Ahead of VK Sasikala’s return to Tamil Nadu on February 8, there are some important questions facing her.
One, does she carry electoral weight more now than her brainchild AMMK had in the 2019 LS polls?
Two, can she retain or build upon the five per cent vote-share from that time?
And finally, is there space for Sasikala to retrieve, first within the AIADMK and then across the state, says N Sathiya Moorthy.
By choosing late mentor Jayalalithaa’s car and sporting the ruling AIADMK’s flag on its bonnet while driving out of the Bengaluru hospital after being cured of Covid-19, V K Sasikala Natarajan has already sent out a message, especially to the parent party back home in Tamil Nadu.
Now by seemingly over-reacting and shutting down the brand new Jayalalithaa Memorial (opened on January 27) for ‘maintenance and completion work’, as if to deny Sasikala a chance to pay her mentor respects before re-launching herself in state politics on February 8, the ruling AIADMK leadership, especially of Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami (EPS), seems to be going on the avoidable back foot.
It is true that Sasikala visiting Jaya’s memorial on her release will recall her famous swearing by her ‘Akka’ (elder sister) -- ‘Amma’ to the rest -- at the very same place before driving down to the Bengaluru prison four years ago.
Given that she was entering the prison in a corruption case, where death alone seemed to have saved Jaya’s honour, Sasikala’s over-reaction at the time became a butt of memes, but not this time, when a lot of political speculation surrounds her future political moves and prospects.
Without leaving anything to imagination, Sasikala’s nephew and breakaway AMMK general secretary T T V Dhinakaran has been reiterating since that they would seek to re-take the party through all democratic means, now that Sasikala is free and will be back home, soon. Talking to newsmen in Madurai, he made fun of the rulers and asked if they thought that by hiding the (groom’s) comb, they could stop the wedding __ a Tamil proverb, which reads, “Seeppa oliththu vaiththu vittal kalayanaththa niruththa mudiyuma?”
This leads to multiple questions, the chief among them being the legality behind such claims, and Sasikala’s ability to do as threatened.
As Dhinakaran pointed out, the AIADMK general council elected Sasikala as the post-Jaya general secretary. He did not have to refer to the fact that their appeal against the Election Commission’s rejection of the demand for the ‘Two Leaves’ symbol of the AIADMK ahead of the 2019 parliamentary polls, is still pending before the Delhi high court. They may now seek to re-activate the same ahead of the Tamil Nadu assembly polls, due in May.
AIADMK stalwarts, including ministers, have promptly claimed that Sasikala was no more a party member, she not having renewed her membership ahead of the last general council meeting that froze the post of general secretary in Jaya’s honour and created those of coordinator and joint coordinator. According to them, Dhinakaran was sacked by Jaya, and was not re-admitted.
However, one AIADMK leader, K P Munnusami, deputy coordinator -- identified with the OPS faction -- went on to add that they would be willing to consider Dhinakaran’s re-admission if he apologised in writing for his past activities. Is it double-speak or is borne out of the anxiety that the aunt-nephew duo could upset the AIADMK’s current calculations ahead of the assembly polls, due in May?
Apart from the Jaya memorial, another iconic AIADMK symbol in the state capital is the party headquarters, on the narrow Lloyds Road in the crowded Mylapore locality. As party founder, MGR converted his first-purchased immovable property as an actor and in his wife V N Janaki’s name -- into its office. That house has remained the AIADMK headquarters since that day in 1972.
Today, speculation about the controllers of the Anna Trust, which now owns the property, is hazy, and there are apprehensions in AIADMK circles that those people, including one-time Jaya aide S Poongundran, may now tilt to Sasikala’s side. Dhinakaran refused to comment on the possibility of Sasikala visiting the party HQ on return to Chennai, telling Madurai journalists, “It is good to have some suspense.”
The fact however is that even owning and possessing the building, if it came to that, could automatically bring Sasikala back to the party, and the party back to Sasikala. But the nervousness of the AIADMK leadership in the matter, as reported in a section of the Tamil media, is what could lead to issues and concerns -- leading up to a possible court order sealing of the building, pending further litigation.
