In Jail Or Not, The Growing Stature Of Sasikala And Family

Published: February 20, 2017 12:10 IST
Politics is as unpredictable as mountain weather. But Tamil Nadu politics takes the cake for dramatic changes. Some disgruntled restless aatma must be juggling the balls beneath the Chief Minister's chair in Tamil Nadu.

In a touch and go floor test, AIADMK's Edappadi Palanisamy (hereinafter EPS), literally the ek din ka raja (king for a day), mustered the support of 122 MLAs to prove his majority while his rival O Panneerselvam (OPS) retained his trusted 11.

Though OPS put up a brave face till the morning of the floor test, it was evident that he could not match the shenanigans of the Sasikala faction which had all the power and money that was needed for the Pyrrhic victory. EPS moved fairly very fast. Within five hours of the Governor asking him to assume office of Chief Minister, he reached Raj Bhawan to take oath of office, with time only to go to Amma's Samadhi in Marina Beach. He spent more time in the resort with the AIADMK MLAs in "detention" there, than in the Chief Minister's Office. Obviously, he knew he cannot take his eyes off even one of them.

After the stinging but belated judgment forcefully indicting former Chief Minister Jayalalithaa and Sasikala for corruption and other related irregularities resulting in amassing disproportionate assets, politics was expected to take a new turn. An astute and cunning Sasikala knew about her fate and prepared to take over the party and the government. Her action plan was to hurriedly become the CM before the Supreme Court verdict and hold on to the Chief Minister's chair as long as possible. She would have had to quit finally, but the Chief Ministerial post would have ensured certain additional facilities in jail. Had she become the Chief Minister, she would have had to quit in less than two three days, but not before ensuring her power and safety. Even without that, she managed to become party General Secretary and tighten her stranglehold on the party. Even after the Supreme Court's judgment, she held party meetings, a press conference, expelled her opponents from the party, elected her proxy for the Chief Minister's post.
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VK Sasikala was among the closest aides of former AIADMK chief Jayalalithaa

Besides, she could have done much more to cover her tracks. She refused to surrender and had the police virtually under her command. Imagine, had she been the Chief Minister, how much  more she could have done. She would have mocked the Supreme Court by using all available immunities and probably not gone to jail at all.

Seeing through this plan, the Governor of Tamil Nadu, C Vidyasagar Rao, delayed the swearing in and rightly so. This forced Sasikala to resort to Plan B, which, one must admit, has worked. 

As per this plan, she swiftly moved her MLAs to a resort, fortified it and "elected" her proxy to be Chief Minister, exactly on the lines of what Jayalalithaa had done.

OPS, who started his career as a tea stall owner, held important portfolios in Jayalalithaa's cabinet - Public Works, Revenue and Finance - and he was the first Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu from the Thevar community, one of the largest and loyal vote banks of the AIADMK. A staunch Amma loyalist, OPS became the Revenue Minister in Amma's government and held the office from 19 May, 2001 to 1 September 2001. It was during this time that Jayalalithaa was barred by the Supreme Court from holding the Chief Minister's office as she was convicted in the TANSI land scam. She chose OPS to hold the Chief Minister's Office. The tenure lasted for six months, from 21 September, 2001 to 1 March, 2002. In true filmy style, he never sat on the Chief Minister's chair, but kept her photo on it and occupied the next chair, thus becoming the first "puppet government", remote-controlled by Jayalalithaa.

Meanwhile, for two weeks in May 2006, he was made Leader of the Opposition in the Tamil Nadu assembly and was also appointed the leader of the party's legislative group. 

He again became her proxy Chief Minister on 27 September, 2014 when Jayalalithaa was convicted in the disproportionate assets case. In 2015, when she was acquitted in the Disproportionate Assets case, OPS dutifully vacated the chair for Amma. In the 2016 Assembly election, the AIADMK returned to power, albeit with a thinner margin, and Jayalalithaa became Chief Minister for A record sixth time. Her trusted loyalist OPS became her Finance Minister. When she succumbed to a major cardiac arrest in December, 2016, OPS was chosen as her successor.
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O Panneerselvam too had staked claim to the top post but could not gather enough support within the party

It was obvious that Sasikala did not like this arrangement but was too shrewd to either say it in public or defy the party at that time. During the 2016 assembly  election, Sasikala successfully planted anti-OPS news and got him out of Amma's team of negotiators for seat-sharing. In fact,three of the AIADMK's most influential leaders that time, OPS, Natham Viswanathan (Power Minister) and P Palaniappan (Minister for Higher Education) were not part of either seat-sharing talks or crucial electoral committee meetings. Thus, Sasikala ensured that these top three ministers were cut down to size, thereby clearing her path to the top post.

After Jayalalithaa's death, Sasikala took a series of steps to take total control of the party and the government. She kept all family members of Jayalalithaa out of the last rites. She was the one who decided every aspect of the funeral, last rites and the post-funeral sympathy gathering. 

