VK Sasikala (L), who in 2017 was expelled from her leadership position in the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) party and recently released from prison after serving a four-year sentence for corruption, pays homage at the statue of AIADMK party founder M.G. Ramachandran in Chennai on February 9,(AFP)
VK Sasikala (L), who in 2017 was expelled from her leadership position in the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) party and recently released from prison after serving a four-year sentence for corruption, pays homage at the statue of AIADMK party founder M.G. Ramachandran in Chennai on February 9,(AFP)

The Sasikala factor in Tamil Nadu politics

  • The importance of VK Sasikala lies in the fact that while she may not be able to ensure AIADMK a victory even if she rejoins it, she can ensure its defeat if both factions go separate ways electorally.
By Venkatesha Babu, Hindustan Times, Bengaluru
PUBLISHED ON FEB 22, 2021 09:42 AM IST

Even a month ago, the general consensus among the political class in Tamil Nadu about VK Sasikala, the one-time aide to late All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) supremo J Jayalalithaa, was that she was a spent force.

Having emerged only in January from a four-year prison term handed to her in a disproportionate assets case, Chinamma, (aunt) as her supporters fondly call her – they refer to Jayalalithaa as Amma (mother) – was seen at best an inconvenience to the EPS-OPS combine that controls Tamil Nadu’s ruling party.

Edapaddi Palanswami (EPS), a one-time Sasikala loyalist whom she had handpicked to be the CM in the power struggle following the demise of Jayalalithaa in December 2016, deserted her to reconcile with his one-time bête noire O Pannerselvam (OPS) and seize control of the party from which she was later expelled.

After having failed to unseat the duo of chief minister EPS and deputy chief minister OPS, Sasikala’s nephew TTV Dhinakaran started the Amma Makkal Munnettra Kazagamin (AMMK) in March 2018, hoping to attract the AIADMK vote base, but failed miserably both in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls and the by-polls to 22 assembly seats.

With Sasikala in jail in Bengaluru and the AMMK floundering directionlessly, it was natural to assume that she had become an inconsequential player in Tamil Nadu politics.

Yet, if there is one eternal truism in Indian politics, it is this: never write off anyone. The reception Sasikala received on the way to Chennai from Bengaluru – the 300-kilometre journey from Bengaluru to Chennai took 23 hours and was converted into a show of strength – with massive crowds all along the route to greet her, has forced a rethink in the political class, especially the ruling AIADMK.

While Sasikala herself is not eligible to contest the polls for the next six years, she has started quietly meeting several leaders of the ruling party. Several of the legislators and even ministers owe their party tickets and assembly seats to Chinamma.

Even during Jayalalithaa’s reign at the helm of party affairs, Sasikala is said to have played a key role in determining who gets the party nominations in elections. Such was the influence that Sasikala and her family wielded within the AIADMK at one time, that it was dubbed the Mannargudi Mafia by critics.

The nomenclature referred to the Sasikala family’s place of origin in the southern TN district of Tiruvarur and their alleged corruption.

Sasikala is now readying herself to play the role of the wronged woman, betrayed by those to whom she entrusted the party and the MG Ramachandran – Jayalalithaa legacy to. Her supporters are reminding the AIADMK cadre of the sacrifices she has made by going to jail in a case in which Jayalalithaa was co-accused and would have been sentenced, too, if not for her untimely death.

Sasikala has already approached the courts on her removal as general secretary of the party. The fight is not only over the post but also on who controls the ubiquitous and popular rettai ellai (two leaves) symbol of the AIADMK. Chinamma is already moving around in a car carrying the AIADMK flag despite protests by the current dispensation that controls the party.

The influential Thevar (also known as Mukkulathor) community to which Sasikala belongs is concentrated in the southern and central parts of TN and have been traditional supporters of the AIADMK. While deputy chief minister OPS is also a Thevar, any division of the community’s traditional AIADMK votes by Sasikala would be a cause of concern for the ruling party.

Her moves would be closely watched not only by the EPS-OPS-controlled AIADMK but also by its ally Bharatiya Janata Party.

It is no secret that BJP played a key backroom role in the EPS-OPS patch-up and ensured the survival of the government for the last four years. The saffron party, while harbouring ambitions of its own growth in Tamil Nadu, would for the present be happy to ensure that the AIADMK-BJP combine comes to power in the state.

The opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK)-led front, which includes Congress and which won 37 of the 39 Lok Sabha seats in Tamil Nadu, would of course be hoping that Sasikala divides the AIADMK votes and an internecine battle consumes the ruling party.

The opposition party would also take heart from past history; the state has alternated between the AIADMK and DMK rule. The 2016 assembly polls were an exception in which Jayalalithaa surprised everyone by winning a second term in a row.

In case of the courts not coming to aid her cause within the party, Sasikala would look at the AMMK.

AMMK did not make an impact in its earlier electoral outings, but it garnered a little over 5% of the votes polled in the LS election across the state and thus has the potential to damage the ruling party.

The importance of Sasikala lies in the fact that while she may not be able to ensure AIADMK a victory even if she rejoins it, she can ensure its defeat if both factions go separate ways electorally. The BJP will be watching warily to see if such an eventuality can be avoided.

(Venkatesha Babu is a senior journalist and analyst with a keen interest in politics, economy and culture of Southern India)

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