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