Tamil Nadu: AIADMK merger sets up mother of all battles for party leader VK Sasikala
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Tamil Nadu: AIADMK merger sets up mother of all battles for party leader VK Sasikala

For Sasikala, the AIADMK has been as much part of her life, as Jayalalithaa herself was and, for over three decades, she was the go-to person for most AIADMK leaders.

india Updated: Aug 24, 2017 21:19 IST
Kavitha Muralidharan
Kavitha Muralidharan
Grist Media
Tamil Nadu,AIADMK,Panneerselvam
O Panneerselvam and V K Sasikala at the AIADMK party meeting.(PTI File Photo)

Sitting in Parappana Agrahara jail on Bengaluru’s outskirts, VK Sasikala has the mother of all battles on her hands: her party, on which she had had an unassailable sway for over three decades, is now intent on getting rid of her.

Apparently steered by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is looking for a foothold in Tamil Nadu, the two factions of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhakam (AIADMK) recently merged after an acrimonious period in the wake of party supremo J Jayalalithaa’s death last December. The BJP views Sasikala as having too much baggage.

But the 60-year-old still has some fight left in her, orchestrating her moves through her nephew, TTV Dinakaran. So 19 MLAs supporting him have met governor C Vidyasagar Rao to give him letters withdrawing their support to the Chief Minister. This potentially reduces the EPS–led government to a minority one.

When Jayalalithaa loyalist O Panneerselvam (OPS) made Sasikala’s exit from the party a condition for the merger, Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswami (EPS) said the party’s general council will soon be convened to remove her from the post of general secretary.

For Sasikala, the AIADMK has been as much part of her life, as Jayalalithaa herself was and, for over three decades, she was the go-to person for most AIADMK leaders.

Observers, commenting on the developments, say that the BJP perhaps did not want Sasikala to become another Jayalalithaa. “The BJP saw in Jayalalithaa’s death an opportunity and is clearly exerting control over the AIADMK. This would not have been possible [with] Sasikala becoming powerful. The fact that Prime Minister Narendra Modi met Paneerselvam four times in a week before the merger establishes BJP’s role. When was meeting Modi so easy for a leader from Tamil Nadu?” asks senior journalist R Ramasubramaniam.

Savukku Shankar, a Chennai-based whistleblower, whose muckraking website was once shut down by the government, agrees. “Nobody in Tamil Nadu seemed interested in a merger. Palaniswami perhaps knew that after a few months, the rebel leaders would be on his side. The merger happened purely in the interests of the BJP,” he said.

Another man to take a similar dim view is Pazha Karuppaiah, a senior leader expelled by Jayalalithaa after he levelled several allegations against her government. He says the AIADMK has no future. “Sasikala is made a scapegoat to give a clean image to the party. Unfortunately, she created every single leader in the party; she also has caste backing and so the government will come down. The merger is actually disastrous for the party.”

How the tide turned

The week following Jayalalithaa’s death, senior AIADMK leaders, including M Thambidurai, waxed eloquent about how Sasikala had stood by her deceased companion during her most trying times and how Jayalalithaa had always advised cadres to seek her counsel in important matters. But the tide turned and soon they were damning Sasikala as the one who plotted Jayalalithaa’s downfall.

Soon OPS, who had stood in as Chief Minister during Jayalalithaa’s illness and during her incarceration, came into his own – something he would never have done if his mentor was alive. He was courteous to the opposition in the state assembly, something she never was and never permitted. When CycloneVardah battered Chennai in December last year, he was there on the streets, personally overseeing the relief work, unprecedented under an AIADMK government.

Twists and turns

Watching all this, the canny Sasikala could well have seen it coming when OPS rebelled against her decision to become Chief Minister early February. The party was with her until her arrest the second week of February in the disproportionate assets case.

In a smart move to ensure her family’s continued hold, she picked Palaniswami, another loyalist, as Chief Minister and anointed her nephew, Dinakaran, as the deputy general secretary before going to jail.

But all hell broke loose when Delhi Police arrested Dinakaran in April for allegedly trying to bribe Election Commission officials to secure the iconic two leaves symbol for his faction. “This was perhaps a clear indication that the Centre did not want Sasikala and her family to have any kind of say in the party. We had to take the cue,” says a senior AIADMK leader.

