At 70, going by hospital records made public, most age and health-related arguments put out against super-star Rajinikanth’s entry into politics, before he withdrew citing a 2016 kidney-transplant, hold good for Sasikala, too, says N Sathiya Moorthy.
By testing Covid-19 positive less than a week ahead of her scheduled release from a Bengaluru prison after serving a four-year term, as ordained by the Supreme Court of India, the enigmatic V K Sasikala Natarajan, the live-in confidante of Tamil Nadu’s late AIADMK Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, may have added to the mystery around her possible re-entry into state politics, especially with only months left for the assembly polls, due in May.
For now, the authorities in Bengaluru may be revising the prison manual for rules and precedents regarding granting freedom to a prisoner who needs to be released when in ICU, that too on the need for Sasikala to sign the relevant papers pertaining to the same.
But in native Tamil Nadu, months of speculation on her perceived next moves, when neither Sasikala nor any of her close aides has said anything in public -- or, in private -- is now confined/expanded to cover the possibilities of her being able to take an active political role after recovering from the pandemic, that too in the short term available ahead of the polls.
So intriguing has the Sasikala factor become that Victoria Hospital, Bengaluru, have thought it wise to come out with her vital readings, possibly after a Tamil Nadu advocate, Rajarajan, representing her interests in Bengaluru courts, wrote to the Karnataka Human Rights Commission expressing anxiety over the real nature of her health, and the cause for her hospitalisation ahead of her release, and linking it to ‘influential people’ back home in her native state.
For one thing, hospitals are not authorised to share the personal medical history of their patients, that too in the public domain.
For another, and ironically so, as the only non-medical persons with access to Jayalalithaa in her last months in a Chennai hospital, Sasikala was said to be behind the Tamil Nadu government holding back the then chief minister’s medical details with the latter’s large constituency in the state. The Chennai hospital authorities had their own tradition not to share personal medical details of their patients with outsiders, even if that patient happened to be the popular chief minister of a state.
Sure enough, the Supreme Court, for its part, did not calculate forward while upholding the lower courts’ orders for Sasikala to be released from prison only months ahead of the Tamil Nadu polls. But definitely, Edappadi K Palaniswami (EPS), the incumbent chief minister, also belonging to Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK, has calculated the day for him to inaugurate the Jayalalithaa memorial in Chennai on January 27, the very day Sasikala was originally set to walk out of the Bengaluru prison, as if to dare her and his other detractors in the party to take him on, if they can, ahead of the state assembly polls due in May.
Now, the greater chances are that Sasikala would be released that very day for all technical reasons, but may be confined to a hospital bed --- not being able to wave to the crowd of her supporters, either from outside the prison or hospital ward, leave alone her being able to travel to Chennai, at least by the day’s end, as if to take on the EPS challenge, if she had so intended.
EPS supporters are celebrating, though within, that even the gods are with their man.
EPS has thrown the challenge especially at his deputy chief minister O Pannerselvam (OPS), who has been sending out equally confusing signals about his intentions ahead of the assembly polls. This is after OPS had given EPS enough space in party affairs by acknowledging the latter as the AIADMK’s chief ministerial candidate while he himself is permitted to enjoy similar supremacy in organisational matters -- which is not happening.
The latest episode involves EPS’s recent Delhi visit, where he called on Prime Minister Narendra Modi, preceded by a meeting with Union Home Minister Amit Shah. The ruling BJP at the Centre is an alliance partner of the AIADMK from the Lok Sabha polls of 2019, which the Modi leadership swept elsewhere across the country, even more than in 2014, when he became prime minister, except in Tamil Nadu.
Accompanied by fisheries minister and ‘conscience-keeper’ D Jayakumar, EPS later clarified to Delhi newsmen that he did not discuss politics and polls with the two, but only administrative matters.
However, none in his party believe it to be so. With the Election Commission’s notification on poll dates expected in weeks, and with that the Model Code of Conduct coming into force, the PM and HM may not have taken him seriously on administrative matters.
With EPS keeping mum on the kind of discussions he had with the Delhi duo, speculation is rife that he had gone to invite PM Modi to inaugurate the Jayalalithaa memorial but that the latter declined. This line has got accentuated since, as the state government announced the memorial inauguration by EPS alone, through a hurried press release even as the CM was in Delhi. The release did not mention OPS, the deputy chief minister, even in passing.
