When the wrought iron gates of Poes Garden are thrown open rather grandly and Chinnamma stands with folded hands, accepting condolences of people and party workers, there is no doubt who is in charge. Chinnamma, as Sasikala Natarajan was known until a few days ago, is now Amma. This was a moniker hitherto reserved for J Jayalalithaa, Tamil Nadu chief minister and supremo of the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), who breathed her last on December 5. Funeral over, Veda Nilayam, the home in Poes Garden where Jaya and Sasikala lived, continues to be the focal point of political activity.
Chief minister O Panneerselvam and his cabinet of 30 ministers have been making a beeline there to take instructions from Sasikala, now poised to take command over the party. “What is wrong in meeting Sasikala Amma?” asked C. Ponnaiyan, an AIADMK spokesperson, at an impromptu press meet in Chennai at the party headquarters. “Why can’t they meet her? She is an important member of the party,” he said, to queries on why even the Director General of Police (DGP) of the state and the chief secretary had turned up at Poes Garden.
The party is poised to elect a new general secretary, the top post held by Jayalalithaa. As per the Election Commission’s rules, a new general secretary has to be in place by December 31. It is now taken for granted that Sasikala is likely to be firmly ensconced there, as senior leaders of the party, ministers and members of parliament have all publicly “requested Chinnamma to lead the party”.
While all this is going on, not all is well within the 1.5-crore strong party. Anger is boiling over amongst the cadre and staunch voters who feel an outsider is usurping the post.
One such is Jayalakshmi Rajendran, a party member from Saidapet in Chennai, who harbours deep disquiet about where things are going. “There will be nobody born like our Amma in the next seven generations,” she told this reporter at Rajaji Hall on December 6, as Jayalalithaa’s body lay in state. “Sasikala is responsible for her death because she was the only one who was with Amma for 75 days and no one was even allowed to see her. Sasikala has to answer many questions. How did our Amma die?” the 53-year-old questioned angrily.
Jayalalithaa was hospitalised at Apollo Hospital in Chennai on September 22, 2016. Despite questions about the nature of her illness, there was a shroud of secrecy for the next two and a half months. No information was made available to the media or the public regarding her condition, except for vague statements cranked out by the hospital at intervals. On the night of December 4, it issued a sudden statement saying Jaya had suffered a cardiac arrest. She was declared dead at 11.30 pm on December 5.
Satish Poyyadappan (28) is not a party member but a staunch Amma loyalist and voter living in Indira Nagar, Chennai. He too was furious at the way his leader had died. “She (Sasikala) did not allow anyone near her. She could have at least shown Amma’s face to us – a photo or a video, anything,” he argued.
Fractures along caste lines too have shown up. “This is now a completely Thevar party,” said a middle-rung AIADMK worker who didn’t want to be named. “There is no space for anyone else.” Both Sasikala and chief minister O Panneerselvam belong to the Thevar community, a backward caste dominant in the southern districts of Tamil Nadu.
Workers from the Kongu belt too are unhappy. This region is on the State’s western belt, comprising districts like Coimbatore, Tiruppur, Erode and Namakkal and the dominant caste here are the Gounders, another powerful Backward Caste. “We will not be given importance in the party now, unlike when Amma was there,” said a close associate of an MLA from the belt, who did not wish to be named. “Ironically, we were the ones who ushered in a win for the party. It did not do so well in the north and south [in the last election],” he added.
It must be mentioned here that Jayalalithaa, a Brahmin, managed to cobble together various factions of the decidedly anti-Brahmin, Dravidian party.
In the May 2016 elections to the state assembly, the AIADMK’s traditional vote bank of Thevars cracked. It was an even battle between the AIADMK and archrival DMK (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) in the Thevar-dominated southern belt of the state. But the AIADMK swept the Gounder-dominated western belt, winning 44 seats. However, out of the 28 Gounder MLAs, only three are ministers. But out of only 20 Thevar MLAs, as many as nine are ministers. Dalits fare much worse – only three out of 31 Dalit MLAs are ministers in the state cabinet. This, when the AIADMK had captured a large chunk of the Dalit vote bank in the State, as well as that of women.
Dalit leaders within the party are now unsure of where they stand, as are Dalit voters, who have regularly preferred the AIADMK since its inception. “Jayalalithaa had a vaseegaram (charisma),” said Thol Thirumavalavan, leader of the Dalit party, Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK). “Like MGR, she had a following that cut across caste lines and she too did not overtly display her caste although she was born a Brahmin. Now no one in the party can dictate equality or unbiased attitude towards caste. Although Jaya was not a particularly pro-Dalit leader, Dalits in the State trusted her. Dalit support for MGR was transferred to Jayalalithaa. But I doubt this support will get transferred similarly to Panneerselvam or anyone else,” he observed.
Meanwhile, the mood amongst AIADMK party workers is grim, particularly with regard to transparency. The mystery shrouding Jaya’s death has sparked off anger and they are further agitated over the capitulation of their leaders to the new developments.
