It is getting messier in Tamil Nadu.
Caretaker chief minister O Panneerselvam on Wednesday morning ordered a probe into the death of late CM J Jayalaithaa, a move aimed at undermining VK Sasikala who sacked him as party treasurer a few hours earlier for questioning her planned elevation to the state’s top job.
While he told media that people of Tamil Nadu deserved to know the truth about the death of Jayalaithaa, whose hospital stay and treatment remained shrouded in secrecy, CM-designate Sasikala, in a show of strength chaired a meeting of ruling AIADMK MLAs.
The party was united, there were no divisions and Sasikala would be the chief minister, senior AIADMK leader and deputy speaker of Lok Sabha M Thambidurai said.
But, Panneerselvam won’t go down quietly. He said he would take back his resignation and meet governor C Vidyasagar Rao once he was back in Chennai.
Rao, who is the governor of Maharashtra and is in the state capital Mumbai, is holding additional charge of Tamil Nadu.
“If there are compelling reasons, I will withdraw my resignation,” Panneerselvam said, adding he would prove his majority on the floor of the House.
Sasikala, a close confidante of Jayalaithaa for more than 30 years, sacked “traitor” Panneerselvam after he said he was forced to resign from his position and hinted he was not in favour of her taking over as the CM.
Her supporters have accused the 66-year-old Panneerselvam, better known as OPS, of playing into the hands of the BJP and the rival DMK.
For now, Sasikala has managed to keep her flock together, with most of 134 party MLAs, ministers and MPs siding with her. But, things in AIADMK are hardly as they seem.
Sources said around 30 MLAs were veering towards Panneerselvam, though they were yet to come out in the open.
Amid all the uncertainty, one thing is clear – the ever-reliable and unassuming Panneerselvam has driven a wedge in the party. And here too, he seems to have taken a leaf out of late J Jayalalithaa’s book.
A similar situation played out after chief minister MG Ramachandran’s death on December 24, 1987. Though the party initially sided with his wife, Janaki, Jayalalithaa managed to wean away most of the party leaders and cadres, wresting the party and emerging as its undisputed leader for the next 28 years.
Symbolism of Panneerselvam’s 40-minute “meditation” at Jayalalithaa’s memorial on Tuesday night which he followed up with the bombshell announcement was not lost on anyone.
“Slowly, all the MPs and MLAs will come here only. You wait and see,” said Rajalakshmi, a former Mylapore MLA, outside the residence of Panneerselvam the next morning.
Back channel talks were also on with the DMK, sources said, confirming Sasikala camp’s charge of Panneerselvam hobnobbing with “the enemy”.
Sasikala accused Panneerselvam of “treason”, telling the media that he used to often smile at the DMK benches and extended courtesies to its working president MK Stalin.
He countered the charges on Wednesday, saying, “Only human beings are gifted with the ability to smile. Animals don’t have this ability” and wondered if “smiling at someone was a crime as was being made out to be”.
He said he was not joining any other party. “I will fight even if I am alone,” Panneerselvam told a local television channel.
His supporter and Rajya Sabha member V Maitreyan said Amma (Jayalalithaa) would always be their leader. “The MLAs’ count does not matter, it is the cadre and people of Tamil Nadu that matter. It is only 12 hours since OPS announced his decision and you will see how the events unfold,” Maitreyan said.
As the two sides slug it out, the DMK fished in troubled waters, saying Panneerselvam should form the government. Stalin, however, denied the charge of stoking trouble in the AIADMK.
The suspense over Sasikala’s taking over as the chief minister deepened as the governor again put off his Chennai arrival on Wednesday.
Sasikala’s rise in the party and the government has been opposed by some party leaders.
On Tuesday, sidelined senior AIADMK leaders PH Pandian and his son Manoj alleged that Jayalalithaa could have been murdered and demanded a probe into her hospitalisation and death.
They also questioned legality of Sasikala’s election as the AIADMK interim general secretary and then the leader of legislature party.
Calling for a probe into the conditions that led to Jayalalithaa’s death and the conduct of Sasikala since, PH Pandian alleged that a slow poison could have been used and called for a thorough probe. “Slowly, all the truth will come out,” Pandian said, adding, “Sasikala is unfit to be chief minister of the state.”
The party rubbished the allegations, saying these were canards spread by disgruntled elements.