Too Soon for the V

TAMIL NADU’S CM-IN-WAIT­ING CHARTS A STUN­NING TAKEOVER OF THE PARTY AND THE GOV­ERN­MENT, BUT HER MO­MENT OF TRI­UMPH IS MARRED BY PUB­LIC ANGER AND THE RE­VOLT OF A PARTY VETERAN

India Today - - INSIDE - By Amarnath K. Menon in Chennai

V.K. Sasikala’s rise to power hits the road­block of O. Pan­neer­sel­vam. The Jay­alalithaa faith­ful rises in re­bel­lion against her, plung­ing AIADMK in tur­moil

CChen­nai’s iconic Marina Beach is the fi­nal resting place of some stal­warts of Tamil Nadu’s Dra­vid­ian move­ment—from C.N. An­nadu­rai and M.G. Ra­machan­dran to, most re­cently, J. Jay­alalithaa. The move­ment re­jects cre­ma­tion in favour of burial for its lead­ers, and their me­mo­ri­als have, over time, be­come pow­er­ful sym­bols for mo­bil­is­ing the cadre. On the night of Feb­ru­ary 7, Jay­alalithaa’s burial spot be­came the site of an un­prece­dented re­volt against her suc­ces­sor in the AIADMK, V.K. Sasikala. It was the CM-in-wait­ing’s first big po­lit­i­cal test. In­terim Chief Min­is­ter O. Pan­neer­sel­vam ar­rived at the spot late in the evening and sat cross-legged, med­i­tat­ing for over 40 min­utes be­fore rais­ing the ban­ner of re­volt against Sasikala, whom the AIADMK had unan­i­mously el­e­vated as chief min­is­ter-des­ig­nate. Pan­neer­sel­vam al­leged he had been hu­mil­i­ated as CM and co­erced into sub­mit­ting his res­ig­na­tion to Gov­er­nor S. Vidyasagar Rao 48 hours ear­lier.

If Pan­neer­sel­vam’s trans­for­ma­tion from the eter­nal in­terim-CM to a rebel was sur­pris­ing, Sasikala’s makeover from back­room player to a ruth­less party cza­rina was equally star­tling. She might have lost the el­e­ment of sur­prise, but she was clearly not pre­pared to lose the ini­tia­tive.

At 10.30 pm, the calls started go­ing out from Veda Ni­layam, Jay­alalithaa’s sprawl­ing bun­ga­low in Chennai’s up­mar­ket Poes Gar­den area and now Sasikala’s home. Sasikala’s in­ner cir­cle had swiftly sum­moned 119 of the 134 AIADMK MLAs to as­sem­ble at her res­i­dence. Shortly af­ter mid­night, the AIADMK chief is­sued a state­ment re­mov­ing Pan­neer­sel­vam as party trea­surer. The fol­low­ing af­ter­noon, she de­liv­ered what would be only the sec­ond po­lit­i­cal speech of her ca­reer. (The first was a 20-minute ad­dress to party work­ers on De­cem­ber 31, two days af­ter her elevation to party gen­eral sec­re­tary.) In her hour-long mono­logue, Sasikala in­voked MGR and Jay­alalithaa and saw the hid­den hand of the DMK be­hind the re­volt. “OPS has been col­lud­ing with the Op­po­si­tion,” she said, read­ing out a pre­pared text. “But Amma showed us the way. The steps OPS took in the past few days un­der­mined ev­ery party worker and Amma’s spirit. This is a de­vi­a­tion from Amma’s path. I won’t al­low it.”

Ear­lier in the day, Pan­neer­sel­vam said he was call­ing for a probe into Jay­alalithaa’s death be­cause of unan­swered ques­tions re­gard­ing the for­mer CM’s pro­longed ill­ness and demise. AIADMK in­sid­ers say Pan­neer­sel­vam plans to form a gov­ern­ment of break­away MLAs sup­ported by the op­po­si­tion DMK, which has 89 seats in the state as­sem­bly. Any for­ma­tion needs 118 MLAs to make a sim­ple ma­jor­ity in the 234-mem­ber Tamil Nadu leg­isla­tive as­sem­bly. At the time of go­ing to press, the in­terim CM had the sup­port of five AIADMK MLAs.

Pan­neer­sel­vam gam­bled on his new­found pop­u­lar­ity among the youth af­ter se­cur­ing a Jan­uary 21 or­di­nance from the Cen­tre to al­low Jal­likat-

tu, the sport of bull-tam­ing which had been banned by the Supreme Court in 2011.

Sasikala is, mean­while, strug­gling to fire­wall her MLAs from the re­volt and be­come the state’s 12th chief min­is­ter at the ear­li­est. How­ever, she faces se­ri­ous longterm chal­lenges. A se­vere wa­ter and power cri­sis has hit Tamil Nadu’s farm­ing and in­dus­trial sec­tors. Caste vi­o­lence threat­ens the state’s so­cial fab­ric.