“When MGR died in 1987, the party split into two factions,” recalled a senior AIADMK functionary who did not wish to be named. “At that time, the leaders went with Janaki (MGR’s wife) faction but the cadre went with the Jaya faction. Ultimately,” he said, “the cadre will dictate who the leader of the party will be.”
But this is a far cry from what is happening at the power centre. The first leader within the party to make his move following Jaya’s death was KA Sengottaiyan, MLA from Gobichettipalayam near Coimbatore, in the western belt of the State.
Sengottaiyan’s history with Sasikala is far from smooth. A Gounder, he joined the party in 1975 and worked together with MG Ramachandran, party founder and former chief minister, to establish a firm base for the AIADMK in the western districts. He became a Jaya loyalist with MGR’s demise. In 2011, he was made a minister, for the second time after 1991 when she first became chief minister. The same year, i.e., 2011, Jayalalithaa and Sasikala had a falling out, with the latter being banished from Veda Nilayam. Sengottaiyan is reported to have celebrated her ouster publicly. However, within a few months, Sasikala was back, having written an emotional letter to her ‘sister’ Jaya. And Sengottaiyan was one of the victims of that reunion – he lost his ministerial berth and was sidelined in the party.
But Sengottaiyan is not a man to be ignored completely. A powerful politician in the western region credited with winning the area for the party, he was once again given a ticket in 2016 and won with ease. With the passing of Jaya, the Gounders within the AIADMK look to Sengottaiyan for a share in power, according to a party source. “He has asked for a ministerial berth,” the source added. No information is available as to how the patch-up between the two former foes finally occurred, but Sengottaiyan, on December 9, made his loyalty to Sasikala clear.
“As far as I am concerned I will remain loyal and supportive to this party which has been protected and nurtured by Amma,” he wrote in a statement released to the media. “Then, now and always, I will remain true to my party’s leadership and a devotee of Amma. I will take legal action against newspapers and online portals that publish falsehoods and rumours about me.”
With Sengottaiyan’s capitulation, other ministers too began to fall in line. Phone calls from the new Amma brought them running to Poes Garden, much as they did when Jayalalithaa was alive.
As for third-time chief minister and staunch Jaya loyalist O Panneerselvam, he initially appeared to be in a mood to rebel, following his leader’s demise. Sources close to OPS, as he is known, said he had ignored Sasikala’s summons to Poes Garden on December 7, claiming he was unwell. The next day, however, he too fell in line after a meeting with Sasikala. What transpired between the two remains between them.
OPS, in a sense, owes his political career to Sasikala. When the AIADMK split in 1987 after MGR’s death, he had backed the Janaki faction, even campaigning against Jayalalithaa in the 1989 polls. Once the party reunited, he quickly switched loyalties, helping Sasikala’s nephew, TTV Dhinakaran, win the Periyakulam parliamentary seat in 1999. From then on, OPS was firmly in the good books of Jayalalithaa and Sasikala, stepping in twice as interim Chief Minister when the courts dislodged Jaya from her post in 2001 and 2014. An added advantage was the kinship of caste – both Sasikala and he are Thevars.
“OPS is the only viable option for now, which was created, ironically, because Jayalalithaa had to repeatedly step down due to court rulings in corruption cases against her,” said RK Radhakrishnan, veteran journalist. “As we have seen, the AIADMK has so far negotiated the post-Jayalalithaa phase with a maturity largely [befitting] seasoned politicians. The choice of OPS falls into this category of not attempting any jerky, big, possibly problematic changes in the near term. From a larger perspective, OPS is a strange choice, because he hails from an intermediate caste that is seen largely as an oppressor of the castes below,” he added.
But OPS has his finger on the cadre’s pulse, according to those close to him. He is well aware of the opposition to Sasikala and her extended family, better known as the Mannargudi clan, who had been banished by Jayalalithaa in 2011. The presence of Sasikala’s husband Natarajan, brother VN Dhivakaran, nephews TTV. Dhinakaran and Bhaskaran as well as sister-in-law Ilavarasi, her son Vivek and others, has only fuelled the anger of the cadre which views this as an opportunistic takeover of the party leadership.
In all this churning, enter Deepa Jayakumar too, Jayalalithaa’s niece, who is echoing the cadre with her questions. “I want to know what happened to my aunt. What was ailing her? How did she die?” she asked. “Why was I not allowed to see her when she was in hospital? Who took the decision to bury her? And if there is a will, it should be made public,” the 42-year-old added. Though a novice, she too has thrown her hat into the ring, stating that she would join politics “if the people wanted”.
So which way will the party go? For now, a delicate balance has been attained, with Sasikala likely to be elected the next AIADMK general secretary shortly. As caste, anger and money power mingle, the limits of personal ambition of many will be sorely tested in the months to come.
Published in arrangement with GRIST Media