How VK Sasikala plotted her way to the top of Tamil Nadu politics

BySandhya Ravishankar
Feb 14, 2017 07:15 AM IST

VK Sasikala, Tamil Nadu’s chief minister-in-waiting, is in a bind. Outgoing chief minister O Panneerselvam, who she claimed was “the first person to ask her to take charge as chief minister” on 5th February, has now blown the bugle of mutiny.

VK Sasikala, Tamil Nadu’s chief minister-in-waiting, is in a bind. Outgoing chief minister O Panneerselvam, who she claimed was “the first person to ask her to take charge as chief minister” on 5th February, has now blown the bugle of mutiny.

V K Sasikala at AIADMK’s headquarters in Chennai.(PTI File Photo)
V K Sasikala at AIADMK’s headquarters in Chennai.(PTI File Photo)

I was forced to tender my resignation,” said Panneerselvam at a dramatic press meet at the Marina Beach near late Jayalalithaa’s memorial around 9.30 pm on Tuesday. “I will withdraw my resignation if the people want.” Before the press meet, Panneerselvam had meditated for 40 minutes in front of Jaya’s memorial.

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On Tuesday, the rebels came out into the open. PH Pandian, former Speaker of the state Assembly and his son Manoj Pandian, once within the inner ring of Jayalalithaa’s key men, held a press conference stating that the election of Sasikala to the post of temporary general secretary itself was invalid, according to the party bylaws. Sasikala’s loyalists launched a counter attack that afternoon. “Nothing can stop Chinnamma from becoming the chief minister,” said MLA KA Sengottaiyan.

Tamil Nadu chief minister O Panneerselvam medidates in front of late J Jayalalithaa's burial site at the Marina Beach in Chennai on Tuesday. (PTI Photo)
Tamil Nadu chief minister O Panneerselvam medidates in front of late J Jayalalithaa's burial site at the Marina Beach in Chennai on Tuesday. (PTI Photo)

The swearing-in ceremony of Jayalalithaa’s close aide Sasikala as Tamil Nadu’s next chief minister, initially scheduled to take place on 7th February, hangs in the air. Governor-in-charge C Vidyasagar Rao left for Mumbai from Delhi and cancelled his scheduled programmes in Chennai for Tuesday. Rao has reportedly taken legal advice on whether he should wait for the verdict of the Supreme Court in the disproportionate assets case expected next week before the swearing-in.

But Sasikala seems confident. Around midnight Tuesday, she met the press outside Poes Garden, home of the late Jayalalithaa, smiled and showed a thumbs-up sign. “The AIADMK is united,” she said with confidence. By then she had already stripped Panneerselvam of the post of party treasurer and replaced him with state forest minister Dindigul Srinivasan.

Sasikala is not going down without a fight. And for now, the odds are on her side. After all, her politicking to the top began well before the state Assembly elections of May 2016. Whichever way the current crisis unfolds, she seems to have plotted her way to the top post quite meticulously.

When All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) supremo J Jayalalithaa released the list of candidates for the state Assembly elections on 4th April, 2016, there were a number of surprises in store.

For one, strongmen such as Natham Viswanathan and Senthil Balaji — both former ministers and candidates expected to win their respective seats of Natham and Karur — were shifted to other seats. Viswanathan would go up against the formidable I Periyasamy of the rival Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in his Dindigul stronghold. Balaji would contest from Aravakurichi, another DMK stronghold, against KC Palanisamy. Predictably Natham lost. Aravakurichi would have been lost too except for Election Commission’s suspension of polling due to cash seizures worth Rs 6.75 crores in Karur, with documents pointing to cash distribution by both candidates. When the election to the seat was finally held in November 2016, the AIADMK, which had already come to power in the state, won easily.

The surprises didn’t stop here. Old timers such as C Ponnaiyan and Panruti Ramachandran, both loyalists of the late leader MG Ramachandran (MGR), were given tickets in Saidapet and Alandur respectively. Jayalalithaa had sidelined Ponnaiyan for many years in the party. As for Ramachandran, he had only recently rejoined the AIADMK after a stint with Vijaykanth’s DMDK (Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam). A number of new faces too adorned the list — CR Saraswathi, a television soap actor, was given the coveted T Nagar seat and later shifted to Pallavaram, where she lost. Similarly, K Pandiarajan, who jumped ship from BJP to DMDK, and then to AIADMK, was given the Avadi ticket, which he won.

The candidate list was clearly not hers; Jayalalithaa had not been known to trust newcomers to the party easily. As it later emerged, the list was drawn up by Sasikala. Jayalalithaa had been unwell since June 2015. Since her acquittal in the Disproportionate Assets case in the Bangalore high court in May 2015, her public appearances were few and she spent progressively less time at the Secretariat, after being reinstated as chief minister.

When the media wrote of her absences, speculating as to the nature of her illness, defamation suits were filed by her for alleging organ transplants.

It was clear that Amma (Jaya’s moniker) was ill. Files went from the Secretariat to her Poes Garden residence for clearance. Ministers, senior bureaucrats and senior police officers were summoned there for instructions, which were relayed by VK Sasikala and sometimes by Jaya through the intercom. No one saw her during this period of mysterious illness. Her confidant was calling the shots, both in the government and party.

It was in the 1980s that Sasikala Natarajan, as she was then known, was introduced to Jayalalithaa, the rising star of the AIADMK led by actor and former chief minister MGR. Sasikala ran a small video (VHS) rental shop and was asked by Jayalalithaa to provide video coverage of her rallies and speeches. Sasikala’s work impressed the latter and the two became thick friends, with both Sasikala and her husband M Natarajan moving in to live with and care for Jayalalithaa’s household in the 1980s.

“It is a reflection on the state of the AIADMK,” said RK Radhakrishnan, senior journalist in Chennai. “Just before the elections (May 2016), Jaya was not in a position to concentrate fully on party or government. At that time it was Sasikala who was in charge,” he said.

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Following Jaya’s Hospitalisation

On 22nd September, 2016, Jayalalithaa was rushed to Apollo Hospitals at 10.30 pm in an ambulance to be admitted. While a medical bulletin issued by the hospital the next day said that the chief minister was admitted with fever and dehydration, Jayalalithaa continued to deteriorate and breathed her last at 11.30 pm on 5th December, 2016.

By all accounts, no one was allowed to see the CM during the 75 days of her hospitalisation, except for those treating her. Only Sasikala remained by her friend’s side. The then Advisor to the Tamil Nadu government Sheela Balakrishnan, then chief secretary Rama Mohana Rao, and other senior bureaucrats set up office inside the hospital.

The chief minister was unconscious or sedated for most of her stay as admitted by Dr Babu Abraham, Senior Consultant, Intensive Care Unit and Critical Care at Apollo Hospitals at a press conference on 6th February in Chennai. “As soon as we stabilised her, we intubated and put her on non-invasive ventilation, which means a face mask through which she would get oxygen,” said Abraham. “Afterwards she deteriorated and we put her on full ventilator along with sleeping medicines, which is the usual procedure. This went on for about 10 days. Following this, we did a tracheostomy for about 10-12 days. For about 40-50 out of 75 days, she was in sedation,” he added.

When Jaya was sleeping, Sasikala was wide awake, calling the shots in government and party every evening, through senior bureaucrats in the floor below the chief minister and passing instructions to ministers and MLAs on what needed to be done.

“After 2016 [Assembly elections], most ministers and MLAs were getting an audience only with Sasikala. So virtually, the entire government machinery was reporting to her,” said Radhakrishnan.

On 5th December, 2016, at 12.30 am, Apollo Hospitals issued a press release stating that Jayalalithaa had passed away. Before the announcement, ministers were summoned by Sasikala to the hospital and a well-organised transition plan was chalked out. MLAs were then informed of the process.

