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AIADMK crisis: Is BJP stirring the soup that Sasikala and crew are in?

Several ministers, including the chief minister Edappadi Palaniswami, have decided to keep Dinakaran and his family ‘outside the party’. Sources say the decision was being discussed for a few days now.

india Updated: Apr 19, 2017 21:28 IST
Kavitha Muralidharan
Tamil Nadu

VK Sasikala pays her respects at the memorial for former state chief minister Jayalalithaa Jayaram before leaving to surrender to authorities, following a Supreme Court ruling, in Chennai on February 15, 2017. India's Supreme Court jailed the anointed next leader of Tamil Nadu for four years for corruption on February 14, heightening the turmoil in a state still reeling from the death of its long-time matriarch. (AFP Photo)

In the solitude of the Parappana Agrahara jail where she has been lodged since her conviction in the disproportionate assets case by the Supreme Court in February, VK Sasikala will probably be reflecting on the strange quirk of fate that snatched her away from the chief minister’s chair in Tamil Nadu and put her in confinement in Bengaluru.

Staring at a similar fate is Sasikala’s nephew and political heir TTV Dinakaran, booked in a case by the Delhi police for allegedly trying to bribe the Election Commission through a middleman to secure the AIADMK’s two-leaves symbol for his own faction.

In trying to board the Tamil Nadu power merry-go-round in a hurry, he may have tripped, just like his aunt. The obstacles Dinakaran faces are not just from the Delhi police, but also within the party, quite apart from the loud speculation in political circles about how much the BJP has to do with his troubles.

Last week, a section of Tamil Nadu’s ministers reportedly met Dinakaran and asked him to step down ‘to pacify the Central government’. “Clearly, the BJP at the Centre has a role in the adversities that have befallen since Amma’s death. It is evident that they are angry with Sasikala’s family. We would end up losing the government if the family continues to be at the forefront. We told him he could continue to control the party but from behind the scenes,” says a TN minister, who didn’t want to be named. According to him, Dinakaran had promised to take up the issue with his aunt during their next meeting.

Barely two months after O Panneerselvam and his supporters were denied entry into the party office for being ‘disloyal to Sasikala and her clan’, Dinakaran is facing a similar fate.

Several ministers, including the chief minister Edappadi Palaniswami, have decided to keep Dinakaran and his family ‘outside the party’. Sources say the decision was being discussed for a few days now.

When Dinakaran announced on April 19 that the party cadres supported him and that he would hold a meeting of district secretaries at the headquarters to ‘sort out the issue’, KA Sengottaiyan, the presidium chairman and education minister, declared that Dinakaran cannot hold the meeting.

Sensing growing animosity against his family, Dinakaran announced that he won’t involve himself in party affairs, and that he had no regrets. “I would have stayed away from the party if that’s what the leaders had wanted. They could have discussed it with me. I do not want the party to suffer a split at any cost,” he told the media on Wednesday.

TTV Dinakaran after filing his nomination papers for RK Nagar assembly seat bypolls in Thondayarpettu, Chennai on Thursday. (PTI)

In an apparent bid to save the party and the government, the ministers met on the night of April 17 and discussed the possible merger with the O Panneerselvam camp, when Dinakaran was away. Till recently, this kind of activity among ministers without the involvement of party leadership was unthinkable in the AIADMK. The talks continued (amazingly enough, onboard the warship INS Chennai) on April 18. A nine-member team was formed to hold talks with the OPS team even as ministers KA Sengottaiyan and Dindigul Srinivasan called on Dinakaran to apprise him of the developments.

But a few MLAs from Sasikala’s camp reject the idea of keeping her family out. “A few ministers cannot take a decision on party affairs. They don’t have such an authority,” said P Vetrivel, MLA from Sasikala camp. If more voices join him, the AIADMK might be headed for another split centred on Dinakaran.

Meanwhile, when asked about Dinakaran’s absence in the discussions, minister D Jayakumar said Dinakaran would be “briefed on the discussions when he is back,” and ruled out Sasikala’s resignation from the party. But whether Sasikala, current general secretary, would approve of a merger with the O Panneerselvam camp — considered traitor — is a million dollar question. Panneerselvam, however, has his own demands: that Sasikala and her family should stay away from politics for them to merge.

For now, the AIADMK leaders have different priorities. “This is Amma’s party and Amma’s government. We are taking efforts to keep them going. We will also take steps to retrieve the two-leaves symbol,” the unnamed minister says.

For long, Dinakaran and his supporters had tried to withstand the onslaught. Dinakaran even gave interviews saying he wouldn’t allow the BJP to grow in Tamil Nadu. But the FIR seems like the last straw. “It is like we are faced with the option of either tagging along with Dinakaran and stand to lose everything, or just lose him and save everything else. It’s a Hobson’s choice really,” the minister says.

“The BJP probably wanted to stop Sasikala and her family before they became as influential as Jayalalithaa.”

For the BJP, according to experts, removing Sasikala and her family from Tamil Nadu’s political scene would make the party’s growth in the state that much more easier. “They have sensed an opportunity to grow in the state after Jayalalithaa’s death. Sasikala and her family might not be as popular with the public as they are within the party, but it could not have been easier. It was evident that Sasikala was trying to gain complete control over the party and the government just like Jayalalithaa. The BJP probably wanted to stop Sasikala and her family before they became as influential as Jayalalithaa. Obviously, BJP cannot grow in the state in a straight way, so they are using this backdoor method to gain a foothold,” says D Lenin, a CPI leader from Tamil Nadu.

Observers say that without Sasikala’s family, AIADMK will be easier to control for the BJP since there is no Jayalalithaa-like leadership. “Even O Panneerselvam is not as charismatic. His cabinet ministers consider him a peer, not a leader like Jayalalithaa. Also with talks that BJP was behind his revolt, he wouldn’t want to mess with the ruling party. The BJP probably thinks it will be easier to handle any AIADMK leader other than Sasikala and her camp,” says senior journalist Durai Karuna.

On the night of Jayalalithaa’s death, her close confidante and soul sister Sasikala did look every bit invincible. That Sasikala was no novice in politics was well-established when she ensured a smooth transition of power under O Panneerselvam’s leadership within hours of Jayalalithaa’s death.

VK Sasikala leaves for Bengaluru court to surrender herself on Wednesday, in Chennai, India on February 15, 2017. (HT Photo)

In the days and weeks that followed, leader after leader in the party queued up at Jayalalithaa’s Poes Garden residence where Sasikala continued to live, pleading with her to assume the party’s mantle.

Sasikala was appointed general secretary at the end of December, and in two months she was hoping to become the chief minister. Soon after the party’s announcement, O Panneerselvam revolted against Sasikala’s leadership. The same week, Sasikala was convicted in the DA case. Since then, her family and her influence over the party, which was evident even when Jayalalithaa was alive, have suffered a series of setbacks.

Soon after her conviction, Sasikala appointed her nephew TTV Dinakaran as the party’s deputy general secretary, effectively exposing her lack of trust in any senior leader and her desire to keep her family’s hold over the party intact. But Dinakaran’s appointment as the party’s de facto chief has opened up a Pandora’s box.

Under his leadership, the party lost its two-leaves symbol to the Election Commission and came to be identified as AIADMK Amma, while O Panneerselvam’s faction came to be known as AIADMK Puratchi Thalaivi Amma just ahead of the bypoll in RK Nagar, which fell vacant following Jayalalithaa’s death.

The Election Commission, however, postponed the bypoll after allegations of distribution of cash for votes. Dinakaran who was contesting the by-election was apparently hoping to become the Chief Minister if he won. The EC took the drastic step after raids at health minister C Vijayabhaskar’s residence, where the I-T department allegedly confiscated over Rs 89 crore meant for voters in RK Nagar.

Close on the heels of the postponement of RK Nagar by-election came the Delhi police’s case against Dinakaran of attempted bribery of the EC. Dinakaran repeatedly said that there was an attempt to strike the AIADMK down in all these actions. “I have not even heard of this person’s name. This is yet another attempt to destroy the AIADMK. We would face it legally,” he said while denying that there was any confusion within the party.

Dinakaran loyalist Nanjil Sampath has similar views. He says the BJP is behind this — misusing the I-T dept and the Election Commission to corner the AIADMK.

But Thamizhisai Soundararajan, the BJP state president, dispels all allegations of her party’s role in the AIADMK “mess”. “Of course, we want the party to grow in the state but never through backdoors. We are not keen to fish in troubled waters. As far as BJP is concerned, we want a stable and corrupt-free government. We really do not want any kind of instability,” she says.

Refusing to comment on the case against Dinakaran calling it an intra-party affair, DMK’s working president MK Stalin emphatically ruled out the possibility of BJP gaining a foothold in the state. For now, Stalin perhaps prefers to wait and watch.

The DMK recently called an all-party meeting to discuss the farmers’ crises and observers say it could well be a step towards forming an alliance in the event of a mid-term election.

“He is actually ready to handle any situation that might arise out of this current political crisis. Obviously, Stalin doesn’t want to be seen as a leader haggling for a regime change when a democratically-elected government is in place. But the DMK is also clear about keeping the BJP at bay in the state,” says a senior DMK leader.

Thamizhisai accuses Stalin of not taking on the state government ‘sufficiently’. “There are talks that he had deliberately fielded a weak candidate in RK Nagar byelection to help Dinakaran win. This is really strange,” she says.

It would be interesting to watch how Sasikala’s family reacts to the new developments that would leave them in the lurch.

With rumours about her husband Natarajan’s ill-health and the sudden death of her 47-year-old nephew Mahadevan — both wielding considerable influence in several pockets of the state — the family is caught in a quagmire of political instability.

“They can still wield an indirect influence. After all, the party channel Jaya TV is under their control. Many MLAs and MPs have been handpicked by Sasikala and she would continue to enjoy their loyalty. But whether they can sustain it remains to be seen,” Karuna says.

The intrigue in Tamil Nadu continues but for once, Sasikala is far away from the action and unable to steer the warship as she has for decades.

(In arrangement with GRIST Media)