The red carpet reception was more like those given to pop singers in star-struck declarations of adulation. Ex-convict V.K. Sasikala, who came home after serving a four-year jail sentence under the Prevention of Corruption Act, was elevated to demigod status in a 22-hour car journey that was more a procession pandering to the blind loyalty of lumpen political party elements. As a social phenomenon, it defies decoding; as a person convicted of stealing from the government treasury is elevated to the status of a neta who can bring deliverance to the people. This is not restricted to cinema-obsessed Tamil Nadu as the phenomenon encompasses Lalu Prasad Yadav and many a charismatic netas suspected of being as corrupt.
Sasikala’s impact on Tamil Nadu politics is not to be dismissed though she is ineligible to stand for election. Her nephew T.T.V. Dhinakaran’s disinformation campaign cannot change the law. Her role as a backroom manipulator in Jayalalithaa’s regime when she virtually picked people for plum Cabinet posts and even made or unmade chief ministers had made her a force to be reckoned within the ruling AIADMK party. It is a sign of these strange times that a political outlier is being glorified in projecting her as the regent who sacrificed her life for the queen (Jayalalithaa). The fact that it seems to touch a chord in a fawning public reflects the wide gap between perception and the reality that it often puts in the shade.
The Dravidian major AIADMK, which has alternated in power after breaking away from the DMK in 1972, is feeling anxious about the return of the power of Poes Garden, which had housed two misanthropes who manoeuvred adroitly in a domain that was a distinctly male preserve before Jayalalithaa broke the chain. The party MGR founded and Jayalalithaa nurtured may face the biggest threat with Sasikala claiming it as her own despite having been summarily removed on her going to jail in Bengaluru. Lengthy legal challenges to her being stripped of the post of general secretary may be in the offing but that does not change the electoral scene except that an AIADMK split by loyalty calls may be playing right into the hands of DMK, which pollsters are favouring to emerge victorious in the summer of 2021.
The people of a state, who were in such a thrall of cinema that they allowed it to play a larger-than-life role in the making of netas, are far more forgiving of corruption, which has historically been rampant in the 54 years of Dravidian regimes. Sasikala, who has never been in electoral politics, can be expected to play only the role of a disruptor as she seeks the Jayalalithaa legacy and her party. Time is not on her side in her emergence too close to the Assembly polls to build anew her nephew’s breakaway AMMK party. Her journey to Chennai that occupied nearly 24 hours was stretched out to play to a television gallery in the highest traditions of the state’s soap opera politics. What happens from here is in the people’s court.