Expelled AIADMK chief VK Sasikala, returning to Tamil Nadu on Monday to a grand welcome after serving a four-year jail term for corruption, made it clear that she intended to reclaim her lost position in the ruling party as she vowed to work for AIADMK "till my last breath".
Despite the AIADMK complaining about her use of the party flag, she flaunted it on her car, signaling that as far as she was concerned, she remains the party's boss. A six-hour road trip stretched to 15 hours as Sasikala's convoy waded through crowds chanting "Chinnamma" and stopped at a few temples on the way. At one point, she was offered a giant garland of flowers and fruits carried with a crane.
"All should unitedly stand as children of one mother to defeat common enemy. This great movement shouldn't disintegrate due to the likes and dislikes of a few," Sasikala told NDTV. That last remark, though she didn't take names, was seen to hint at Chief Minister E Palaniswamy - once her loyalist - and his deputy O Panneerselvam (OPS).
"We should not give room for our political opponents to divide and rule," she added, her words ironically raising the spectre of a revived power tussle within the AIADMK.
"I am a slave for Tamils, the cadre, Tamil culture...But I will never be afraid of oppression."
The words telegraphed a warning for the two leaders who have taken over the party in her absence.
Mr Palaniswamy or EPS, handpicked by Sasikala for the post of Chief Minister when she was sentenced to jail, removed her as part of a patch-up deal with OPS, who had revolted against her leadership after the death of former Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa. While she has challenged her removal in court, the Election Commission has acknowledged the OPS-headed group as the real AIADMK and has permitted them to use the party flag and symbol.
Sasikala, 66, was released from jail on January 27 but had so far been in Bengaluru, where she was treated for Covid.
As Sasikala's convoy entered Tamil Nadu, with the AIADMK flag on her car despite the party's warning against its use by non-members, her supporters showered flowers and danced in celebration.
Though Sasikala cannot contest elections for six years, she indicated that she would not remain a bystander ahead of the Tamil Nadu polls due by May. She even invoked her mentor and former Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, the charismatic and powerful AIADMK leader who died in 2016, leaving the party rudderless and deeply divided.
"As Jayalalithaa said, AIADMK will flourish for 100 more years. I will dedicate the rest of my life to the party's development. Amma's cadre should take a vow to place poll victory at Jayalalithaa's feet," she declared.
Just before her comeback, properties owned by her relatives VN Sudhakaran and J Ilavarasi were confiscated. The Tamil Nadu government said it was following a 2017 Supreme Court order on the two, who had been convicted along with Sasikala in an illegal wealth case.
Sasikala, a live-in companion of Jayalalithaa, took over as AIADMK chief soon after her death. She made an abortive attempt at taking the post of Chief Minister when she was convicted for corruption by the Supreme Court in a case in which Jayalalithaa was also accused.
Jayalalithaa's sprawling home in Chennai, where Sasikala had also stayed, was turned into a memorial last month in a quiet and rushed function amid uncertainty over whether it will stand legal scrutiny.
Sasikala is expected to fight for the AIADMK leadership. Though her nephew TTV Dhinakaran won Jayalalithaa's RK Nagar assembly constituency after her death, his party Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam (AMMK) drew a blank in the 2019 national election. But the AIADMK too suffered a near rout in the same election, with the opposition DMK sweeping what was the first vote since Jayalalithaa's death and the split in the AIADMK.