The Theatre of the Absurd

Sasikala Natarajan
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There is a weary predictability about Dravidian politics

EVER SINCE THE death of Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa, Tamil Nadu has been in a political vortex. An acting chief minister was forced out by the party’s éminence grise. In a twist of fate, this ‘power behind the throne’ was behind bars within no time. Ultimately, a ‘compromise candidate’—that unique Indian political invention—was enthroned at Fort St George and, for a while, it seemed that matters would settle down.

That, however, was just one act in the continuing political drama. In the months since E Palaniswami took over as Chief Minister, his faction of the party—originally backed by Sasikala Natarajan and her nephew T T V Dinakaran—has managed to effect a compromise with the rival faction. This faction led by O Panneerselvam— who was acting Chief Minister on many occasions in the past—finally agreed after some hard bargaining. OPS, as Panneerselvam is better known, regained his old position of Deputy Chief Minister and the AIADMK seemed to be on an even keel.

In recent weeks, this seemed to have unravelled, for the umpteenth time. Dinakaran, along with a number of MLAs, has sought a vote of confidence from the Palaniswami cabinet. In this fluid situation, the DMK, the state’s main opposition party, too, has jumped in, amplifying the demand for Palaniswami’s ejection.

One way to explain the situation in Tamil Nadu is to see it through the lens of Dravidian politics. But there’s another plausible one: in the last four odd decades, the state has always been ruled by someone from the stage, be he (or she) an actor or a writer. Such is the hold of ‘performers’ that the usual rules of Indian politics—dynastic succession, party cadre strength and caste mobilisation—seem to pale in front of them. It is not surprising that actors Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth have decided to take the stage, literally. The difference between them and successful leaders in Tamil Nadu is simple: the latter knew when to make an entry, with the right lines being delivered at the right time, with perfect intonation. Once the two aspirants get this stuff right, success may no longer elude them.

In this and many other ways, politics in the state is different from elsewhere. Andhra Pradesh had a fascination for actor-turned-politicians too. But it outgrew it in the 90s. In Tamil Nadu, the stage and the state still overlap.