By 1.30 am, a rapid swearing-in ceremony was conducted, with then finance minister O Panneerselvam taking charge as chief minister of Tamil Nadu. He had earlier stood in as chief minister for Jayalalithaa when the courts unseated her in 2001, 2014, and in 2016 (interim CM before being sworn in after her death).

On 6th December, 2016, Jaya’s body lay in state at the Rajaji Hall in Chennai for public to pay homage. Sasikala was prominent in her place next to Jaya’s head. Surrounding the body of the late chief minister was Sasikala’s family and her estranged husband Natarajan. Political analysts at the time remarked as to how the script ran familiar — Jayalalithaa too had stood by the head of her political mentor MGR’s body in 1987 for 13 hours in the face of stiff opposition from within the party, thereby establishing that she was his political heir.

People pay homage to former Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayalalithaa Jayaraman in Chennai. (Reuters Photo)
People pay homage to former Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayalalithaa Jayaraman in Chennai. (Reuters Photo)

On the evening of 6th December, Sasikala, along with Jayalalithaa’s nephew Deepak Jayakumar, performed the last rites at Marina Beach. This too was a deviation from tradition, especially where it concerned Jayalalithaa, a Brahmin and known to be religious and superstitious. “As per Brahmin tradition, only the male members of the family perform the last rites,” said one senior AIADMK leader, on condition of anonymity. “We were all surprised that Chinnamma (Sasikala’s moniker meaning ‘mother’s younger sister’) performed it. There was a clear message being sent out about who is in control.”

Barely a week later, posters began springing up across the state, put up by party workers, exhorting Chinnamma to lead. Party workers, newspaper and media editors, industrialists and other political leaders streamed into Poes Garden to condole Sasikala. A team of vice-chancellors of various universities in Tamil Nadu too arrived to condole Sasikala, drawing flak from academics.

By 31st December, 2016, a seemingly reluctant Sasikala took charge as General Secretary of AIADMK — the third largest party in Parliament. “I do not have anything left now that my sister is gone,” she wept at her maiden speech at the party headquarters on 31st December. “I will devote the rest of my life to the party and to Tamil Nadu,” she said.

Quelling Dissenters

Dissenters too sprang up, along with posters. Nanjil Sampath, a former propaganda secretary of AIADMK decided to quit a few days later. Just days after announcing his resignation, Sampath met Sasikala and rejoined the party. “I was brought back with affection and sweet words,” he told a Tamil television channel later. This was in stark contrast to his letter to a Tamil magazine a few days before his resignation, where he wrote, “If Sasikala alone is qualified to be the leader, I do not have the qualification to accept her as my leader.”

Another AIADMK leader whose initial rebellion was quelled was that of Puducherry’s former MLA Om Sakthi Sekar, who stated, “No one other than Amma can be the general secretary.” A week later, Sekar backed off, telling this reporter that he meant that the post of general secretary itself must be abolished henceforth and that Amma should be named the permanent general secretary of the party. Sekar wept as he spoke over phone.

Rajya Sabha MP and expelled AIADMK member Sasikala Pushpa too is a thorn in VK Sasikala’s flesh. On 5th February, Pushpa wrote to the Prime Minister, in the latest series of attacks on her namesake, asking Modi not to invite Sasikala to form government. The letter details how VK Sasikala’s ascent would lead to “law and order problems” and “criminalisation of politics.”

With the quelling of such dissent, any semblance of mutiny was crushed. Sasikala’s next step to the chief minister’s seat was imminent, if not widely endorsed by party and the electorate. “The people and the party will not accept her,” said KS Gita, an AIADMK member. “Only those 136 MLAs need to accept her to become chief minister. But this does not mean the people will keep quiet. The people of Tamil Nadu are not fools,” she said.

In private off-the-record conversations, AIADMK leaders expressed misgivings about the ascent of Sasikala, but they also agreed that there was no leader to rally them together. “She [Sasikala] has been with Amma for 33 years and knows the inside out of dealing with party politics and government,” said one leader. “She is the best candidate to lead us right now.”

