Dissecting Sasikala’s speech: Why the subtlety could work to her benefit

Sasikala’s speech, like all her other acts since Jayalalithaa’s death, had no big bang, but was effective enough to get the job done.
Dissecting Sasikala’s speech: Why the subtlety could work to her benefit
Dissecting Sasikala’s speech: Why the subtlety could work to her benefit

The road to the AIADMK headquarters was dotted with khaki uniforms, of both policemen (at least 2000 of them) and some government workers, ostensibly members of unions with strong ties to the party. There were also the blue-uniformed workers of the state transport department, amidst a sea of white – the thousands of party members from across the state.

As Sasikala rolled into the HQ in a Land Cruiser, along with her convoy of three other SUVs, the reception was dull and seemingly engineered, as very few loud voices raised slogans from the crowd. The AIADMK’s leadership might have given in to Sasikala, but the grassroots-level worker is harder to win over, and there was an undeniable sense of distrust over what she would have to say. In such a context, one could assume, the goal of the speech was to sway the minds of several tens of lakhs of party workers in Tamil Nadu.

It was Sasikala’s maiden public speech. Never once in her 33-year-long association with Jayalalithaa, and presence at the heart of Tamil Nadu politics, has the AIADMK’s new General Secretary delivered a political address. Evidently, based on immediate cadre reactions to her speech, the absence of any expectation from her oratorical skills may well have worked in her favour.

 So, what was Sasikala’s speech all about?

The 15-minute speech clearly set out to do the following – assert Sasikala’s loyalty to Amma and the AIADMK; gain sympathy from party workers with displays of emotion; restate the fact that she has been a long-term aide of Jayalalithaa; reaffirm the AIADMK government’s belief in welfarism; and hint that her role as the party chief is now an obligation and duty, not ambition. It was an unambiguous declaration that Sasikala was here to lead the party forever, as seen in her statement that the rest of her life will be dedicated to the party. It was also a clarification that, after the 100 days she was ousted from the party, she returned with regret and a stronger loyalty to Amma. She also clarified, that Amma received the best medical treatment, and that her death was a sudden shock.

Hidden in her speech was also a reach-out to the women’s base of the AIADMK, which seemed to be thinning since Jayalalithaa’s death. Sasikala drew attention to the fact that Jayalalithaa was among the first to fight a woman’s battles in TN’s politics. And in the process, she was perhaps hinting that she too, just like Amma, was a woman fighting battles in the male-dominated world of politics. She also repeatedly said that she had been a close ally in Jayalalithaa’s political journey.

She sought to reassure the cadres that she would do a good job, now that she has been given the duty.

What has also got the political circles in the state buzzing is her statement that she will be a leader cutting across caste and religion, which is perhaps an attempt to delink herself from the Thevar community.

There were references to ‘conspiracies’ and ‘obstacles’, but no discernible attack on political opponents.

She espoused Periyar, Anna and MGR (she hit the right note with ‘Naalai Namadhey’), and Amma, but her speech was bereft of any ideology or political thought. As a political watcher and ideologue put it in a personal conversation, the speech was “hollow, and yet could work with her party members.”

You can read more about the speech here, and listen to it entirely here.

What kind of an impact has her speech had?

A cursory reading of the emotions among party workers at the lower levels seems to suggest that while not many are enamoured with her just yet, she seems to have performed well enough to consider giving her a chance. “We had no expectations, we did not think she could speak at all. But she was much better,” said a member of the AIADMK’s advocates wing in Chennai. When Sasikala finished her speech and stepped out to the balcony to wave to the cadres, the response was much better than how it was when she arrived. 

Jagatheesan, another party worker, asked, “What more do we expect? She has just started out in public speaking, this is all we can expect. She was good.”

 Another party man, a Jayalalithaa loyalist for two decades, however said that she had not been very impressive. “It was OK. But, whatever it is, only a lion can be a lion,” he said, referring to Jayalalithaa.

Her speech was much like her political strategising has been since Jayalalithaa’s death. No big bang, but effective enough to get the job done. Her aim is now to consolidate her position within the party, gain more loyal followers, and then look towards the state. Perhaps that’s why, the speech was a success. There has been no political response or controversy, because it was not exceptional. But it seems to have sent the right message in her subtle way – that Sasikala is here to stay.

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