This, even as a mysterious, anonymous, two front-page advertisement appeared in two major Tamil dailies in two successive weeks, extolling the virtues of OPS, including his record for presenting 10 successive budgets in the state.
OPS has also been maintaining a stoic silence on Sasikala even as EPS, Jayakumar and their team-mates have been going hammer and tongs at her.
EPS has also since pointed out how Sasikala was not even a member of the party after she was not issued a membership card after last enrolment when she was in prison. Party insiders also point out how having presented herself as the general secretary of the breakaway AMMK, Sasikala has forfeited her membership of the AIADMK.
For now, Sasikala’s unanticipated illness in the last week of her prison-term may preclude her followers from according her celebratory freedom, challenging the AIADMK crowd-gathering for Amma’s memorial inauguration. Even if she desired a new lease in politics, it may take her a couple of weeks to recover fully from illness and update herself on the current affairs, in the huge bungalow being refurbished for her, opposite Jayalalithaa’s famed Poes Garden residence.
Incidentally, it’s the same building over which speculation remained two decades ago, when the Supreme Court removed Jaya from office and reserved the verdict in the ‘TANSI land deal case’, from her first term in office (1991-96). According to speculation at the time, the state government might have declared that bungalow a ‘jail’ under the Prisons Act if the SC had upheld the lower courts’ sentence against Jaya. In the event, the apex court freed her, and the house was mostly in disuse.
Sasikala’s role in the assembly polls remained merely a subject of gossip and word-of-mouth rumour-mongering for months before RSS ideologue and Thuglak editor, S Gurumuruthy called for the AIADMK and the BJP to accommodate her, to defeat the DMK rival, at the magazine’s 51st anniversary fete on Pongal day, January 14.
While his analogy to using drain-water to put out a fire drew criticism on the social media, that itself proved to be a dampener for furthering Sasikala’s cause in the AIADMK, at least for the time being.
The previous 2016 assembly polls with Jayalalithaa as incumbent chief minister saw the AIADMK winning 134 out of 234 seats with polling countermanded in two constituencies for corrupt electoral practices. However, the vote-share difference with the rival DMK-Congress alliance was the lowest-ever one per cent, thus making this year’s election a close race.
Adding to the AIADMK’s woes is the 2019 LS polls, when the DMK combine swept 38 out of 39 seats, all but one with huge margins.
Even without it, the AIADMK-BJP combine has suffered avoidable strains after the state BJP chief L Murugan and central observer C T Ravi from neighbouring Karnataka began spreading speculation about the choice of chief minister, that too after OPS had ended the intra-party feud within the AIADMK some months ago, and the party general council attesting incumbent EPS as their choice a fortnight back.
The BJP has since come around to acknowledging the AIADMK’s decision in the matter though they are not known to have scaled down Murugan’s earlier demand for over 60 seats for the party in an alliance with the AIADMK. The BJP, keen on breaking the ‘Dravidian hold’ over the state, failed the first round, in the 2019 LS polls, the first electoral battle that the two Dravidian majors were facing after the death of Jayalalithaa and DMK patriarch M Karunanidhi.
The BJP strategists are said to be alive to the possibilities of letting the Dravidian polity settle down at the helm without the two most charismatic leaders of the their times, by weakening one by co-opting the other, or end up accepting a secondary role for the time being and try out their luck, post-poll, all over again.
Either way, there is nothing to suggest that the BJP’s vote-share in the state has sky-rocketed from the traditional 2-3 per cent, for the either the party or the AIADMK to seek comfort from. If anything, the LS polls witnessed non-transferability for AIADMK votes to the BJP for the first time ever, including in the southern and western regions, where they share common strongholds.
The AIADMK’s other ally, PMK, too has been playing hard ball on seat-sharing. Despite two rounds of talks with AIADMK’s ministerial emissaries PMK founder S Ramadoss has been insisting on the party’s demand for 20 per cent reservations for the Vanniar community, the PMK’s mainstay in the northern stronghold. Adding fuel to the speculation is PMK president G K Mani’s more recent statement that they were willing to consider a DMK alliance, if they accepted the party’s demand. As he pointed out, the DMK has been silent on the subject, as the PMK demand is impractical, given the caste composition in the state, going beyond electoral considerations.
The PMK has repeatedly proved its five-per cent vote-base, concentrated mostly in the northern region and a few packets in the west. In its absence, the AIADMK would have to work harder than already, with EPS sparing no efforts over the past nearly a year on the ground -- and with the state government splashing EPS-centric full-page advertisements in most daily newspapers, over the past several weeks.
