In flying too close to the sun, Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswami should remember that it could lead to his undoing.

Jayalalithaas legacy of autocracy EPS seems determined to go beyond
news Opinion Thursday, June 21, 2018 - 16:26

She is present at every meeting, looking down upon her successor, although she chose not to handpick one. Her name is invoked by those who have assumed the mantle on any given occasion. Over the past 16 months, many a page from the late Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa’s playbook has been taken by CM Edappadi Palaniswami. But the image that EPS is crafting for himself were the very traits that Jayalalithaa was flayed for.

Cracking down on dissent  

The late AIADMK leader was not one to take dissent lightly, wielding draconian laws to crackdown on those who protested against her regime. Activist SP Udayakumar, who led the anti-nuclear protests in Kudankulam and folk singer Kovan, who slammed the state-run liquor shops in his songs, were among those slapped with sedition charges during Jayalalithaa’s tenure.  

Criminal defamation was another weapon in Jayalalithaa’s armoury, routinely used to clamp down on criticism and dissent.  As of August 2016, a month before she was hospitalised, Jayalalithaa’s government had filed 213 defamation complaints in 5 years against her detractors. She didn’t spare the media either, with 55 of these defamation cases on the fourth estate. 

Like his predecessor, EPS has been quick to suppress protests by arresting activists and foisting cases on them. Take for instance, the agitations against the Salem airport expansion and the Chennai-Salem greenfield expressway. In less than a week, the ruling AIADMK has arrested actor Mansoor Ali Khan, activist Piyush Manush, student activist Valarmathi and many villagers who have been at the forefront of the opposition to the projects.

But unlike Jayalalithaa, who was known to keep a firm grip on the law and order of the state, and seldom allowed things to descend into utter chaos, the present AIADMK administration has been slammed for its handling of the Thoothukudi protests, which culminated in the deaths of 13 demonstrators, who were fired upon by the police. EPS not only went on to justify the police firing as a “natural reaction” but has till date failed to visit the victims of the violence, creating the impression that he’s a remorseless and ruthless administrator.    

The media has also been at the receiving end of this crackdown for raising questions. The Coimbatore police’s decision to book Tamil channel Puthiya Thalaimurai for statements made by its guests during a debate has been viewed as an attempt to muzzle and intimidate the press.

EPS perhaps would do well to remember the Supreme Court’s words, while pulling up Jayalalithaa, “This is not how a healthy democracy functions. You must face criticism if you are a public figure.”

Encouraging sycophancy

Sycophancy knew no bounds when Jayalalithaa was alive. Massive hoardings, ministers and workers falling at her feet, branding welfare schemes under her moniker ‘Amma’ were among the ways Jayalalithaa cultivated a demi-god status. She encouraged obsequious behaviour of those around her, who went to any length to please her – including making bizarre claims such as Hilary Clinton being inspired by Jayalalithaa to contest the US Presidential Election.

In an attempt to create a demi-god status that Jayalalithaa enjoyed, EPS has taken a page or two from her book. In fact in a government ad that was displayed in theatres, EPS went a step ahead of Jayalalithaa, projecting himself the saviour of the masses. Far from achieving the demi-god status, the CM became the butt of jokes, with the ad providing fodder for meme-makers. It was eventually pulled out of theatres, albeit after many a laugh at the CM’s expense.

EPS, like Jayalalithaa, has encouraged the hoarding culture to continue. Giant cut-outs of the CM and other ministers often dot the streets of Tamil Nadu. The hoardings not only violate the Madras High Court’s directives but have resulted in fatalities – like in the case of Ragu, a software engineer from the US, who had rammed into an illegal arch erected for MGR Centenary celebrations.

Shielding officials and subservience to Centre

While Jayalalithaa received her fair share of criticism for failing to distance herself from aide VK Sasikala despite charges of corruption, the late CM sidelined or dropped ministers facing allegations of graft. Many a time she dropped them without warning and simply because they had fallen out of favour.

In 2015, then state Agriculture Minister SS Krishnamoorthy was sacked amidst allegations of corruption and abetment of suicide. The same year, then Transport Minister Senthil Balaji, considered a Jayalalithaa loyalist, was dropped from her cabinet and stripped of his party post following several complaints against him.

Unlike ‘Amma’, EPS has faced criticism for shielding his ministers and officials. Despite the names of Health Minster C Vijayabaskar and Tamil Nadu DGP TK Rajendran figuring in the Gutkha scam, which is being probed by the CBI, Edappadi Palaniswami has chosen to turn a blind eye to the charges levelled at them.  

But perhaps the starkest difference between Jayalalithaa and her successor is in the influence of the Centre on Tamil Nadu’s affairs. Jayalalithaa’s strong and self-assured resistance to the Centre’s policies including NEET, GST among others have been replaced by a quiet subservience. As pointed out by TNM in this article, the EPS-led government has easily conceded on issues that Jayalalithaa was opposed to.

EPS can claim to run the state in her name, calling his administration ‘Amma’s government’. He can even display streaks of authoritarianism, that Jayalalithaa was infamous for, but in flying too close to the sun, the Chief Minister should remember that it could lead to his undoing.   

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