With Sasikala’s arrest and the AIADMK divided into warring camps, all eyes are on the contest between Panneerselvam and Palanisamy
Sasikala’s conviction in a corruption case crushes her chief ministerial ambitions and brings AIADMK politics to a climax
For over a week, Tamil Nadu Governor Chennamaneni Vidyasagar Rao waited, refusing to act on All India Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) general secretary V.K. Sasikala’s demand that she be sworn in as chief minister. In hindsight, the decision was a good one, for, on February 14, Supreme Court judges Pinaki Chandra Ghose and Amitava Roy delivered their verdict in a 21-year-old case of disproportionate assets against Sasikala and the AIADMK’s late leader J. Jayalalithaa. Upholding the trial court’s conviction order of September 27, 2014, Sasikala and two of her family members were found guilty and sentenced to jail, shattering whatever succession plans she had for the AIADMK.
A day later, Sasikala surrendered before a special court within Bengaluru’s Parappana Agrahara jail, her home for the next four years. The intervening hours before she left for Bengaluru were spent in the company of party legislators and loyalists at the Golden Bay Resort at Koovathur, some 80 km from Chennai (where they were cooped up since interim chief minister O. Panneerselvam’s rebellion). Sasikala was showing little signs of relenting or remorse. In a desperate bid to hold on to the party reins, even by remote, she expelled OPS (as Panneerselvam is commonly known) and 19 other leaders of his faction from the party and named Edappadi K. Palanisamy leader of the legislature party and chief ministerial candidate. Sasikala also re-inducted two others into the party—nephew T.V.V. Dinakaran (as deputy general secretary) and her brother’s son-in-law S. Venkatesh, who had been expelled by Jayalalithaa in 2011—stunning the AIADMK cadre in the process.
The latest developments have only added to the uncertainty that grips the party rank and file, already reeling from factional strife among party MLAs over who should be chief minister. For the party’s MPs, their concerns are different. With Lok Sabha polls barely two years away, and
widespread public anger against Sasikala, they reckon there is no hope of returning to power in her company.
The ongoing strife brings to mind the goings-on of 1987 and the AIADMK split after party founder M.G. Ramachandran passed away. It was only after the merger of the two factions and an election debacle in 1989 that the party swept the polls in 1991 to establish itself as a serious political contender under Jayalalithaa’s leadership. Now, Tamil Nadu politics is undergoing another turbulent transition.
Picking Palanisamy, a party veteran of equal standing to OPS, is a shrewd move by Sasikala. He is from the influential, landowning Gounder community of western Tamil Nadu, a dominant presence among AIADMK MLAs. Also, no Gounder has been chief minister till now which should shore up party support in the region. But then there’s a flip side—the party’s traditional Thevar caste cohort, to which both Sasikala and OPS belong, may not take to this too kindly.
And it’s not like she had much choice in the matter, having already made another veteran, K.A. Sengottaiyan, also a Gounder, the party presidium chairman. DMK’s improved strength in the current assembly implies that Panneerselvam needs just 18 MLAs to bring the AIADMK below the halfway mark in the assembly, but at the risk of his ginger group being disqualified. It will have to be at least 90-strong if it is to evade the anti-defection law.
The widespread public support for OPS is because of the growing revulsion for Sasikala and her family (the ‘Mannargudi mafia’) which had tightened its grip on the party post-Jayalalithaa. “The Supreme Court verdict has possibly staved off prospects of what would have been an insufferable oligarchy,” says ex-bureaucrat M.G. Devasahayam of the Forum for Electoral Integrity. BJP national general secretary and Tamil Nadu in-charge P. Muralidhar Rao says, “Sasikala’s attempt to prop up a proxy will not help the party win the people’s trust. She does not enjoy the same level of public endorsement as Jayalalithaa does.” (Interestingly, the saffron party too has taken some flak in all this. The fact that Dr V. Maitreyan, the first AIADMK MP, and K. Pandiarajan, the first minister, to defect to the OPS camp were once with the BJP raised many eyebrows about the ruling party in New Delhi playing a murky role.)
TWO FACES Sasikala (left) visits Jaya’s memorial before going to Bengaluru to serve her sentence, Feb. 15, 2017; O. Panneerselvam meets the press at his home the same day