District secretaries of the party, already her appointees, met with her and pledged allegiance in January. As leaders lined up, cadre caved in.

A loud voice of dissent, has been from former minister KP Munusamy, who exhorted Sasikala to ensure that her family does not gain power and indulge in corrupt activities. He was quickly condemned by other party leaders.

All Hail Chinnamma

The first call for Sasikala to become the chief minister was given by Lok Sabha deputy speaker N Thambidurai. Two days after she became general secretary, Thambidurai made public a letter in which he exhorts “Respected Chinnamma” to “shoulder the responsibility of the chief minister of Tamil Nadu, to take forward the Party and to carry on the governance of Tamil Nadu, for the welfare of the people of Tamil Nadu.”

The writing was finally on the wall for all to see on 5th February, when Jayalalithaa’s handpicked bureaucrat Sheela Balakrishnan resigned. She was reportedly asked to leave before her extended term ended on 31st March. Key officers of Jaya’s office, Venkataramanan and Ramalingam, too were shunted out of their posts. This was Sasikala signalling the beginning of her era.

An orchestrated chorus from MLAs, asking Sasikala to become chief minister, peaked after the jallikkattu protests in January. Even as Sasikala missed on taking undue credit for the relief efforts by the state government post Cyclone Vardah, she claimed credit for the promulgation of the jallikkattu ordinance.

On 5th February, at a meeting of all MLAs of the AIADMK, Sasikala was unanimously elected as the chief ministerial candidate of the party as well as its Legislature Party head.

The Road Ahead

But the path is not smoothly paved for Sasikala. On 6th February, the Supreme Court stated that orders in the 19-year-old Disproportionate Assets Case, in which Sasikala is Accused Number 02, would be pronounced in a week. If the verdict goes against her, she would be forced to step down from the chief minister’s post.

Sasikala’s family, locally referred to as the ‘Mannargudi mafia’, is already creating controversy. On Pongal, 16th January, at an event in Thanjavur, Sasikala’s estranged husband M Natarajan asked reporters, “What is wrong if my family is in politics?” This comment has led to a political furore, with the opposition alleging that Sasikala’s family was waiting to loot the state.

“It does not matter who the chief minister is,” said H Raja, National General Secretary of the BJP. “But what about the forces behind that person? What Natarajan said a fortnight ago is a matter of great concern. The DMK too is a family party but neither Karunanidhi nor Stalin have ever said, ‘yes, it is family politics’. But Natarajan has said this. It is because of the wrongdoings of that family that Jayalalithaa was forced to go to jail. Those who are loyalists of Jayalalithaa — How will they react now? We have to wait and see what the Mannargudi family does,” he said.

“She has looted the state, has no educational qualifications, there is the DA case against her — Why do these MLAs want her to become chief minister for,” wondered KS Gita of the AIADMK. “The only good quality she has is that she managed Jayalalithaa very well for 33 years. Sasikala’s rise to power is due to Jayalalithaa’s own weaknesses,” she said.

DMK Working President MK Stalin issued a statement on 5th February saying – “Tamil Nadu did not vote for someone working in Jayalalithaa’s household to become the Chief Minister.”

Experts also say that governance may not come so easy to the chief minister in waiting. “Managing a party by giving broad directions is easy. It is easy to look at the larger picture. But she has never been part of government or running it on a daily basis. Running a government is a different thing altogether. You have to look at the minutiae. You have to look at around 500 files every day. I am not sure if she will be able to handle it,” said Radhakrishnan.

Sasikala is hoping to become the third woman chief minister of Tamil Nadu after Janaki Ramachandran (MGR’s wife) and Jayalalithaa. While that may still be an uncertainty for now, what is undeniable is that her ascent is laced with bitterness and anger from both the party and the people. Tamil Nadu is watching Chinnamma closely.

(Published in arrangement with GRIST Media)

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