Sasikala announces return to Tamil Nadu politics
Spelling more trouble for the already jittery All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), expelled general secretary V K Sasikala, a close aide to the late party supremo J Jayalalithaa, returned to Chennai with fanfare on Monday, announced her return to politics and urged the party cadre to unite to take on common foe M.K. Stalin’s Dravida Munnetra Kaqzhagam (DMK) in upcoming assembly elections.
Sasikala, who last month finished serving a four-year prison term in Bengaluru after her conviction in a disproportionate assets case and was treated for Covid-19, read aloud from notes she had prepared on a stopover in the Tamil Nadu town of Vaniyambadi.
“My intention is that everyone must work in unity and not let the common enemy capture the throne,” she told reporters and hundreds of supporters who greeted her, referring to the DMK. “The party has faced several struggles and risen like a phoenix in the past,” she said referring to the work done by founder MG Ramachandran and his successor Jayalalithaa, who died in December 2016.
Sasikala’s release from prison and her return to Chennai ahead of the assembly elections adds an intriguing new factor to the political dynamics of Tamil Nadu, where the DMK and the Congress are preparing to take on the AIADMK and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), While she was in prison, the AIADMK expelled her from the party, and said she wouldn’t be taken back into the party’s fold.
Sasikala left Bengaluru on Monday morning and received a rousing reception on her way by car to Chennai. She made several pit stops to greet thousands of her supporters and cadre of the Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam (AMMK) a breakaway faction of the AIADMK formed by her nephew TTV Dhinakaran. Supporters played music, drones carried banners greeting her and her car was garlanded.
Sasikala isn’t a political novice although she has never contested or campaigned in elections and the Representation of People’s Act, 1951 bars her from contesting or holding any constitutional post for the next six years. In her three-decade-long association with Jayalalithaa, Sasikala cultivated her own constituency within the AIADMK, particularly among the Thevar community, which remains a loyal vote bank of the party.
She quoted a song from MGR’s 1977 Tamil film to say that she is enslaved by the people’s affection but will not yield to oppression. Clad in a green saree-- a colour Jayalalithaa often wore-- Sasikala sat inside her car, bearing an AIADMK flag undeterred by police complaints by AIADMK leaders against her, for using the party flag.
Sasikala switched two cars during her journey- one reportedly belonging to an AIADMK functionary. Responding to a question by reporter, AIADMK spokesperson and minister D Jayakumar said: “There will be a few betrayers; it is negligible. It will not affect the party.” AIADMK has announced multiple times that it won’t take Sasikala back nor will it merge with AMMK.
Sasaikala briefly held the reins of the AIADMK, between Jayalalithaa’s death and her imprisonment in the disproportionate assets case in February 2017. Her former loyalists-- chief minister Edapaddi Palaniswami and his deputy O Paneerselvam -- turned against her at different points of time and buried their own factional rivalries to unite against Sasikala.
Since her release, Dhinakaran has insisted that Sasikala remains the general secretary and her supporters will help her reclaim the AIADMK. Dhinakaran, who is an independent MLA, led the AMMK in the 2019 parliamentary polls with a 4% vote share.
AIADMK ministers have filed two complaints with the director general of police’s office against Sasikala for using the party flag and of her supposed plans to disrupt law and order. On Sunday night, the government took ownership of six properties belonging to J Ilavarasi and VN Sudhakaran, Sasikala’s relatives and co-accused in the disproportionate assets case. Security has bee tightened at the AIADMK headquarters in Chennai, Jayalalithaa’s Veda Nilayam residence which the government has converted into a memorial and her burial place on the Marina beach is closed to the public to keep Sasikala from places associated with Jayalalithaa. AIADMK on Monday night expelled seven party functionaries for ‘anti-party activities’. They reportedly participated in welcome rallies and Sasikala had even travelled in car belonging to one of the members, D Dakshinamurthy from Thiruvallur district.
“AIADMK has overreacted,” said political commentator Sriram Seshadri. “They should have let Sasikala pitch for herself first. Or they could have said that she is welcome to work like any other cadre for the party. That would have put her in a spot and public perception of Palaniswami would have been elevated. But now their fear has been exposed.”