Sasikala's next move was to take over the party and unseat OPS. Taking over the party was child's play. OPS and the rest of the crowd played along and anointed her the party General Secretary in the fond hope that her greed would end there. It is only then that she came up with her next move, asking OPS to resign and propose her name as Chief Minister. By now, the party was in her grip and OPS had enough enemies who were waiting to dislodge him.

Here is where Sasikala miscalculated those whom she considered minions. Slighted by his colleagues and stripped of his power, OPS had nothing to lose by revolting, which he did. In a dramatic move, he sat in meditation at the samadhi of Amma and addressed the press. Rest, as they say, is history.

EPS winning the confidence vote was a foregone conclusion. Even if the DMK and Congress had voted with the breakaway MLAs supporting OPS, the numbers were against them. The only way OPS could have won was to have a secret ballot. Though there is no express provision for a secret ballot, there is no blanket ban on it either. An impartial Speaker could have announced a secret ballot. But then a Speaker who enjoyed the hospitality and possibly other doles of Sasikala in the Golden Bay Resort did exactly what was expected of him.

More than the winning of EPS, the fallout of the proxy's victory seems to be more interesting. Ideally, Sasikala's proxy should have been on Cloud Nine after defeating "traitor" OPS. But it was the DMK that marched on to the Gandhi statue at Marina Beach and then to the Governor. The banner of revolt against Sasikala and the fight for democracy was by now firmly in the hands of MK Stalin, the DMK patriarch's blue-eyed boy.
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AIADMK's Edappadi Palaniswami, party chief VK Sasikala's proxy, was sworn-in as Tamil Nadu's chief minister last week

By all means, the DMK will now become the most vocal opposition to Sasikala's proxy. They will make his life miserable, not allow the assembly to function and generally use every trick in the trade to keep EPS on tenterhooks. Meanwhile, Sasikala will move the court to get transferred to Chennai Jail which will have an AC room for her with all attendant facilities available only to the Chief Minister of the state. 

With a remote firmly in her hand, her murky deals in the state may continue unabated. After completing her jail term, in full comfort, she will be still left with a year of the assembly's term. That is when she will kick the proxy out and take on the DMK.

The DMK will love this situation for it knows very well that in a straight fight between Stalin and Sasikala, the latter is a feather-weight opponent. The DMK thus will have a cake walk in the next assembly election with an added appeal from the octogenarian Karunanidhi that this is his last election to see the Dravidian sun rise again.

OPS has to rework his strategy to retain his political relevance and ensure his future. It may be difficult, but he has a bright future if he is able to sustain his group for another four years. OPS signifies something very rare and important for politics in Tamil Nadu, which has been dominated by celluloid figures ever since the fall of Congress Chief Minister Bhaktavatsalam. The anti-Hindi agitation heralded a new dimension to politics when the DK and the DMK dominated the socio-political narrative. The DMK had a wealth of cinema artists, actors, script writers and film producers, hugely popular among the masses. Little wonder that Dravidian veteran C.N. Annadurai could easily ride the popularity wave and become Chief Minister displacing the Congress. After him, M. Karunanidhi, another script writer rode to power. His bête noire M.G. Ramachandran challenged the DMK bosses and dislodged Karunanidhi. After MGR, his wife tried to occupy the space vacated by him, but was no match for the charismatic silver screen co-star of MGR, Selvi. J. Jayalalithaa. The Karnataka-born Iyengar Brahmin lady stormed the citadel of power and became Amma to millions. She successfully shattered two myths, that in a highly Dravidianised polity, the Chief Minister's post is strictly reserved for an anti-Brahmin Dravidian male. 

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Last month, MK Stalin took over as "working president" of DMK. Father MK Karunanidhi, 92, stays chief

OPS was probably the first Tamil Nadu Chief Minister who has no cinema background and the prominent vermilion plus ash (vibhuti) mark on his forehead trumpets his Hinduness or religiosity. Again, Sasikala too has very little cinema background and seeks to outperform her master by occupying the apex power in the state.

Now with Sasikala in jail, her proxy EPS as Chief Minister, OPS out in the streets and Jaya in her grave, there is a political vacuum in Tamil Nadu. For once, the AIADMK has a golden opportunity to grow on the strength of its ideology, dedicated workforce and good work. They can do away with the fixation on a silver screen hero and heroine. But it is doubtful if it will be able to sever its connections with the powerful Sasikala parivar which is sitting on huge amount of ill-gotten money and immovable assets. Sasikala herself has no political base of her own and therefore, without the stranglehold on the AIADMK, she has no political future.

The Congress and BJP have been relegated to the background for long. The BJP gained political support when Atal Behari Vajpayee was the Prime Minister. He was very popular. Now Narendra Modi is very popular in Tamil Nadu. But the party needs a strong local leadership and widespread presence in the state.

In such a scenario, it is little wonder that the DMK leader M.K. Stalin sees a bright future for him and his party. How far he will succeed in his dream is another story.

(Seshadri Chari is National Executive member of the BJP)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

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