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Party circles abuzz as Sasikala meets CM Panneerselvam, key ministers

Sasikala Natarajan, the trusted companion of J Jayalalithaa, has been giving out clear signals that she is the new power centre in Tamil Nadu — in the government and the ruling party.

india Updated: Dec 09, 2016 08:09 IST
KV Lakshmana
In this file photo, Sasikala Natarajan is seen with late Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa.
In this file photo, Sasikala Natarajan is seen with late Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa.(PTI)

Sasikala Natarajan, the trusted companion of J Jayalalithaa, has been giving out clear signals that she is the new power centre in Tamil Nadu — in the government and the ruling party.

Speculation was swirling that Sasikala could pitch herself for the top post in the AIADMK after Jayalalithaa’s death on Monday. She was seen standing close to the casket bearing the departed leader’s body, and receiving VIPs such as Prime Minister Narendra Modi when they came to pay respect before the burial on Tuesday.

Chief minister O Panneerselvam and key ministers held discussions on Thursday with the 60-year-old Sasikala, described by many as Jayalalithaa’s conscience keeper. This follows a similar meeting the day before with ministers and party functionaries at Poes Garden, the sprawling bungalow and AIADMK nerve centre where she stayed with the former chief minister for more than three decades.

The crucial question of party leadership was among the topics discussed at these meetings, said a senior leader who didn’t wish to be named. Also, the meetings fueled speculation that she may assume more power in the AIADMK.

Read| Body of evidence: Sasikala and family mark their clout around Jayalalithaa

Panneerselvam is mentioned nowhere for the party position, underscoring that a dual power structure could emerge in the AIADMK — a political situation that party founder MG Ramachandran and protégé Jayalalithaa never allowed.

“For sure, a dual power structure needs to be well-coordinated, or else it could weaken the party, at a time when it faces a formidable opposition in the assembly with a 98-member-strong DMK and its allies,” said Bernard D’ Sami, a professor and political analyst.

The picture will be clear at the party’s general body meeting, the schedule for which is yet to be fixed, though the meet is traditionally held in December. “It might be decided after the seven-day mourning period,” a party leader said.

Until then, Sasikala has to work out the maths. The party legislator for Puducherry, Om Shakti Shekhar, has already opposed any move to make her the general secretary.

“We will not accept Sasikala as the party chief,” he said after a condolence meeting.

Complicated caste equations within the party could also lead to fissures.

Ramachandran, or MGR as he is popularly known, and Jayalalithaa handled this tricky territory with ease. They had an advantage because neither belonged to the five dominant groups — Thevars, Goundars, Vanniars and Nadars and Dalits.

MGR from Kerala was an “outsider” while Jayalalithaa was a Brahmin. They were trusted with no caste leanings. But Panneerselam is a Thevar, as is Sasikala. This makes them vulnerable to resistance from the rest.

Goundar leaders are expected to push for someone such as M Thambidurai, AIADMK parliamentarian and deputy speaker in the Lok Sabha.

“Internal dissensions are a new thing for the AIADMK, which is used to a single commander and there is no leader in the party who come close to Jayalalithaa in stature, intellect or experience in handling a host of complex issues of governance or politics,” said Ramu Manivannan, a professor at Madras University.

If the AIADMK presents the picture of a divided house and fritters away the mandate to rule the state for five years, the DMK will pounce on the opportunity, he said. On hindsight, “that might act as glue for them to stay together”.

Party spokesperson C Ponnaiyan, however, remained optimistic.

“The AIADMK is the number one party of Tamil Nadu and will remain the number one party.”

Read| Sasikala Natarajan: Jayalalithaa’s close aide, the power behind the throne