Independent of what the party cadres and voters may think about it, the AIADMK leadership is even more afraid of the party’s MGR-given ‘Two Leaves’ symbol getting frozen for the upcoming elections. They cited the post-MGR polls of 1989, which the competing factions under Jayalalithaa and MGR’s widown Janaki Ramachandran, lost, to the advantage of bete noire DMK’s Karunanidhi.
The AIADMK strategists are shy of acknowledging that the 1989 debacle happened more because of the division of AIADMK’s cadre votes and the anti-incumbency attending on the party after MGR’s decade-long rule, more than the symbol issue. Today, after the AMMK polled five per cent votes in the Lok Sabha polls of 2019, which the AIADMK-BJP lost by wide margins, there is still apprehension about the kind of damage that Sasi’s re-entry could cause to the ruling party.
In particular, conservative party strategists refer to the narrowest of one per cent vote-share margin that they won (41-40) against the rival DMK-Congress combine in the previous assembly polls of 2016. This was despite the fact that the Jaya-led AIADMK won 134 of 234 seats, without any major ally. The DMK-led combine won a very respectable 98 seats, and did not contest the official results in many constituencies, as was expected soon after the polls.
All of it leads to the second question: Does Sasikala carry electoral weight more now than her brainchild AMMK had in the LS polls? Or, can they retain or build upon the five per cent vote-share from that time? While this question begs an answer, what is clear is that there is no big role there for Sasikala to play in the normal course.
Of course, the Sasi-Dhinakaran duo’s chance will depend on their ability to ‘hijack’ the AIADMK from within -- or weaken it from outside, and work with identifiable rebels with face recognition outside their immediate neighbourhood and constituency. Party coordinator and deputy chief minister O Panneerselvam (OPS), whom Sasikala had unceremoniously shunted out only weeks after his being sworn in as CM on Jaya’s death, is seen as a serious choice for a collaborator.
Speculation in this regard is substance-free. Ever since EPS was named the party’s chief ministerial candidate in the assembly poll, with OPS proposing it after a long bickering, unexplained newspaper advertisements have been appearing on and off, promoting the deputy chief minister in their own way. On Sasikala’s recovering from Covid, one of OPS’s politician-sons prayed for her well-being through a statement, but ‘clarifying’ that it was his personal position, confined to the matter on hand.
Emerging indications are that OPS may use the ‘Sasikala card’, to ensure that the EPS camp did not cheat him in seat-sharing, especially in his southern Mukkulathore strong-hold. Beyond that there is an underlying sympathy in the larger community for Sasikala, who is one of them and whom many feel is the ‘wronged woman’ -- ending up in prison for Jayalalithaa, who did not live up to face the indignity.
This is another serious factor that seems to haunt the OPS camp, who know that they cannot afford to lose the common Mukkulathore votes in the South, with decision-making position in about 40 assembly constituencies. So, bringing back Sasikala, according to second-line leaders in the OPS camp, is a must not only for the AIADMK’s electoral victory but also their own faction within the party, even if they end up losing the government to the rival DMK combine. It is another factor that the Sasikala camp seems to be playing upon.
It is against this background that the EPS camp in particular is miffed at OPS’s parliamentarian-son Raveendranath Kumar calling on Union Home Minister Amit Shah, purportedly seeking the latter’s blessings on his own birthday. As may be recalled, EPS had personally declared that there was no space in the party for Sasikala, that too in capital New Delhi, only after his meetings with Amit Shah and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Yet, his camp is restless over Raveendranath’s more recent meeting with Amit Shah.
Going beyond the possibility is also the question if there is space for Sasikala to retrieve, first within the party, and then across the state. Throughout the past year, and more so after the AIADMK ordained EPS as their chief minister candidate, he has been at a slanging match with DMK’s Stalin, nit-picking on what each other is not.
Clearly, the undiscussed strategy between the two is to project each other as the sole rival, to the exclusion of others and their own allies. The list includes the BJP, PMK and DMDK for EPS and the AIADMK, and Congress, VCK and MDMK, for the rival DMK. In this, only the BJP counts, given its perceived ambitions to emerge as a strong force, leading up to their becoming the ruling party in the foreseeable future.
