In practically the blink of an eye, the future of Tamil Nadu has become uncertain. Today it faces an unprecedented situation.

The two Dravidian parties, the DMK and the AIADMK, have ruled the State for 60 years, more or less in turns since the death of the AIADMK founder, MG Ramachandran. While corruption has always been rampant and brazen, neither party ignored development. As a result, take any parameter — social or economic — and Tamil Nadu ranks among the top three. It has been a functioning State, at least in relative terms. Complain about the electricity or a leaky drain pipe, it is attended to within a reasonable length of time — though not necessarily gratis .

Development mantra

Politicians of both parties have been smart enough to realise that their ability to line their pockets rides on ‘development’. A bridge or a hospital to be built may be viewed as an ‘opportunity’; but the bridge or the hospital comes into existence.

However, all politicians across the country know this. Yet, most of them have not been able to let development take place. So what was special to Tamil Nadu?

In one word, leadership. No other State run by a regional party has seen its leadership command such unconditional, unflinching loyalty from its members as in Tamil Nadu. This peaked during Jayalalithaa’s time, with party members ever keen to display their obeisance by genuflecting to her. A challenge to the leadership was unheard of in Tamil Nadu.

Significantly, this power derived from popularity anchored deep in the masses and not, as in some other parties, due to a dynastic handing down of position. Mainly, the leaders were vote-winners — MGR in particular was unbeatable. Intra-party rivalry was always for the number two position, or to the position of the blue-eyed boy of the leader.

Can you say this of other States ruled by regional parties?

The Telugu Desam’s NT Rama Rao had carpet pulled from under his feet by his colleague Bhaskara Rao, and later by his son-in-law, Chandrababu Naidu. In Karnataka, Ramakrishna Hegde had to contend with the machinations of the ambitious Deve Gowda. The Asom Gana Parishad splintered several times, notably in 2005, when its expelled president, Prafulla Mahanta, formed a new party. More recently, intra-party rifts in the Aam Aadmi Party and the famous feud between Mulayam Singh Yadav and Akhilesh have played out in public.

There is something to be said for West Bengal’s leaders. Neither Jyoti Basu nor Mamata Banerjee have had to face challenges to their leadership. However, the State didn’t develop under Basu arguably because communism’s underpinnings are egalitarianism rather than development. As for Didi, she has been in power for six years, but the statistical profile of West Bengal shows that development is not high on her agenda, either.

Complete change

Tamil Nadu was always different. The leaders brooked not one murmur of dissent; what they wished for was done. Development happened — regardless of whether as a by-product of corruption or a corollary of it.

But that is all gone now. The AIADMK’s general secretary VK Sasikala’s writ runs among 124 MLAs, which is not a very comfortable number in a house of 234. But she is no leader of the masses; there is actually deep resentment towards her in the State. Further, with the stigma of being a jailed criminal and lacking personal charisma, Sasikala is more likely to conduct the politics of appeasement than command.

O Panneerselvam, despite his recent rise in stature, doesn’t come anywhere close to MGR or Jayalalithaa; he seems more avuncular than firebrand. As for MK Stalin of the DMK, it remains to be seen how he tackles the challenges from his siblings.

Tamil Nadu has known no format of governance other than monarchy cloaked in democracy’s garb. Without a domineering and dominating leader, both the Dravidian parties might well turn out to be like the State’s Congress unit — riven by factions.

Factionalism is fertile ground for the rise of populism and the first actions taken by the new chief minister, Edappadi Palaniswami, smacks of just that.

With the disappearance of the iron-fisted leader, Tamil Nadu’s politics has lost its most distinctive feature. It appears as though the State’s famed development might yield way to decay.