India: Political compulsions in Tamil Nadu

By Abdul Ruff

Sudden death of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa – a strong factor of stable politics in the state- resulted in the unexpected instability of the government and confusion among the people as the ruling AIADMK was split into factions.

In fact, death of AIADMK supermo Jayalalithaa would have created any political crisis even though a political vacuum of serious was felt. The Party would have used the sympathy factor to stay with the people. And the Panneerselvam government would have continued its rule as before but a greedy Sasikala’s sudden axe to remove those who were close to Jayalalalithaa led to a serious crisis with the ruling party being split into factions.

However, Sasikala played her card well and had already manipulated several things in her favor before axing Panneerselvam. The major victory is that she could manipulate the General Secretary post which Jayalithaa held tell death by using Panneer Selvam who was lost in grief at the death of Jayalithaa, who was his mentor. He was keen to see the AIADMK remains in power and supported Sasikala to be GS of the party but when he was removed from power she protested.

Sudden rise of Sasikala

Sudden death of J. Jayalithaa led to the sudden rise of VK Sasikala and her coterie.
VK Sasikala‘s 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. Vivekanandan Krishnaveni (VK) Sasikala may have played a masterstroke, getting her nominee in the chief minister’s chair through the backdoor before stepping into prison in Karnataka, yet in the hearts of many a Tamil populace she’s left a bruise that could have a bearing on the future of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. On the streets of Tamil Nadu, the very mention of Sasikala often draws ire these days.

Sasikala Mannargudi

With the demise of Jayalalithaa, now the Mannargudi clan has returned. Sasikala was born in 1957 in Mannargudi, a small temple town in Tiruvarur district in the Cauvery delta. She had four brothers — Sundaravadanam, Jayaraman, Vinodhagan and Dhivaharan — and a sister Vanithamani. Though belonging to the influential Kallar (Thevar) community, her family was not wealthy. It was not until her husband, Natarajan — a public relations officer in the state government in the 1970s and later owned Video company — introduced her to Jayalalithaa through IAS officer V S Chandralekha that her fortunes changed. As Jayalalithaa evolved in stature both within the party and the state, Sasikala too had prospered as the AIADMK supremo’s closest aide. And so did her family members from Mannargudi who assumed enormous power in the state.

Over the years, taking advantage of Sasikala’s proximity with Jayalalithaa, the close-knit group of relatives and associates — numbering around 20-25 — reportedly formed roots in the government machinery and took up important postings. The ‘Mannargudi Mafia’, as they soon came to be called, was soon calling the shots. At some point, Jayalalithaa realized the danger that this group posed for her administration. She banished Sasikala and her relatives from her Poes Garden residence and cracked down on the associates. Though eventually Sasikala returned to Poes Garden after apologising to Jayalalithaa, her family was kept out.

Now, with Jayalalithaa’s passing away, the Mannargudi clan is once again making a comeback. From ensuring that they were the only ones surrounding Jayalalithaa’s mortal remains to Sasikala’s move to revoke the expulsion (by Jayalalithaa) of TTV Dhinakaran and Venkatesh, these acts are being seen as signs of their return.

2016 assembly poll

Apparently, 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. 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. The AIADMK supermo sought to show that she is the party and she is the final.

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 on her image. 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).

Jayalalithaa’s falling health

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.

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 hospitalization, 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 stabilized 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.
Meanwhile, many files and order have been supposedly signed by her. How? 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.

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).

Replacement in midnight

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. 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, had posters begun springing up across the state, put up by Sasikala supporters and party workers, exhorting the new “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 ready Sasikala hurriedly took charge as General Secretary of AIADMK — the third largest party in Parliament without endorsement from the party bodies. He was on her way to become the CM. District secretaries of the party, already her appointees, met with her and pledged allegiance in January. As leaders lined up, cadre caved in.

Opposition to Sasikala as future CM

Secrecy surrounding the death of Jayalithaa at Apollo hospital gives rise to serious suspicions about the Sasikala’s dubious role in early and twisted scenes of death. Even before the death of Jayalalithaa, Sasikala and allies seemed to have had a clear cut plan to capture power.
The first call for Sasikala to become the chief minister was given by Lok Sabha deputy speaker N Thambidurai. Already the madras was getting ready to replace Jaya appointees and replace them with new ones. 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 signaling the beginning of her era.

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. “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.

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.

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 which she and allies occupy as their own property, 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.

Dissenters too sprang up, along with posters. Nanjil Sampath, a former propaganda secretary of AIADMK decided to quit but just days after announcing his resignation, Sampath who was on talks wither, met Sasikala and rejoined the party. Another leader form Pondicherry Sekar that the post of general secretary itself must be abolished henceforth and that Amma should be named the permanent general secretary of the party. 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 “criminalization 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.

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. 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. CM Pannerselvam handled the crises in the state after Jayalithaa death. An orchestrated chorus from MLAs, asking Sasikala to become chief minister, peaked after the jallikattu 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 jallikattu 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. 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.

Indian politics and polls dominated by bribery. Tamil Nadu, where corruption is too rampant at all levels, is no exception to the general India rule. Mannargudi clan led by Sasikala now controls the government and party. Corruption could go unbridled
Many, in fact, believe that the extended family may have a free run in the government’s functioning, especially with four more years to go before the next assembly elections. But the extended family may run out of gas considering the widespread public resentment against them.

Meanwhile, the Crime Branch of the Delhi Police booked All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam deputy general secretary TTV Dinakaran on Monday for allegedly trying to bribe an Election Commission official to get the ‘two leaves’ poll symbol in the by-election to R K Nagar assembly seat. Dinakaran, a leader of the AIADMK faction led by his jailed aunt V K Sasikala, was booked following the arrest of Sukesh Chandrasekhar, a middleman, from a five-star hotel last week.

It has been learnt that Sukesh had struck a deal for Rs 50 crore for helping the AIADMK faction keep the ‘two leaves’ symbol. Police have recovered Rs 1.30 crore from Sukesh and two cars — a BMW and a Mercedes — have also been seized, said a senior police officer. Sukesh is being interrogated to know about his profile and his connection with any EC official. Dinakaran, however, denied having spoken or given money to any one on the party symbol issue. During her lifetime, Jayalithaa struck a fine balance and kept the dominant castes — Thevars, Nadars, Vanniyars and Gounders — under check. Sasikala though is widely seen as favoring the Thevars. Even though she has tried to shed this image by anointing a Gounder (Edappadi Palaniswami) as chief minister, it will be difficult for her to carry along the other castes without them trying to challenge her authority.

Revolt and Split

The manner in which Jayalalithaa’s appointee as chief minister twice in the past, O Panneerselvam, was pulled down from power by the departed Amma’s aide and the way she pushed the AIADMK into turmoil has done her reputation no good.
The sympathy wave that came her way in the aftermath of Jayalithaa’s demise withered away thanks to the behind-the-scenes politics she indulged in thereafter.

After splitting the ruling AIADMK party, now the Sasikala faction blames other parties in trying to split and remove the party from power. Sasikala nephew Dinakaran says there is conspiracy against AIADMK so that Jayalalithaa’s legacy stay strong in the state but has never made any effort to remerge the factions or try to have talks with Panneerselvam faction for a future government and party organization.

In fact, the postponement of RK Nagar by poll came a big news for the ruling AIADMK and its candidate Dinakaran as he was facing defeat in the constituency and now he looks much relaxed. The Election Commission had frozen AIADMK’s ‘two leaves’ symbol after the two factions led by Sasikala and former chief minister O Panneerselvam staked claim to it. The faction led by its general secretary Sasikala, jailed in a disproportionate assets case, later opted for the ‘hat’ symbol. Dinakaran was the candidate of the Sasikala faction.

OPS predicament

The bypoll to the R K Nagar assembly constituency in Tamil Nadu was scheduled for April 12, but the Election Commission cancelled it, saying the electoral process had been “seriously vitiated” by parties through use of money power. The seat fell vacant after the death of the then chief minister J Jayalalithaa on December 5 and the bypoll is being viewed as a battle of prestige for the two factions of the AIADMK.

Former Chief Minister OPS has ensured that the spotlight was on her and her relatives. Add to that the manner in which OPS performed during his short stint as chief minister. Be it the round-the-clock handling of the cyclone Vardhan aftermath or the ordinance allowing Jallikattu in the state, the tide of popular sentiment was flowing in favour of the former stand-in chief minister. From creating a doubt in the people’s minds about the circumstances surrounding Jayalalithaa’s death, the way Sasikala ensured that nobody was allowed to meet the AIADMK supremo, to proposing to turn Amma’s Poes Garden bungalow into a memorial, OPS has played his cards well.

There are many in Tamil Nadu who believe that Jayalalithaa could have been kept alive for a longer duration had proper medical treatment been extended to her. And OPS gave the people’s doubts legitimacy by calling for a judicial probe into the circumstances around her death.
People have also been questioning the manner in which Sasikala has taken over Poes Garden and the rest of Jayalalithaa’s assets. Another factor that could ensure that the family doesn’t really have a long run in Tamil Nadu politics is that it doesn’t find favour with the dominant castes in the state.

The Dr. Radhakrishnan Nagar by-election was a life-and-death situation for both the AIADMK factions. The countermanding of the by-election to the R.K. Nagar Assembly constituency has made former Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam’s fight for his mentor Jayalalithaa’s political legacy longer. Had the by-election been held as scheduled, a win or even a second position edging out the Sasikala camp to the third place would have helped him in his battle, the experts say. While his supporters are hopeful of immediate gains based on the premise that the Sasikala camp might crack up soon due to the recent I-T searches, observers feel otherwise. But OPS’ future will depend on the local body polls whenever it is held. It could prove to be the decisive moment for him.“Even assuming that the DMK wins in the local body polls, who finishes second (OPS or Sasikala faction) could determine his future.

Not yet too late for unity

Clearly, Sasikala is unhappy that Jayalithaa had not entrusted any party post or government position but now she directly controls the government through a proxy government under CM Palanisamy.

One thing is clear. CM Jayalalithaa was not in a position to announce her deputy in the party though by the appointment of OPS as acting CM during her jail life terms she has let the people know about her option. Incapacitated, Jayalalithaa lost power to control the government for too long and Sasikala and others took charge and planned meticulously for their rise to power. CM Palanisamy knows too well that he only a make ship CM since Sasikala could not assume power at Madras Fort after being sworn in by the governor at Madras University for which all arrangements were made but they stood cancelled as Governor Rao refused to swear her in and let Chennai. He also knows he would be replaced by Sasikala’s own kith and kin, Dinakaran who was hurriedly made Deputy General Secretary of AIADMK – post which never existed in the party- by the jailed Sasikala.

CM Palanisamy and team, others in the government should know only united AIADMK can salvage the crisis once for all and blaming “others” for the crisis is not tenable. Era is Sasikala, whom Jayalalithaa never showed to the people as her possible successor either in the party or government is fast coming to end. Panneerselvam enjoys sympathy feeling of the people for being the victim of Sasikala game plan, but his relevance exists only because he challenged the jailed AIADMK leader Sasikala and her family. Critics say Panneer was a sycophant who turned a rebel because he was asked to step down as CM. But a former minister Ma. Foi Pandiarajan and staunch supporter of OPS, denies that Panneerselvam would not succeed in his battle for Jayalalithaa’s legacy. He said OPS has a credible image and people see him as a very eligible successor to Amma.

Hopefully, the Palanisamy and friend would not lose more time in making efforts sincerely to patch up with the OPS factions to provide stability of the government of MGR-Jaya and regain the symbol legally. It is quite likely, otherwise, the party might lose the symbol forever. That may not benefit the ruling party or government. Already Sasikala and Co have given political advantage to DMK and if people don’t see a united AIADMK emerging they would not hesitate to replace the incumbent government with the waiting DMK. After all, people voted for Jayalalithaa and not Sasikala who can make corruption an industry in the state. Some ruling party leaders shamelessly say that there is not split in the party and there is only a disagreement. There three AIADMK parties now the election commission has recognized them as separate parties and that means there is a grave split. They also say let the OPS come to us and we could forgive them. That means no reconciliation but only a conflict deliberately created by Sasikala. This shows the Sasikala faction is willing to let the government fall and the party further disintegrate.

Unfortunately not only Jayalalithaa but her ministers and party leaders also made huge money illegally. Even when Jayalalithaa stopped taking bribes for her personal use, ministers and others continue to loot the resources. Since India does not have any clear cut policies to contain corruption or punish the corrupt elements, culprits without mercy, politicians and officals continue to demand and accept bribes and make crores of assets, both immovable and movable. How much money incumbent ministers in TN are making should be made explicitly clear to public. That the ADMK ruling party is involved in bribing the “concerned” to get the two leaves symbol show how far corruption in India has reached.

End of Sasikala rule in Tamil Nadu politics?

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Abdul Ruff

Dr. Abdul Ruff is an independent analyst; columnist contributing articles to many newspapers and journals on world politics; expert on Mideast affairs, chronicler of foreign occupations & freedom movements (Palestine, Kashmir, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Xinjiang, Chechnya, etc.); Chancellor-Founder of Center for International Affairs (CIA); commentator on world affairs & sport fixings, former university teacher and author of eBooks/books

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