politics, Subramanium Swamy has also prophetically announced that the AIADMK will head for a split with Sasikala Natarajan taking over the party reins and dominating the new CM, O Panneerselvam. Though it will be difficult to fill Amma’s shoes, the AIADMK will do well to remain a united political force in Tamil politics.
Beyond electoral politics, the overwhelming emotional response to Amma’s sudden demise has reinforced the impact of personality cults in Indian politics. Within a few hours of her death, the entire city came to a standstill. One supporter even died of shock. Unfortunate as these deaths are, they highlight how cult phenomena has become intrinsically ingrained in Indian politics. In the age of excessive media exposure, the personality of a leader may appear romantic but it can have far more degrading implications. For example, personality cults sometimes give rise to dynastic politics. We have witnessed how the personal charisma of Nehru ultimately led to the dynastic rule of the Gandhi family.
The road to dictatorship?
Idol worship also strengthens the belief that an individual leader has special knowledge and capabilities which supersede institutional capabilities. In such a scenario, the structural reform of institutions is not the priority and power is concentrated in the hands of a select elite group. Ultimately, such a system may culminate in totalitarianism. It is ironic that cult politics, which emerges from democratic support, may end up annihilating democracy itself.
We must recall the statement that the Father of the Indian Constitution, B. R. Ambedkar, made on idol worship in politics. He said, “In politics, bhakti is a sure road to degradation and eventually dictatorship”.