It is also how and why Stalin did not react to his estranged elder brother M K Azhagiri’s recent provocative statements, indicating a new political party, lest the voters’ focus would be diverted from the main theme that he is the leader and the AIADMK and EPS are the only contenders. Some of Azhagiri’s very limited ranks of supporters have christened such a party as ‘Kalaignar DMK’, after the late patriarch.
It is equally so with EPS, who has allowed his trusted lieutenants like Fisheries Minister D Jayakumar to respond to media queries on Sasikala. He has limited his comments on Sasikala to an occasion or two -- aimed at pro-Sasikala groups within the party, including possibly the OPS faction.
There is nothing new to the strategy. It is the same that Karunanidhi on the one side, and MGR, and then Jayalalithaa, followed with ease and poise in their time, to eliminate the Congress party’s claims, as the traditional rival which the DMK had replaced -- and for good -- in 1967. It is this political identity, as DMK and AIADM, that counts for anyone to now assert oneself at the helm, and unless Sasikala reaches there, by whatever way of her choice, then alone can she claim to be successful.
Translated, it means there is no political vacuum in the state, post-Jaya, post-Karunanidhi, as the BJP had thought at one point. It’s more so after ‘superstar’ Rajinikanth blew their hopes of a third, viable alternative, for starters, by declaring his intention not to enter electoral politics, citing Covid and his kidney transplant of 2016 as the combined reasons.
That is to say, Sasikala, or anyone else in her place, EPS included, can only seek to fill the existing space, but not create or hope of a new space for him or her to fill. This, of course, was also true of Rajinikanth, for starters. In a way, this should explain why Sasikala is keen on ‘taking back’ the AIADMK, if she could help it -- or, at least gain even a minimalist entry into the party, using the AMMK only as a platform for the purpose if she has to.
Be that as it may, post-poll, it will be relatively easier for Stalin to retain the party post and also keep it alive and kicking than for EPS to do so -- depending on who loses the poll. There will be fewer challenges for the party and the leader if the DMK were to lose than for EPS and the AIADMK if the latter were to lose office. The EPS camp can still hope to count on ‘past favours’ to call upon, to ensure that he has a stronger following than for OPS, who is the chief coordinator of the party. But these are all in the realm of speculation. But that is another chance that the Sasikala camp may be looking for.
Without the DMK packaging him as such and without anyone acknowledging him, too, as such, Stalin today is the senior-most active political leader in the state, that too as the president of a party with a strong following. EPS, in contrast, may be among those with the least political exposure. But through government initiatives and extensive travel during the Covid year, denying the same to Stalin and the rest, and also through state-sponsored advertisement blitz through the period, EPS has made his name as much a household name as that of not only Stalin, but also Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa.
Whether he is as popular and acceptable as the latter two will be known only in the May polls. But then, for the BJP, an AIADMK defeat would be more favourable for elbowing its way into the state stronger than a DMK defeat. That is because the DMK cadres and voters are as much sworn anti-BJP as the BJP cadres are anti-DMK. They may not dissolve, or merge in the BJP even if the party-ruled Centre pressures the DMK leadership through raids, arrests and court cases.
If nothing else, the DMK has seen it all, through the pre-emergency days when Indira Gandhi was in power. That may possibly be why Stalin has been talking lately about his days as a ‘MISA detenu’ during the emergency, sending out a clear message to the BJP that they cannot be bent, however much one tried. It is also equally true that there is nothing new to the post-Jaya BJP manoeuvrings to become a ‘second force’ in the state.
The state has seen it all, the DMK and AIADMK have seen it all, especially post-MGR in 1989 and since, when the ruling Congress party at the Centre had strategised similarly. Not only could the Congress not come back to power in the post-MGR elections 1987, within a decade its proven 20 per cent vote-share had more than halved, and both Karunanidhi and breakaway TMC (Tamil Maanila Congress) founder G K Moopanar, became greater national figures than already.
N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist and political analyst, is Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation.