Outside the AIADMK (All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) headquarters in Chennai on Wednesday, a live counter rang in everyone’s minds to keep track of how many MLAs had come out in support of VK Sasikala, the ruling party’s general secretary in-charge.
Jostling around to keep track, MLA KA Sengottaiyan yelled from the balcony, “131!” The public was still reeling from the late night rush thanks to a press conference held by Tamil Nadu’s chief minister O Panneerselvam, who hit out at Sasikala at Marina Beach on Tuesday night. The wave of dissent has hit hard.
Sasikala waved, her eyes glistening and her lips pursed while she looked on at all the party men jeering, “OPS down, long live Chinnamma” (Sasikala’s moniker, meaning ‘Little Amma’).
A noticeable change was the number of party members and MLAs who were forthcoming in talking to the press, unlike in Jayalalithaa’s time. “We didn’t want him in the first place. He has ruined our image. What he listed as his achievements are all things he is supposed to do. He cannot use that to do drama,” said an MLA from Cuddalore.
“He is a pawn of Stalin and Modi. When he went to Delhi, it was not for the [Jallikattu] ordinance but for fixing a deal with Modi,” said another MLA who did not wish to be named.
Some came out in opposition to Panneerselvam’s work as chief minister. “OPS is a fake. Chinnamma will do a better job than him. How can he speak against the party?” asked a party member from Madurai.
“OPS has no right to go to Amma’s samadhi [memorial]. This is a disgrace to Amma’s name. If he wanted to create a ruckus and speak against Chinnamma why couldn’t he have resigned and left knowing that he’s not rightful to hold the CM’s seat?” questioned an MLA who refused to be named.
By noon, MLAs flocked to the party headquarters and roused more passion among the crowds. “OPS has done a bad job. He has never been able to prove himself. The governor has no choice be-cause all the MLAs choose her and we know she will carry on the baton. How can they oppose a woman? It is like opposing Amma herself,” said a party member from Tiruppur.
Sasikala and her family’s rise
Sasikala’s friendship with Jayalalithaa began in the early 1980s. She hails from Mannargudi in Tiruvarur district in Tamil Nadu and is from the Thevar community, a powerful backward caste. In 1975, she married Chennai-based M Natarajan, a DMK worker. Natarajan was then an assistant public relations officer in the state government posted in Cuddalore. Sasikala ran a video-cassette rental business in Poes Garden. Through this, she made her first contact with Jayalalithaa, a rising star in the AIADMK who wanted Sasikala to provide video coverage of her rallies.
After MGR’s death in 1987, when Jayalalithaa was politically sidelined and had few friends, Sasikala stood by her. She shifted to Poes Garden in 1988 along with Natarajan, by now a known face in Chennai’s political circles, for his self-proclaimed influence among both the DMK and AIADMK camps.
In 1989, a letter of resignation from the state Assembly, written by Jaya surfaced at Natarajan’s house, creating a furore in the state Assembly and throwing suspicion on Natarajan. Jaya removed Natarajan from her residence, but Sasikala stayed.
Soon, Sasikala’s relatives and associates from Mannargudi flocked to the residence in Poes Garden, in the garb of assisting her. Between 1991 and 1996, Jayalalithaa even adopted Sasikala’s nephew VN Sudhakaran and conducted a grand wedding in Chennai for him. After 1996, when the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) came back to power, a slew of corruption cases was slapped against Jayalalithaa, Sasikala and other members of the family. Of these, only two cases remain: a bunch of three FERA cases in the Madras High Court and the Disproportionate Assets case in the Supreme Court.
In 2011, Jayalalithaa threw out Sasikala and 17 members of her family from her home and party. “There was a conspiracy to unseat the chief minister by Sasikala and her family,” said Manoj Pandian, senior AIADMK leader, who was close to Jaya at the time. “Amma herself told me and other leaders.”
But a few months later, Sasikala made a return after disowning her family, making public a letter of apology, in which she promised that she would never aspire to political power. Her sister-in-law Ilavarasi and Ilavarasi’s son Vivek were retained along with her. To date, no member of Sasikala’s family holds membership in the AIADMK or any important post in government.
However, the family’s business interests have grown massively. Over 30 companies are linked to them, including architecture, housing, mining, export-import of granite, printing and publishing, transport services, liquor manufacturing, a film production company and 11-screen multiplex called Jazz Cinemas in Chennai.
Meanwhile at Greenways Road
At O Panneerselvam’s house on Wednesday, people thronged and camped outside for a glimpse of the man who was once the subject of ‘mixture’ memes but has now become their singam (lion). The white-shirted politicians were few that morning, but public were evidently with him.
“Jayalalithaa gained everything from making OPS CM. The ultimate act of making him CM was something no one got. So as CM, how do you remain true to your legacy? By showing that most people are for you. Is he going to give it away because someone asks him? At what point do you protest? It’s a moral and personal dilemma,” says senior journalist RK Radhakrishnan.
The odds are stacked against OPS. Becoming chief minister again after his resignation on 5th Feb-ruary, which has been accepted by Tamil Nadu’s Governor in-charge C Vidyasagar Rao is a tough ask. Sasikala needs a mere 117 MLAs (minus Jayalalithaa) to lay claim to the CM’s seat, a simple majority in the 234-strong House. By all accounts, she has the numbers. So what will happen to OPS and the state Assembly?
What lies in store for Tamil Nadu?
Sasikala may have money or MLA power, but it falls apart if she is found guilty in the upcoming Supreme Court verdict in the 19-year-old Disproportionate Assets case next week. OPS gains from this possibility as the MLAs will gravitate towards power.
For Sasikala, the best-case scenario is that if she is exonerated and sworn in. The best case scenario for OPS would be for the governor to ask him to prove his numbers if Sasikala is convicted.
“It was the same case even in 1985. Janaki [MGR’s wife] had all the MLAs while Jayalalithaa had around three. She had no government but the people were with her. The entire party machinery is with Sasikala. But it doesn’t take too much time to change. MLAs are fickle beings; they are not used to rebelling. Suddenly OPS has become the hero. There has been no dissent only because of this military discipline. Once MLAs realise OPS might get a chance, they will easily jump ship,” says Radhakrishnan.
Panneerselvam stated in Tuesday’s press meet at the Marina Beach that his signature on the letter of resignation was coerced and given under duress. But he can again ask the Governor to call for him to be appointed as CM if he has a majority of his own.
“Whatever happens, Sasikala cannot claim to be appointed under Article 164(4) of the Constitution without being an MLA. It is not an omnibus clause to be used whenever; it can only be used with-out intervening circumstance. In the case of 2001, Jayalalithaa was installed by then Governor Fathima Beevi, without being an MLA. But the courts said that Jaya cannot get appointed as CM when she cannot contest an election due to pending cases. It is not justifiable under public support,” said a senior advocate in Chennai.
There are three major hurdles for Sasikala, according to legal experts:
DA case pending final orders: If there is an appeal pending against a case which is likely to be announced shortly, she will not be in a place to seek position in a ministry without being an elected member. She cannot say she is superior to senior MLAs unless she has climbed the political ladder for years.
Legislature party leadership: She can never appoint herself as leader of the legislature party. It applies only to a member of the house. She is neither in Parliament nor Assembly.
Interim secretary post: She has been appointed as interim general secretary. The bylaws of the AIADMK do not provide for that. There is one general secretary elected by all members. The secretary who was previously appointed is in a committee to manage an interim secretary; there is only a provision for a commit-tee, as argued by Manoj Pandian, senior lawyer and leader of the AIADMK.
As Tamil Nadu heads into a situation of confusion and political churn, all eyes are on Governor Vidyasagar Rao to see what his next move will be as he is expected to arrive in Chennai on Thursday.
(Published in arrangement with GRIST Media)