The CM-in-wait­ing is also haunted by a clutch of court cases. A Supreme Court bench is to an­nounce its ver­dict, pos­si­bly by mid-Feb­ru­ary, on an ap­peal against her ac­quit­tal in a dis­pro­por­tion­ate as­sets case, which sent both Jay­alalithaa and Sasikala to jail in 2014. The case in which Sasikala is a co-ac­cused sprang from the os­ten­ta­tious 1995 wed­ding of her nephew, Sud­hakaran.

Barely a fort­night ago, the Madras High Court re­fused to dis­charge her from three cases filed by the En­force­ment Direc­torate (ED) in 1995 and 1996 on charges of vi­o­lat­ing pro­vi­sions of the For­eign Ex­change Reg­u­la­tion Act (FERA). She will also have to face trial in a case re­lated to ac­quir­ing il­le­gal for­eign ex­change through an ac­quain­tance in Malaysia and us­ing the money to pur­chase the Ko­danad tea es­tate in the Nil­giris along with her sis­ter-in-law J. Ilavarasi. In May 2015, the ad­di­tional chief met­ro­pol­i­tan mag­is­trate of Eg­more had dis­charged her from the case. But on a crim­i­nal re­vi­sion pe­ti­tion filed by the ED, the high court di­rected her to face trial.

One of the FERA cases re­lates to pay­ments made in US and Sin­ga­pore dol­lars to for­eign firms for hir­ing transpon­ders and up­link­ing fa­cil­i­ties for Jaya TV, of which she was the chair­per­son. Be­yond this, the al­leged sin­is­ter role of her ex­tended Man­nar­gudi clan in cap­tur­ing and pro­mot­ing thriv­ing busi­nesses through shrewd bar­gains and deft deals is com­ing back to haunt Sasikala.

It is this al­leged ca­bal that has pre­sented Pan­neer­sel­vam with a line of at­tack to chal­lenge Sasikala’s cal­i­brated as­cen­sion. The close-knit group, which en­sured the com­pli­ance of the bu­reau­cracy, will con­tinue to do so, hav­ing eased out of the CM’s of­fice many of the of­fi­cials who helped Jay­alalithaa run the state ad­min­is­tra­tion.

The BJP, mean­while, is ea­ger to keep the AIADMK in­tact and gain from its strength of 134 MLAs and 49 MPs to garner sup­port in the elec­toral col­lege for the elec­tion of the next Pres­i­dent of In­dia and the Vice-Pres­i­dent due later this year.

The Op­po­si­tion in the state is ques­tion­ing the le­git­i­macy of Sasikala’s as­cent to power. “Peo­ple voted in the 2016 as­sem­bly elec­tion for the AIADMK, hop­ing Jay­alalithaa would be the chief min­is­ter, and not Pan­neer­sel­vam or any­one from her house­hold,” de­clared M.K. Stalin, the DMK work­ing pres­i­dent and leader of the Op­po­si­tion. “We will re­act to the is­sue demo­crat­i­cally. We lost the as­sem­bly elec­tion by just 1.1 per cent vote share.”

Even for a state where the dis­tinc­tion be­tween real and

reel life is fuzzy, Sasikala’s rise from a rental video shopowner to the pre­sid­ing em­press of Fort St Ge­orge, the seat of the Tamil Nadu ad­min­is­tra­tion, is ex­tra­or­di­nary. For over three decades, she shad­owed the tow­er­ing AIADMK supremo, Jay­alalithaa, as her clos­est con­fi­dante and care­giver, with­out show­ing signs of in­ter­est in po­lit­i­cal of­fice. Then, ex­actly 60 days af­ter Jay­alalithaa passed away, she came into the spotlight, ef­fort­lessly step­ping into Jay­alalithaa’s shoes to be elected first as AIADMK gen­eral sec­re­tary on De­cem­ber 29 and then as leader of the leg­is­la­ture party on Feb­ru­ary 5—in keep­ing with the tra­di­tion of party founder MGR and Jay­alalithaa oc­cu­py­ing both of­fices.

“I agreed to ac­cept the post of gen­eral sec­re­tary only be­cause of con­tin­u­ous per­sua­sion of our lead­ers. I was not in a mood to do so,” an emo­tional Sasikala, dressed in a green sari and blouse—Jay­alalithaa’s sig­na­ture colours—told party MLAs. “Now, re­spect­ing your sen­ti­ments that a sin­gle per­son must hold both the of­fice of gen­eral sec­re­tary and chief min­is­ter, I ac­cept your de­mand. I had to ac­cept this re­spon­si­bil­ity be­cause the ap­peal was from the dear chil­dren of Amma.” To the MLAs, Sasikala ap­pears as the com­mand­ing uni­fier who will keep them to­gether for a five-year term. Two min­is­ters in the Pan­neer­sel­vam cab­i­net rea­soned that her in­duc­tion as CM was a fore­gone con­clu­sion. “How­ever, she can­not be an iconic fig­ure like Amma,” they ad­mit.

Hav­ing closely watched Jay­alalithaa’s po­lit­i­cal ca­reer, this could come eas­ily to Sasikala. Some po­lit­i­cal an­a­lysts claim she had planned to oc­cupy the CM’s seat ever since she and hus­band M. Natara­jan, a for­mer Tamil Nadu gov­ern­ment of­fi­cial, sensed, well ahead of the 2016 as­sem­bly elec­tions, that Jay­alalithaa’s days were numbered. Sasikala may have had a pre­mo­ni­tion of her rise but she lacks Jay­alalithaa’s sharp mind, which dis­played a com­bat­ive spirit in cham­pi­oning the cause of fed­er­al­ism. Nor does she possess Jay­alalithaa’s charisma.

What can work for Sasikala, how­ever, are her hum­ble ori­gins be­fore her me­te­oric rise. Now push­ing 60, she has come a long way from her mod­est birth in Thiruthu­raipoondi ham­let, of erst­while Than­javur district, and the trans­for­ma­tion af­ter her mar­riage to Natara­jan in 1973. Natara­jan en­cour­aged her to open Vinod Video Vi­sion, a video cas­sette rental

and video record­ing shop, in My­la­pore, Chennai, in the early 1980s when video-film­ing of po­lit­i­cal events came into vogue. The break­through came in 1982 when V.S. Chan­dralekha, then district col­lec­tor of South Ar­cot, gave her the op­por­tu­nity to film Jay­alalithaa’s ini­ti­a­tion into pol­i­tics at an AIADMK rally in Cud­dalore.

SUCH WAS THE IM­PRES­SION Sasikala made on Jay­alalithaa that soon their friend­ship be­gan to blos­som. A cou­ple of years af­ter MGR’s pass­ing, both Sasikala and Natara­jan be­came part of Jay­alalithaa’s Poes Gar­den house­hold. Soon, ac­cu­sa­tions of po­lit­i­cal in­ter­fer­ence by the cou­ple led Jay­alalithaa to throw Natara­jan out, but not Sasikala. She re­tained her even in the wake of strong ac­cu­sa­tions about Sasikala and her rel­a­tives func­tion­ing as ex­tra-con­sti­tu­tional au­thor­i­ties af­ter Jay­alalithaa be­came CM for the first time in 1991. Jay­alalithaa even ar­ranged for and con­ducted the wed­ding of Sasikala’s nephew V.N. Sud­hakaran. Their sym­bi­otic re­la­tion­ship grew stronger, with Jay­alalithaa al­leg­ing that Sasikala was be­ing ‘pun­ished for [her] loy­alty’ when she was ar­rested and cases were slapped against her for al­leged FERA vi­o­la­tions.

Un­fazed, Sasikala has since those days cul­ti­vated an ex­tended, fa­mil­ial brains trust, re­ferred to as the Man­nar­gudi clan or ma­chine, which held the AIADMK in a vice-like grip be­hind Jay­alalithaa. Sasikala knows only Jay­alalithaa’s style of func­tion­ing and was also its silent ar­chi­tect in some ways. She is now poised to cre­ate a new CM’s of­fice by in­duct­ing those who en­joy the con­fi­dence of the ca­bal as well as her hus­band, be­sides shuf­fling the port­fo­lios of min­is­ters, ap­point­ing in­flu­en­tial lead­ers to se­nior party posts and scotch­ing any at­tempts at build­ing dis­sent. “Her po­lit­i­cal ap­proach is sim­ple: be pop­ulist to­wards peo­ple and share the spoils of of­fice with her co­terie, some party col­leagues and some in the bu­reau­cracy,” says a for­mer civil ser­vant on con­di­tion of anonymity.

“Not hav­ing had any per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence or ex­po­sure to di­rect pol­i­tics of the Jay­alalithaa kind, and be­ing more com­fort­able about her own kind of back­room ma­nip­u­la­tions, be it in the party or the gov­ern­ment, she might con­tinue to do it, at least un­til such time it is proven wrong, if at all, in her case, and she is forced to change her tac­tic and ap­proach to both,” says po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst N. Sathiya Moor­thy.

For­mer min­is­ter B.V. Ra­mana, who was ap­pointed by Sasikala as one of the four or­gan­is­ing sec­re­taries in the AIADMK, de­fends her. “Chin­namma is mis­un­der­stood and ma­ligned; she took flak for the neg­a­tive fall­out of any de­ci­sion in the Amma days,” he claims. “For the AIADMK to thrive as a strong party, even if mono­lithic, there is no op­tion but to have a firm and force­ful leader, which she is.”

VIKRAM SHARMA

BIT­TER BREAK SASIKALA WITH O. PAN­NEER­SEL­VAM AT THE IN­DIA TO­DAY CON­CLAVE SOUTH IN CHENNAI, JAN. 9

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