It is against this background that Sasikala becomes more electorally important than her political clout, behind-the-scene manoeuvring capacity, et al. The AMMK, under her nephew T T V Dhinakaran, had captured five per cent votes, mostly of the AIADMK, in the LS polls, though without winning a single seat, Theni, where OPS’ son Raveendranath Kumar won by the second lowest margin of 70,000 votes, that too against an ‘outsider’ Congress candidate in one-time Union minister, E V K S Elangovan.
Added to all this has been the more recent media-centric opinion polls in the public domain that has given the DMK combine a clean sweep in the assembly polls.
It is not as if the DMK is not without alliance problems of its own, what with the Congress expected to demand more seats than it can win -- like the BJP in the rival alliance, and the likes of MDMK and VCK allies wanting to contest on their symbols and not on the DMK’s ‘Rising Sun’. As the LS polls showed, DMK’s vote-transferability remained suspect in the lone Chidambaram (SC) constituency, where VCK boss Thol Thirumavalavan scrapped through by a relatively low 3,000-vote margin.
Then, there is the question of Karunanidhi’s estranged elder son, M K Azhagiri, announcing his decision to contest the assembly polls under a new flag, and the possibilities of his eating into the DMK’s vote-share in select southern constituencies, however low. If he were to join hands with the rival combine, this would mean that the votes lost to the DMK would also be the votes gained by the rival.
It is in this overall context that Sasikala, Dhinakaran and AMMK have gained greater prominence than they may be entitled to. This is more so considering that after the LS poll reversals, as the AMMK was nowhere near opening the seat-share account. Even with the AMMK’s vote from 2019 merging back in the party, whichever way the AIADMK would not have won even an additional seat, possibly other than Thirumavalavan’s Chidambaram.
So far, all claims to Sasikala’s imminent entry into politics, post-freedom, are speculative at best. Then there is the question of her health independent of the current illness, as she is known to be a high diabetic, like her mentor Jayalalithaa. The Victoria Hospital bulletin detailing Sasikala’s general parameters indicate that her personal doctors too would advise her to a period of rest before taking up any serious work, especially politics.
At 70, going by hospital records made public, most age and health-related arguments put out against super-star Rajinikanth’s entry into politics, before he withdrew citing a 2016 kidney-transplant, hold good for Sasikala, too.
For weeks, which are going to be crucial as much for Tamil Nadu politics as for Sasikala’s own health and well-being, she is not going to be able to move out of Bengaluru. Her chances of receiving friends and supporters too may be limited, though operating from outside Tamil Nadu, if she so decides, will have its advantage in terms of maintaining the secrecy of her strategy.
What more, four years out of circulation, that too in prison, her manipulative skills and assertive dominance in party and public affairs remain untested in the absence of the cover that Jayalalithaa provided in her time and that of M Natarajan, MN for short, Sasikala’s husband, who was a strategist par excellence, and who died when Sasikala was in prison.
But the real question is, what if Sasikala were able to hit the track, directly or otherwise, without having to be an active participant? Anyway, she cannot contest elections for another six years, which means, not before the Lok Sabha polls of 2029. She would be 78 by then.
For the present, Sasikala by herself cannot muster many more numbers than what TTV has done already. However, she can be the amalgam for EPS detractors from within the party, especially if he decides to take on OPS and other individual district-level leaders identified with the latter in particular, but exist even otherwise. Her illness has proved to be a dampener for those sections, to begin with.
Ahead of her hospitalisation now, some party leaders, including incumbent ministers, were openly welcoming Sasikala’s release from prison, though they too have kept their open support for her speculative at best. But in the southern region, where community loyalties and a sense of personal indebtedness still count more, Sasikala could still have called in a few past favours, if she decides to take a plunge. At least, such speculation during the run-up to the assembly polls would not have bode well for the AIADMK and EPS. Her illness may have dampened those possibilities, too.
Again, before her hospitalisation, some community and AIADMK veterans were said to be working to bring OPS and Sasikala together, making them both forget the strained past after Jaya’s death. If they succeed, and if that is not welcome to the EPS, then the chances are that the party may be in deeper trouble in the assembly elections than the opinion polls now suggest.
Yet, at the end of the day, no one, especially speculative media-persons, was not asking the vital question: Is Sasikala up to it, after all? She does not have to answer that question for her. Her health condition, already, may have.
N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist and political analyst, is Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation.