Chennai: When the 61-year-old V.K. Sasikala – ‘chinnamma’, as she has anointed herself – is sworn in as the new chief minister of Tamil Nadu this week, she will be the third woman to hold the state’s top political job. But whether she will have a long innings in office, like her mentor, the late J. Jayalalithaa, or a short one like Janaki Ramachandran, will depend upon her ability to ensure the continuing loyalty of her party legislators.
On Sunday afternoon, all 136 MLAs attending the ruling AIADMK party legislature meeting in Chennai lined up to unanimously choose her as chief minister. In the best traditions of authoritarian politics, her name was proposed by none other than the serving – and now outgoing – chief minister, O. Panneerselvam or OPS. But Sasikala’s show of strength amongst AIADMK legislators cannot hide the fact that the party’s rank and file cadres, and the wider public in the state, do not approve of the manner in which the reins of government have been placed in chinnamma’s hands.
Panneerselvam will submit his resignation to governor C. Vidyasagar Rao as soon as the latter returns to Chennai from Mumbai.
When OPS was sworn in on December 6, 2016, immediately after Jayalalithaa’s death, it was common knowledge that Sasikala would be the power behind the throne. Giver her personal unpopularity, however, the assumption was that she would not be in a hurry to make herself chief minister. Within weeks, though, a steady chorus emerged from the party’s legislators in Delhi and Chennai – presumably egged on by Sasikala – that she should take charge from the hapless Panneerselvam. When a couple of senior bureaucrats who were powerful in Jayalalithaa’s time were either shunted out or forced to resign two days ago, party leaders braced themselves for the coup de grace.
The soft-spoken Panneerselvam was tightlipped on Sunday morning when he visited Marina beach to supervise the cleaning operations of an oil spill there. When reporters asked him about the possibility of a change of guard, he simply smiled, brushed aside the question and walked away. It was his last official visit as chief minister before he announced his resignation later in the day.
Panneeerselvam’s loyalty was promptly praised by Sasikala via the AIADMK twitter handle: “Following the demise of our Honorable Amma, it was Thiru O Panneerselvam who urged me first to take charge as the General Secretary of AIADMK”. Later, addressing the AIADMK MLA party meet, Sasikala said “It was Panneerselvam again who insisted I become the chief minister of the state”.
A furious opposition described the development as a black day for democracy. The state Congress committee condemned the move, with its former president E.V.K.S. Elangovan describing the change as totally unacceptable and as something that would undermine democratic values. “We don’t mind Sasikala becoming general secretary of AIADMK. But her becoming the chief minister is nothing but a black day for democracy,” he added.
The DMK working president and leader of opposition in the state assembly M.K. Stalin said, “People have not voted for someone in Jayalalithaa’s house to become the chief minister”. Jayalalithaa’s niece and an emerging challenger to Sasikala’s authority in the state, Deepa, said, “Sasikala taking over the party and the government is like a military coup of sorts.”
While the choreography seems coup-like, Sasikala’s relationship with party MLAs is a product of the hands-on role she played as Jayalalithaa’s confidante in selecting candidates and distributing tickets over the years. One senior Congress leader from Tamil Nadu conceded to The Wire in New Delhi that Sasikala was integral to the AIADMK’s political strategy in the state, even if her somewhat shadowy backroom presence made her the object of public suspicion as well.
Sasikala, a close associate of Jayalalithaa for 33 years, belongs to the Thevar community – the dominant caste in the southern districts of Tamil Nadu. Sasikala’s nephew V.N. Sudhakaran was adopted by Jayalalithaa as her foster son in 1995 during her first tenure as chief minister. His wedding created a huge controversy at that time because of its lavishness. But later, after losing power in the 1996 assembly elections, Jayalalithaa disowned her ‘foster son’. When she came back to power in 2001, Sudhakaran was arrested by the Tamil Nadu police in a heroin case. He was finally acquitted of the charge only in 2013.
Sasikala was disowned by Jayalalithaa in December 2011 for anti-party activities. Sasikala, her husband M. Natarajan and several of her relatives were shunted out of the party. Though Sasikala rejoined Jayalalithaa in April 2012, others including Natarajan were kept at a safe distance by Jayalalithaa till her death. Today, Sasikala has an iron grip over the AIADMK, with all the 136 MLAs solidly backing her candidature for the chief minister’s post.
Yet there is huge animosity prevailing against her both among her own party cadres and in the general public. “This is the irony of the situation. Today Sasikala is disliked not only by a significant section of the general population but also by the AIADMK’s ground level cadres. “Her acceptance level among the cadres is almost negligible but she commands nearly 100% support among her own MLAs. So what can we do or what can the governor too could do? The governor has no option but to invite Sasikala for her swearing in,” a former AIADMK minister who has now been sidelined told The Wire.
In the disproportionate assets case in which Jayalalithaa was convicted and later acquitted by the Karnataka high court, Sasikala was also one of the accused. The case is still pending in the Supreme Court for final orders. A division bench of Justices Pinaki Chandra Ghose and Amitava Roy reserved its orders after hearing the appeals by the Karnataka government on June 7, 2016 but the verdict is expected within a week. “This judgment which is expected anytime could be detrimental for Sasikala. If she is convicted then she has to immediately step down. If the court upholds her acquittal then it will be a cake walk. So I think a lot depends on this impending judgment,” says C. Kannan, a senior journalist.
But others feel that Sasikala’s primary challenges stem not from the judiciary but from her own family. “I think her biggest problem is her family. There are two main power centres – one is her husband Natarajan and the other one is her younger brother Divakaran. Apart from that, there are at least a dozen little power centres and the state bureaucracy has already started feeling the heat of this since the death of Jayalalithaa two months ago. Her own family is a millstone around her neck,” says a retired senior bureaucrat.
It’s not clear how the Narendra Modi government or the BJP is going to react to the latest developments but the fact is that the Centre has got virtually no options. “It’s an open secret that the BJP high command does not want Sasikala to become the chief minister and Modi’s choice was always Panneerselvam. But after the AIADMK legislature party elected Sasikala as their new leader, the governor has no option but to invite her to form the government. Legally and constitutionally, there is no bar for Sasikala to become chief minister. As far as the timing is concerned, it’s indeed a shrewd move by Sasikala’s camp because the entire attention of the BJP and the prime minister is now diverted towards Uttar Pradesh and, moreover, the parliament session is on. Any misadventure on the part of the Centre to scuttle Sasikala’s appointment will generate a huge backlash. It may pave the way for other regional parties like the Trinamool Congress to rally around the AIADMK. The AIADMK has 37 Lok Sabha MPs and its strength in the Rajya Sabha is 13. So the stakes are very high for the BJP. I don’t think Modi can afford to open yet another front in his present-day political battle,” says a BJP veteran from the state.
Sasikala is currently not an MLA. If she becomes chief minister, she will have to get elected from any one of the constituencies in the 234 strength assembly and the process has to be completed within the six months period of her taking charge as chief minister. Given the animosity prevailing among the general public, this may not be an easy task for the AIADMK.
R. Ramamasubramanian is a senior Chennai-based journalist.