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Taking over

Taking over
Tamil Nadu will welcome its third Chief Minister in as many months on February 9. On Monday, Governor Vidyasagar Rao accepted O Panneerselvam's resignation from the post of CM, paving the way for the newly-minted leader of the Tamil Nadu legislature and AIADMK general secretary VK Sasikala to take over. Since this announcement, the public discourse has focused on her meteoric rise from a close aide of former CMJ Jayalalithaa to the Chief Minister's office. Fondly known as Chinamma (Little Mother) to her supporters, the little-known Sasikala had never contested an election nor held public office until Jayalalithaa's death in December. Soon after the former CM's death, she was elevated to the post of general secretary in the ruling AIADMK. On Sunday, she stood more or less unopposed, as the ruling party elected her the leader of the Legislature Party. Opponents argue that the AIADMK's historic 2016 victory in the Assembly polls was a mandate for Jayalalithaa and not Sasikala. However, such deviations from the conventional and prescribed political succession process have been a feature of Indian democracy for years, and Sasikala isn't the first beneficiary. For example, PV Narasimha Rao was not even a Member of Parliament when he was chosen to become Prime Minister after Rajiv Gandhi tragic death. Nor was Narendra Modi an MLA when he was elevated to the post of Gujarat CM. Tamil Nadu's new CM will now have to have elected to the state legislature within six months, which she should have no problem doing. The AIADMK can be trusted to find a 'safe seat' for their new leader to contest. Political commentators have often raised this curious aspect of Indian politics, even as the idea of an elected representative is fundamental to a Parliamentary democracy like ours. Within the party, however, Sasikala was most often than not seen as the undisputed No.2 behind Jayalalithaa, and her ascension to the CM's office held no surprises for longtime observers of Tamil Nadu politics. Except during certain episodes, when she fell out with Jayalalithaa, she has always been an integral to the decision-making process in the party. In fact, some in the local media have often argued that she and her extended family also dictated decisions such as the selection of Cabinet Ministers and distribution of party tickets before elections. Reports are rife of how Sasikala's proximity to Jayalalithaa allowed members of her clan to establish control over key industries and even cinema halls. There is little discussion on the extended clan in the media or public. Accusations of nepotism against Jayalalithaa had often stemmed from this apparent association. There is no doubt that Sasikala and her extended family have strengthened their hold on the party since the former CM's demise. The AIADMK will now have to convince their electorate that Jayalalithaa's passing does not dent the credibility of the state government. Although Sasikala does not possess Amma's mass appeal, she is now the final authority in the party and the ruling government. Often described as a media-shy personality, little is known about her ideological moorings or politics.

There are many challenges before the new Chief Minister. The Supreme Court is expected to deliver a judgment next week in a disproportionate assets case, in which both Jayalalithaa and Sasikala stand accused. A trial court in 2014 had convicted the two, but the Karnataka High Court overturned the verdict. Legal experts closely monitoring the case had observed glaring holes in the High Court's judgment, and the matter is now before the apex court. If the Apex Court overturns the acquittal, Sasikala would have to vacate her new post. In the event of an acquittal, however, the challenges before the new CM are immense. Despite the corruption charges against Jayalalithaa, the former CM was quite successful in facilitating the benefits of a welfare state. The widespread perception that holds Chinamma and her family responsible for dragging Jayalalithaa into the corruption quagmire may well change if she can deliver the same welfare benefits to the people. Despite the popular belief in the Tamil Nadu model of governance, where greater emphasis is on health, education, and other markers of human development, recent reports indicate that these indicators have either hit a plateau or in certain aspects dropped. Following the worst North-East monsoon in 140 years, all districts in the state have been declared drought hit. The worst drought in recent memory has claimed more than 100 lives in farmer suicides. Indebtedness is the primary reason for this rising death toll, argue local observers. Chief Minister Paneerselvam had announced last month that crop loans taken by the farmers from cooperative banks and commercial banks would be treated as medium-term loans. In other words, the repayment period will be extended to more than one year. It is hard to see how this measure will bring any succour, considering the cloud of indebtedness that hangs over the heads of farmers. Without any yield due to the drought, it will take them more than a year to overcome the current spate of distress. And whether any relief will be forthcoming depends on the next monsoon. In the midst of this crisis, how can farmers repay medium-term loans? Of course, crop insurance could have acted as a necessary balm. But reports from the ground indicate that there is a lack of awareness among farmers, besides their suspicions surrounding the finer details of these crop insurance schemes. Vast sections of the rural populace also remain bitter towards Karnataka for refusing to the Supreme Court's orders directing it to release Tamil Nadu's rightful share of the Cauvery water. With the BJP and Congress ruling Karnataka alternatively (both parties are considered extensions of North Indian hegemony), there is a general feeling that Tamil interests are being sidelined. The projection of Jallikattu as an event integral to Tamil culture has seemingly become a rallying point for such grievances. There is a severe lack of irrigation water. Groundwater levels in Tamil Nadu's Noyyal basin, for example, in which the major industrial cities of Coimbatore and Tirupur are located, have dropped precipitously due to corruption, land mismanagement and rising migration. And then there is the damage to the environment caused by illegal sand mining, which allegedly receives the tacit support of political parties and governments running out of Chennai. To resolve these concerns, Sasikala will have to take tough decisions. Will she be up for the challenge? Only time will tell.
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