Tamil politics is a touch turbulent just at the moment. The personality cult rules in this part of south India. And when one of the towering political personalities leaves the scene, there's mayhem.
Thirty years ago, on the death of the film-star-turned-chief-minister MGR, there was a right old ding-dong to claim his political legacy. Jayalalithaa came out on top. MGR was her mentor (and perhaps more) and her leading man - literally so, they acted in dozens of movies together. Jayalalithaa proved that she could do populist personality-based politics even better than her guru.
Two months back, Jayalalithaa died. There was no clear political heir. The caretaker chief minister, OPS (full name on request), was a Jayalalithaa loyalist who was seen simply as an inoffensive choice to fill in for a while. At the weekend, acting under duress it now appears, he submitted his resignation - in favour of Sasikala, Jayalalithaa's closest aide, friend and confidante, but someone who has never stood for elected office and has not held any formal position in government. Not all the party faithful are delighted. Sasikala has a troubled reputation; she lacks Jayalalithaa's appeal and authority; she comes across as a little dour; even the political epithet she has been given - Chinamma (or little mother) to Jayalalithaa's Amma (mother) - is a diminutive.
Within hours of this meticulously prepared palace coup, posters went up across Chennai praising Sasikala (below in the green sari) and positioning her as Jayalalithaa's chosen one. Within another few hours, many of these posters had been carefully and clinically defaced ... Jayalalithaa's likeness was untouched but Sasikala had become faceless.
We were all waiting to hear when Sasikala would be sworn-in as chief minister - and whether a corruption-related legal case in which she is implicated could derail things. Then late last night, OPS - the quiet, self-effacing, stand-in chief minister - staged an act of huge political drama. Whoever knew he had it in him! Without warning, he went to Jayalalithaa's grave, sat in solitary communion there for forty minutes - just enough time for the press and camera teams hurriedly to gather there - and then planted the flag of rebellion against Sasikala. He told the waiting press that he had been humiliated by his colleagues, forced to resign as chief minister, but was concerned above all about protecting Jayalalithaa's legacy and would be willing to retract his resignation if that's what people wanted.
I'm trying to think of a British political analogy which would capture the drama, surprise and suspense - nothing quite does it. It's on a par with Gove shafting Boris - except you always knew that Gove was a Brutus, while OPS always seemed so innocuous.
But Sasikala has not spent decades at Jayalalithaa's right-hand without learning some of the dark arts of politics. She immediately sacked OPS as the ruling party's treasurer and let it be known that all but one of the party's legislators - OPS, one assumes, being the odd one out - were with her. But are they? And will they stay that way? This political potboiler has quite a way to go - keep tuned!
Andrew Whitehead's blog
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