Internecine rivalry

The Mannargudi Mafia’s detractors knew all too well about the internecine squabbles within the family. Till a few weeks ago, the media was abuzz with the simmering feud between Dinakaran and Sasikala’s brother V Divaharan, with the latter plotting to counter his nephew’s influence, but the merger forced them to bury the hatchet.

Despite several setbacks, including banishment from Poes Garden, she has always bounced back. After being trounced in the 1996 assembly elections, Jayalalithaa had distanced herself from her. But when Sasikala was released on bail after being arrested on FERA violations, it was to Poes Garden that she went. Sasikala was again turfed out in 2011 after Jayalalithaa accused her relatives of plotting against her but she was back in less than three months, after apologising publicly and promising to distance herself from her relatives. Till the end, Sasikala remained a vulnerability Jayalalithaa couldn’t overcome.

But times have changed. “It will be difficult for her, say after four years when she is out of jail. But Dinakaran still has a chance, if he is not arrested,” Ramasubramaniam says. His conviction under COFEPOSA in 1996 was upheld by a Supreme Court bench in 2011. “Logically, under SAFEMA (Smugglers and Foreign Exchange Manipulators Act), his property or a part of it could be confiscated. He also faces three cases of FERA violations. The BJP government might use any of this to put him behind the bars.”

The end. Or is it?

Effectively, this will script the end of the Sasikala family saga in Tamil Nadu politics. But neither she nor Dinakaran is a pushover. She remains the woman who knows too much, having been Jayalalithaa’s eyes and ears and has a sound understanding of the party. “She knows the both Palaniswami and Panneerselvam are just toeing the BJP line and thinks it will not be difficult to bring them around,” says a source close to the family.

The family might adopt a two-way approach to overcome the crisis – to appease the BJP and to demonstrate that the party and cadres stand by them. On August 14, Dinakaran organised a huge meeting at Melur near Madurai to commemorate MGR’s birth centenary. The meeting was undoubtedly a show of strength and reportedly unsettled both the EPS and OPS camps.

“The party is still behind the general secretary and deputy general secretary,” says Prasanna Azhagarsamy, state joint secretary of the party’s IT Wing. “It is not easy to sideline them as the cadres are backing them. For now, our chief concern is to save the party.”

Electoral alliances can be decided only by general secretary, Prasanna points out, and hints at an election to showcase Dhinakaran’s real power. It took an election in 1989 for Jayalalithaa to clearly emerge as the party’s leader after MGR’s death in 1987.

The family says several MLAs are still in touch with them. Minister and senior leader OS Manian raised the first voice of dissent following EPS’ announcement to remove Sasikala from her party post.

Some old tricks

Also fresh on everyone’s minds is the Koovathur operation, where two legislators belonging to rival factions were caught on camera claiming that money and gold were offered to support the Sasikala camp in February after OPS’ rebellion. The family also owns and runs Jaya TV and Namadhu MGR – party propaganda organs to bring cadres closer to Sasikala.

“Dinakaran or Divaharan might not be keen to bring down the government, but will if it comes to that. The BJP has probably underestimated the clan. The AIADMK leaders probably thought the MLAs supporting Dhinakaran would make a switch after the merger. But on the day of the merger, 19 MLAs visited Dhinakaran to express their support,” says Savukku Shankar.

On August 22, the MLAs met governor Rao and handed over separate letters withdrawing their support to Chief Minister Palaniswami. They have now been lodged at the Windflower resort in Puducherry, Koovathur style, and hope many MLAs will join them. The Opposition too has started demanding a no-confidence motion against the government following the rebellion by Dinakaran’s supporters.

Also, the family, hedging its bets in placating the BJP, has consistently refused to criticise it despite its role in the AIADMK merger. It also sacked Marudhu Azhaguraj as Namadhu MGR’s editor – a post he had retained for nine years – after he wrote a poem criticising Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Apparently, the game is not yet over for Sasikala and her clan.

(Published in arrangement with GRIST Media)

First Published: Aug 24, 2017 21:18 IST