Assembly elections in Tamil Nadu are centred on chief ministerial candidates of rival parties. When Sasikala cannot contest even a panchayat election for six years after her release, even if she were to have sympathetic backers even among apolitical voters, she does not have any ‘transferrable vote-bank’ even otherwise for a chief minister candidate of her choice, says N Sathiya Moorthy.
With the countdown beginning for the release of V K Sasikala Natarajan, jailed live-in confidante of Tamil Nadu’s AIADMK chief minister, the late Jayalalithaa, speculation is rife if she would have a place in state politics, which she had controlled in her mentor’s days.
Especially, the question is if she will be able to influence politics in and for the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, which has since sacked her along with her nephew T T V Dhinakaran, in the state assembly polls, due by May next year.
Sasikala is due for normal release at the end of her four-year jail-term in February 2021 after four years in prison in the infamous ‘wealth case’ against Jayalalithaa and others.
The long-pending Supreme Court verdict came weeks after her death and did not pronounce any order on her. But it upheld the Karnataka high court confirming the trial court verdict only against Sasikala and her relatives, Illavarasi and V N Sudhakaran.
While the trial court had ordered Jayalalithaa, as A-1 in the case, to spend similar term in prison and also pay up Rs 100 crore as fine, it ordered the other three to pay a fine of Rs 10 crore each. The Supreme Court upheld the order against the three surviving convicts. This means, for freedom from prison, Sasikala and others will have to pay up the fine, or spend one more year in prison.
There is no knowing their attitude and availability of accounted funds at their disposal to pay up the fine.
Even with all this, there is no way Sasikala can contest the assembly polls, as under the law, she cannot do so for an additional six years after release. Then there are pending cases from Jayalalithaa’s first term as chief minister (1991-96), and also new ones that the IT department has slapped against her. The charge is that she had purchased property worth Rs 1600-plus crore, using demonetised currency.
There was also a pending case from Sasikala’s alleged forays outside the prison, which was supposedly caught on CCTV. It is unclear if the Karnataka prison department has disposed of the case -- and if so, how. Any punishment in the case can entail longer jail term on a separate count and her losing the remission-option.
Incidentally, speculation about normal remission for good behaviour began doing the rounds after a Tamil Nadu BJP leader, Aseervatham Achary, based in Delhi, tweeted a message to the effect some time ago. He said that Sasikala may come out of prison before August 14. Experts have since clarified that those imprisoned for corruption of the kind are not entitled to remission.
Assembly elections in Tamil Nadu are centred on chief ministerial candidates of rival parties. When Sasikala cannot contest even a panchayat election for six years after her release, even if she were to have sympathetic backers even among apolitical voters, she does not have any ‘transferrable vote-bank’ even otherwise for a chief minister candidate of her choice.
This means that despite all speculation her traditional underlings in the AIADMK from her working days with Jayalalithaa will have no use for her. Sasikala is a diabetic and the state of her health is unclear. It is also not known if she will have the grit and determination of her mentor and master, whose long hospitalisation was caused by years-long neglect of health.
There is also continued media speculation outside the state that with the death of Jayalalithaa and her bete noire and rival DMK boss, M Karunanidhi, between the 2016 assembly polls and now, there no charismatic personalities of the kind. The fact is that Tamil Nadu has already adjusted itself to politics and elections without the ‘Big Two’.
Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami in AIADMK and party president M K Stalin in the DMK have since filled the vacuum caused by the departed two. In each other they found a readily foil and an equal challenger, too.
Independent of the DMK-led combine sweeping the parliamentary polls last year, the event turned out to be the launch pad for both -- and their acceptance, as such, by their respective cadres and the larger electorate. If the parliamentary polls, of all things, proved anything, it was that the charisma of Prime Minister Narendra Modi that had captivated the rest of the nation, did not work in the state, even without the ‘Big Two’ charismatic leaders.
For his part, EPS, as Palaniswami is called, has been carefully consolidating his own hold, first over the government and now over the party, too. His deputy chief minister and party coordinator -- EPS is only the joint coordinator -- O Panneerselvam, or OPS, is now just a shade of his earlier self.
EPS has thoroughly side-lined OPS in party and government affairs, by buying over the loyalties of the camp followers of the other, one after the other. The recent reorganisation of district-level AIADMK office-bearers showed that OPS has lost out, with the result that his remaining loyalists too may migrate towards the EPS camp.
EPS is said to have ‘stabbed’ Sasikala in the back after she had identified him as chief minister before going to prison. The former used the disgruntled and defeated OPS to settle joint scores with Sasikala, and once that purpose had been served, he is busy targeting OPS -- but with a little more care and caution.
EPS does not seem to have time for Sasikala, and his camp also does not seem to fear her return from prison, as is being speculated in certain circles.
Nothing explains EPS’s self-confidence ahead of the assembly polls than his strong condemnation of those that had ‘desecrated’ a statue of AIADMK founder M G Ramachandran in the Union territory of Puducherry recently. He described as a ‘barbaric act’, the act of draping the statue with a saffron shawl, identified with the BJP and its Hindutva allies.
His administration and the party also separately moved the Supreme Court, and later the Madras high court, on the issue of reservations in all-India quota seats in medical admissions in state government colleges. Along with other political parties, including the rival DMK, the petitions challenged the Centre’s decision in the matter.
This has given rise to more speculation if the AIADMK is ready to part company with the BJP in the assembly polls. Through the long history of Dravidian rule in the state, whether it was Karunanidhi, who took over the reins of party and government after the early death of Annadurai, or the breakaway AIADMK leaders MGR and Jayalalithaa, they had been overly friendly to the ruling party at the Centre, until they had settled down in the job of chief minister.
Their ‘arrival statement’, if it can be called so, is made when they start asserting themselves and their party position on issues of concern to the state, over their political positions and personal predicament.
Considering that EPS, too, has started sending out signals, if any of the kind, it will be interesting to watch the AIADMK-BJP relations in particular, during the long run-up to the assembly elections. This is also because of an increasing internal feeling in the AIADMK that their total rout in the Lok Sabha polls owed to electoral association with the BJP and ‘excessive identification’ with PM Modi.
Those that want the AIADMK to associate with both Sasikala and the BJP in the assembly elections, feel that despite the poor showing in the LS polls, the AIADMK can do with the five per cent vote-share polled by the Dhinakaran-led AMMK, and also an ‘exaggerated’ 7-10 per cent ‘Modi votes’.
This is more important for the BJP as there is no knowing if superstar Rajinikanth will at all enter the poll fray, as promised in end-2017, or if Covid-centric public mood and personal isolation have dampened his mood further. The BJP and even some in the AIADMK may want to rope in PMK, which continued to poll five per cent votes, contesting alone even in the LS polls.
Under the circumstances, the AIADMK may not oblige Sasikala even that much, as both EPS and OPS are bound to feel insecure if she returns to the party -- with or without any post or portfolio.
Despite TTV’s hard work and outreach after launching AMMK, the party’s vote-share in the LS polls is not inspiring enough for the aunt-nephew combine to go it alone in the assembly polls, and make a success of it.
This will be an added factor why the EPS-OPS combine, to whatever limited extent they may work together otherwise, will have no use for Sasikala.
Yet, it will be interesting to watch how the OPS group, or whatever remains of it, feels about carrying the BJP with them in the assembly polls, if EPS had other ideas.
N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist and political analyst, is Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation.