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If given the reins of AIADMK now, will Sasikala become CM too?

By N Sathiya Moorthy
December 16, 2016 12:56 IST
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Should Sasikala seek to follow Jayalalithaa’s footsteps in the matter, and if at all she is not disinterested in keeping the twin posts together, the by-election to Jayalalithaa's constituency R K Nagar could be the starting point, says N Sathiya Moorthy.

IMAGE: Sasikala Natarajan near the mortal remains of Jayalalithaa at Rajaji Hall in Chennai. Photograph: PTI Photo

It has now become near-abundantly clear that even as then Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa Jayaram was breathing her last, party MLAs were busy selecting a new leader to replace her.

Finance Minister O Panneerselvam, a stand-in for the CM just now, and officially the chief minister of the state twice in the past 15 years, thus became their near-automatic choice, possibly after some initial jostling.

The motive of the legislators would have been the same as those of the yore: “The King is dead. Long live the King.” In this case, it was the queen.

But their decision and the methodology ensured that there was no administrative vacuum or party-split in the aftermath of the exit of their supreme leader. It is not the first time it is happening in the party, or the Dravida Munnetra Kazagham parent before it -- or, any other political outfit worth the name, elsewhere in the country.

If anyone involved in the decision-making, or in the decision on how to go about it all that day and those preceding it had been reminded of the way the succession battle ensued after party-founder and Chief Minister M G Ramachandran’s death on the night of December 24, 1987, none has mentioned it since.

Before MGR’s time, the DMK nearly split after the death, again of party-founder and then Chief Minister C N Annadurai in 1969, just close to two years after he had led the party to a ‘historic’ election victory in 1967.

At the time of MGR’s death, the factions led by Jayalalithaa on the one hand, and MGR’s widow, Janaki Ramachandran on the other, fought it out in and outside the assembly, and in the subsequent assembly polls later on, until Jaya came to ‘unite’ and restore the party to its past glory.

Rather, Janaki, a co-star of MGR in his earlier days in the film business, was used by others, but the hurt and the stink that it all left behind took time to heal and evaporate. 

It was thus the best way that the party leadership could have handled the situation as their leader was slipping away.

Though they did convert Apollo Hospital, where Jaya had spent nearly 75 days by then, into a party meeting place in the forenoon of December 5, the decision itself came about only at the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazagham headquarters, just a couple of kilometres away, late evening, just around the time the CM was pronounced dead.

It’s against this background that the AIADMK second-line leadership has appealed to Jaya’s live-in-confidante, Sasikala Natarajan, to take over the reins of the party. Chief Minister OPS himself left the second-line leadership to Jaya’s Poes Garden residence, where Sasi continues to live and meet party cadres and others since the former’s departure.

Posters and media references, most of them have begun referring to Sasikala as ‘Chinna Amma’, a sobriquet someone had derived long ago even when their ‘Amma’ was alive -- out of respect.

In Tamil, Amma means mother and ‘Chinnamma’ is her younger sister. Sasikala was known to be addressing Jaya, both one-to-one and in third-person context, as ‘Akka’, or ‘elder sister’. Jaya herself had once referred to Sasi as her ‘udan-piravaa-sagodhari’ -- or a non-biological sister, or ‘soul sister’.

Sasikala had been with Jaya through thick and thin, for the past three-plus decades. She had also been in and out of Poes Garden, more than once -- after misunderstandings became irreparable at times, but made up not long after that.

In such circumstances, especially after the first few episodes, AIADMK second-liners, in particular, became smart enough not to cross Sasi’s path or wishes when she herself was at the crossroads.

The longest and the more recent episode of distrust and distancing was in December 2011, when Jaya sacked Sasi, her politically savvy and ambitious husband, M Natarajan, or MN, and a host of their relatives from the primary membership of the party.

By then, most of their relatives had been thrown out of Poes Garden, through long years of trial-and-error, and this time round, Sasi too was given the marching orders.

Not long after that, in March 2012, Jaya herself restored Sasi to Poes Garden, but not before the latter had declared in a public statement that she would not be involved in politics.

Technically, according to some social media activists, this has meant that Sasi would be completing five continuous years after being restored as an AIADMK member only in April 2017, making her unqualified to hold any party office till then.

However, veteran leader and former minister (under both MGR and Jaya), C Ponnaiyan, has since said that the party constitution would be suitably amended to pave way for Sasikala to take over.

Ponnaiyan belongs to the western Vellalar Gounder community, to which Lok Sabha Deputy Speaker M Thambidurai, too belongs. Sasikala and CM Panneerselvam are from the same Mukkulathore community (Thevars) in the south.

The two Gounder leaders, and others from the same and other communities, have since scotched rumours pertaining to caste equations and alleged Mukkulathore/Thevar domination in the party and government, post-Jaya.

It’s another matter that the 2012 public statement of Sasikala that an increasingly limited number of her detractors within the party -- and at much lower-levels -- have been airing through social media, for her now not to take over as the AIADMK general secretary, a post that Jaya and before her MGR had held.

MGR was party general secretary for five years before becoming chief minister in the post-Emergency 1977 assembly polls (separately from the parliamentary polls, earlier).

Jaya had been in and out of the chief minister’s office since 1991, but she continued to be general secretary, first as a faction leader, and later of the ‘reunified’ AIADMK.

Despite possible murmurs of protests at the cadre-level, Sasikala’s elevation to the party post is all but formalised. They need to go through the processes, and do not have another major election until the parliamentary polls of 2019.

Whether it’s Sasikala or anyone else under a sub-regional caste-represented presidium that tries to navigate the AIADMK in these early, difficult days, weeks and months of being dubbed a ‘headless’ party, they have time and space to settle down and prove themselves to the cadres and voters alike.

The question is if a new leader in Jaya’s place -- Sasikala or someone else, or a collective -- can relive and reproduce the imagery in the eyes and minds of the ordinary AIADMK cadre.

The younger ones among them have seen Jayalalithaa in that form and that alone. The older ones had seen MGR too in the same way though a few did choose to fade away after MGR’s time.

It also suited Jaya, in typical ‘MGR style’ to keep the second-line unsettled all the time, by playing mix-and-match with them, all the time. This helped the hopes of many down the line alive, and kept all of them on tenterhooks all the time.

Looking back, it would seem, for Jaya in this regard, the Sasikala family was no exception. Picking them as ‘insiders’ one day, and throwing them out, as they began growing wings and ambitions the next day, was a game that Jaya excelled in.

Sasikala too got caught in the net, occasionally. But Providence was on her side all the time that Jaya would make up with Sasi all the time.

Without friends, relatives or aides of the kind by her side, Jaya, it was believed, had got used to the ways of Sasikala just as the latter had learnt to read her Akka’s mind all the time, on everything -- political, administrative and personal, including food and medicine.

Whether the cadres can now see a ‘down’ to earth leadership, living and behaving like other men and women, and not as a distant demi-god is the question that the emerging AIADMK leadership has to be concerned about.

Yet, the fact also remains if the traditional AIADMK voters/supporters who have lived under the myth of a super-hero or super-heroine becoming a supremo par excellence will be able to live without that image, even if it takes Sasikala or the party time to re-invent themselves?

The question thus arises if the AIADMK should and would move towards a single leadership, of the same person being chief minister and general secretary.

There is no doubt that just now there is none but Sasikala who could fill the space, if the AIADMK executive committee decides to have a single leadership for party and government.

Through 30-plus years of association with Jayalalithaa, when in power and otherwise, Sasi has had better access to and assessment of individual party leaders at different leaders, and also of individual officials, in service and otherwise.

Though operating in and from the shadows, Sasikala’s husband MN was known to have kept his ‘Delhi contacts’ intact though Jayalalithaa was not known to favour him as a contact point.

The first test for AIADMK, going beyond even accepting Sasikala as party chief, would come not long after -- at the time of the R K Nagar assembly by-elections in Chennai.

It was Jaya’s seat, which she had won twice in the last two rounds, first in a by-election in 2015, after the Karnataka high court had quashed a trial court ordering Jaya, Sasikala and two relatives of the latter, to four years in prison, in the ‘disproportionate assets case’.  She won a second term from the constituency in the assembly elections in May this year.

Like after the high court verdict in the DA case, Jaya had waited until winning a by-election from MGR’s one-time Andipatti constituency, before returning as chief minister -- when the Supreme Court finally acquitted her in the ‘TANSI land deal case’ in 2001.

Jayalalithaa thought winning a popular mandate after a court scene was the best way to disprove her detractors. And she did so twice in less than two decades, and came out of it unscathed.

Should Sasikala seek to follow Jayalalithaa’s footsteps in the matter, and if at all she is not disinterested in keeping the twin posts together, R K Nagar could be the starting point.

But before that the Supreme Court has to pronounce the verdict in the disproportionate assets case, which was reserved months ago.

With Jayalalithaa not around to face conviction, if it came to that, and she being the main accused in the DA case, it remains to be seen how the SC views the other three accused -- none of them ‘public servants’ in the clear sense of the term under the anti-graft law.

Post-Jaya’s death, the SC has already dismissed one such petition flowing from the DA case itself as infructuous.

In between, as Chief Minister OPS is seen as acquitting himself well. So are his ministers, all of them holding the same posts as under Jayalalithaa.

In doing so, OPS in particular is seen also as shedding some of his infamous over-arching obedience to the leadership, unlike when Jaya was around.

It could well imply that there is a side or sides to the man the world has not seen, at least as yet and in public display.

This also used to be among the immediate concerns of Jayalalithaa when she reportedly sidelined him and other members of the ‘aivar ani’ (group of five) from among the ministers to run party and government affairs when she was not keeping fit earlier in the year. With assembly elections round the corner, she brought them back. Or, so went media reports.

For the first time when the state is under AIADMK rule, the younger generation is seeing the CM moving around in their midst at the time of the Cyclone Vardah calamity in Chennai last week.

Unlike during the devastating floods earlier in the year and even otherwise whenever Jaya was the CM since 1991, people are pleasantly surprised to see ministers and senior officials promptly communicating the Vardah-related updates to them through television news channels.

Residents in the city and suburbs also feel the difference as officials are accessible to receive complaints and act on them, without having to wait for instructions from the unknown and often unseen -- which often meant no instructions, or belated instructions.

It’s the kind of freedom that officials and ministers might enjoy even more in the coming days and weeks, but whether it may be to the liking and comfort of others in the party, starting with Sasikala & Co is something that they all would be pondering over, sooner than later.

In the midst of all the cyclone-related heavy work, Pannerselvam has since announced a seven per cent hike in dearness allowance for state government employees, with effect from July 2016, which is sure to find favour with them all.

In publicising the Cabinet decision in this regard, Panneerselvam resorted to the use of the first-person singular ‘I’ in the official statement, saying that he had ordered the DA hike.

It has not gone unnoticed in circles that matter. For, before the DA announcement, CM Panneer issued another statement on cyclone relief works, in a similar style -- the way Jaya alone had projected herself and the government that she had headed, and something that even MGR had not done in his time.

Would it all mean outright transfer of power, or division of real powers, or something more -- or less -- emerging in the AIADMK is as yet unclear at the moment, but the evolution of it is all becoming as visible as it continues remain hazy.

N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist and political analyst, is Director, Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Chapter. 

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