Sasikala draws first blood

Sasikala draws first blood
It was one drama that had several climaxes and anti-climaxes woven into each other. It made a hero out of O Paneerselvam, while putting a little known Koovathur on the political map of Tamil Nadu.

It had good friends draw daggers at each other. Governor Ch Vidyasagar Rao might have just put an end to this political drama that played out over a week in Tamil Nadu, but for many it is just a lull before another fiery storm.

The political uncertainty that loomed over the AIADMK after J Jayalalithaa’s death on December 5 seemed momentary with the AIADMK leaders quickly rallying around her “soul sister” and friend V K Sasikala. They had hoped that Sasikala can keep the party intact, and prevent a split like the one that happened after founder M G Ramachandran’s death in 1987. With four and a half years of their term still remaining, most of the leaders in the AIADMK were keen on keeping the party together. But exactly two months later, the uncertainty has come back to haunt the AIADMK. With the party’s new-found hope Sasikala in jail and apparent fissures over her family’s influence, the AIADMK is finding itself in the crossroads again.

When leader after leader from the AIADMK queued up at Poes Garden urging Sasikala to take over the party’s mantle, she probably thought her ascension to power would be easier than she had imagined. Since December 29, when she was appointed the party’s general secretary, Sasikala’s makeover has been strikingly dramatic. It was evident that ‘Chinnamma’ (junior mother) was making every effort possible to step out of her “soul sister’s” shadow and become a leader in her own right. But to do that, she had to necessarily invoke the image of Jayalalithaa. From her make up to the hair-do and even sarees, Sasikala imitated Jayalalithaa in every way possible. She perhaps thought that by doing so, she could earn the complete loyalty that Jayalalithaa had enjoyed among her party cadres.

But the first blow to Sasikala’s dream run towards the chief minister’s chair came two days after Paneerselvam resigned as chief minister, proposing Sasikala as the new legislature party leader. The 40-minute meditation by Paneerselvam at Jayalalithaa’s memorial on February 7 was perhaps one of the best political stunts pulled off by any leader in Tamil Nadu. For those who had been seeing Paneerselvam since his first stint as stand-in chief minister for Jayalalithaa in 2001, this was a makeover of another kind and more stunning than Sasikala’s.

Even as she was bracing herself to tackle Paneerselvam and co, the Supreme Court dealt a severe blow to Sasikala by restoring the trial court order in the disproportionate assets case handing out four years imprisonment to her. On the eve of judgement day, Sasikala stayed at Koovathur – her third visit to the resort outside Chennai where MLAs were holed up for over a week – giving them pep talks.

But the mood quickly turned from upbeat to somber on the morning of February 14 after the Supreme Court judgement was pronounced. The judgement effectively dashed her grand plans for the party and the government. Sasikala is said to have been reluctant about choosing Edappadi K Palaniswami as the chief ministerial candidate but had no choice because the MLAs were apparently firm about having one among them. Her chief concern, perhaps, was that Palaniswami would soon do a Paneerselvam in her absence.

A politician from the powerful ‘Gounder’ community and a senior in the party, Palaniswami has the kind of backing that few other leaders in the AIADMK enjoy. Perhaps to keep the party and government under control, Sasikala appointed her nephew T T V Dinakaran as deputy general secretary hours after readmitting him into the party. Dinakaran was ousted from the party along with Sasikala and her relatives in 2011 by Jayalalithaa, and even while admitting Sasikala back in to party a year later, Jayalalithaa had refrained from readmitting her relatives.

A source said the move to bring in Dinakaran has not gone down well with many party seniors. Critics also feel its Sasikala’s way of exercising control over the party and government from the Parappana Agrahara prison in Bengaluru where she has been lodged. For Palaniswami, who managed amid a huge melee to win the vote of confidence, this would be an addition to the already long list of problems at hand. Though he won, Palaniswami would still be facing the public wrath against Sasikala. Observers say it might not be long before the overwhelming public anger gets better of the situation, perhaps leading to another election.

Palaniswami will also be weighed down by the fact that he might have to toe the line of Sasikala and her family, a task made harder by Sasikala’s absence and her family’s alleged high-handedness. Besides accompanying Sasikala and Palaniswami to meet the governor even when he was not a member of the party, Dinakaran was also seen occupying the front rows along with a few other family members when the new government took charge. Another source said Palaniswami is likely to visit Sasikala soon in the jail and brief her about government activities.

It might not be long before a rebellion against Dinakaran and other members breaks out in the AIADMK just as Paneerselvam rebelled against Sasikala. Karuppasamy Pandiyan for one, a senior AIADMK leader from the south, has already quit his position as organisational secretary in the party in protest against Dinakaran’s elevation. A disgruntled few have decided to wait and watch. Paneerselvam has also announced that he would tour the length and breadth of the state to meet voters and seek justice.

At the moment, it looks like Palaniswami has reasons to smile but who will have the last laugh in this quicksilver political climate of Tamil Nadu is anybody’s guess.

(The writer is a senior journalist based in Chennai)
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