A defining trait of Dravidian politics is the quest to wrest the role of custodians to the legacy of a departed leader. It’s not just a symbolic, emotional quest, but one that defines the very existence of a political party, like the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK).
Since its inception, the AIADMK never created the post of president in the party and the highest post within is that of the general secretary.
This was because the late MG Ramachandran, who broke away from the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and founded the AIADMK in 1972, asserted that his eternal leader was DMK founder CN Annadurai and, hence, the highest post in the party was symbolically, eternally left for Anna.
MGR left the DMK following differences with M Karunanidhi, who took over as president of the party and chief minister after Anna passed away in 1969, and had to reassert that he and his party represented the true principles of the Dravidian movement as claimants to the 'Anna' legacy.
In effect, both Karunanidhi and MGR represented the same political ideology of their mentor; before the electorate, it was only a bitter personal rivalry that was a defining difference. This, and not just the influence of cinema, is the genesis of the personality-oriented politics in the state.
Cinema did fuel the rivalry and help build the personalities, but the reason the rivalry and personalities are so fiercely projected in the state is because without the personality rivalries, the AIADMK versus DMK battle has no foundation. In other words, there is no scope for an ideological difference or debate as both would be on the same side.
The rivalry had to be intense to fuel political differentiation and it manifested itself through the twists and turns over the last five decades. Most recently, it was this battle for Anna’s legacy that led to the dispute over granting a final resting place for M Karunanidhi, next to CN Annadurai’s memorial, at the Marina beach.
Since MGR was buried on one side of the Anna memorial, it was imperative for the DMK to ensure that Karunanidhi was buried on the other side to symbolically assert their departed leader as the political heir to Anna. The AIADMK dispensation tried to deny that space, but lost the battle in the Madras High Court.
Now, a renewed DMK, under MK Stalin’s leadership, is reasserting itself as the only custodian of Dravidian political principles of Annadurai and there seems to be no powerful counter to that claim from the AIADMK.
The ruling AIADMK faction in the state is fighting its battle within the party for the ‘Amma’ legacy. It is desperate to establish itself as the true custodian of Jayalalithaa’s legacy and that claim is being challenged by rebel leader TTV Dinakaran, who split from the AIADMK to launch his own party.
The core of the power struggle between the two sections is to wrest the ‘Amma’ legacy and establish themselves as custodians of it. The winner in this battle, in an election, would claim to be the heir to the late Jayalalithaa.
While their objective is to capture power in the state, like in the past, in the eyes of the electorate, they have no other explanation or narrative for political existence. But this battle is within the AIADMK as a party and not with a political opponent outside of it. The factions are similar in character and represent the exact same political thought feeding on the battle for legacy as a narrative for political existence.
The problem is that the AIADMK, in search of an ‘Amma’ legacy, does not have a leader of stature to challenge the DMK’s claim to represent the ‘Anna’ legacy. Though Jayalalithaa was not from the same vintage as MGR or Karunanidhi, she had the stature to reiterate the AIADMK’s position as a challenger to the DMK, but after her demise, there is no other leader to carry forward that challenge.
Arguably, the reason the AIADMK has survived is because Jayalalithaa was in power when she passed away and the party is surviving on the remnants of that victory.
In fact, no other political party in the state, barring MDMK leader Vaiko, has the stature to challenge the DMK as the most powerful custodians of the Anna legacy.
This is dangerous not just for the AIADMK, but for the future of Dravidian political ideology itself as it is the quest for the ‘Anna’ legacy that is the bedrock of the political narrative which remained between the two Dravidian parties in Tamil Nadu.
And, it is because of the dominance of the AIADMK versus DMK personality battle that there was no space for any other political ideology to evolve in the state.
In this backdrop, when there is no challenge to the DMK narrative as the custodian of core Dravidian principles, the field is thrown open for a counter ideological force.
This is what the next election in Tamil Nadu will test and decide. The smaller question would be which of the AIADMK factions will wrest the ‘Amma’ legacy, but the more significant question would be whether the battle would continue to be fought among those who claim to be custodians of an ‘Anna’ legacy or will it eventually turn into one between an ‘Anna’ legacy and an opposing political force that has nothing to do with that legacy or even opposes it on an ideological level.
The answer to that question would lie in how the AIADMK recovers and if it does not, which political force will occupy the space of opposition to the DMK. In fact, this would be important even for the DMK from a long-term perspective.
Having an ideological opponent in the electoral fray is something the party has not experienced in the last four decades and, hence, it may have to see the collapse of an AIADMK with worry instead of jubilation.
(Author is a senior journalist. Views are personal)