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Tamil Nadu's 'Chinnamma' and the threat within

December 15, 2016 16:46 IST

The threat to Sasikala won't come from the Tamil Nadu chief minister or New Delhi, but from her 20-plus kin, reports R Rajagopalan.

The All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam on Thursday confirmed what had been speculated since the demise of its popular leader, J Jayalalithaa.

AIADMK spokesman C Ponnaiyan told media-persons on December 15, "Chinnamma (as Sasikala is addressed by party workers), had been with Amma through her good and bad times for 33 years. She had been Amma's conscience and continues to be so. She has played a vital role in keeping the party intact for long. Therefore, Chinnamma will be elected as general secretary automatically and unanimously. There is no doubt or fear in that."

That Amma's trusted aide would eventually take over the reigns of the party was known to all, but according to party insiders, the wheels of change were already set in motion days ago.

Party sources told that Sasikala has been dictating party strategy and meeting MLAs either individually or in groups over the last 12 days. It was her decision that party MPs need not attend the remaining portion of the winter session but organise processions and the like in memory of Jayalalithaa.

The AIADMK, it needs to be remembered, has 59 MPs in both Houses -- making it the object of everyone's attention.

In the time since Jayalalithaa's passing, Sasikala has held discussions with Director General of Police T K Rajendran, Chief Secretary P Ramamohana Rao and Principal Advisor to CM Sheela Balakrishnan -- all this from Jayalalithaa's Poes Garden residence in Chennai.

Sources believe that this has been Sasikala's way of ensuring that she calls the shots, both politically and administratively. Even otherwise, she has not allowed the relatives of Jayalalithaa from Mandya and Srirangapattinam in Karnataka to the Poes Garden bungalow, making it clear in a state that thrives on symbolism that she is the chosen one, no one else.

However, there are certain hurdles that she may have to overcome along the way to gain total control of the AIADMK, the first and foremost being control over Jayalalithaa's property which runs into several crores in movable and immovable assets.

The AIADMK has not been very forthcoming with any information about Jayalalithaa will. Party sources say that Jayalalithaa did in fact have a will prepared, copies of which are in possession of Sasikala. Experts note that a legal duel on inheritance of the assets is inevitable and Sasikala will have to submit the documents in court when the time comes. Either way, Chinamma will have to be prepared for a long-drawn battle.

Then comes the threat from the Gounder community. During her lifetime, Jayalalithaa had managed to keep under check two of the four caste groups -- the Thevars and the Gounders (the other two being the Vanniyars and the Dalits) -- in the state. However, according to media reports, following Jayalalithaa's demise, the Gounder community reportedly expected PWD & Highways Minister Edappadi K Palanisamy to take over the mantle of the state. This idea was, however, allegedly shot down by Sasikala and the AIADMK top brass. With fissures already emerging, it is a matter of time when the Gounders could create headaches for Sasikala, given that both the CM and the party are from the Thevar community.

Another stumbling block for Chinamma could be Chief Minister O Panneerselvam, who has been earning a reputation of sorts with his quick decision-making abilities. Even though MLAs and MPs owe their allegiance to Sasikala, sources say that Panneerselvam has been steering clear of any confrontation with her. However, that situation could change six months down the line as Panneerselvam builds up his own image.

Earlier, OPS, as he is known, would kowtow to Jayalalithaa as did everyone else, but now he will soon start asserting himself as the chief minister. Right now he is aware that the party leadership is firmly behind Sasikala, but he also knows that everything can change in politics. Still, he is not expected to go against Sasikala.

That OPS thinks quickly and on his feet can be seen from the way he took charge of the district administration in Chennai following Cyclone Varadha this week, when he drove down to the affected areas without even given any notice to the administration.

The chief minister, it is said, will be happy to have a free run of the government.

Another feature of the Jayalalithaa government was the distance she maintained from the Congress party, in the wake of the 2G in which her rival, the DMK, was singed by corruption charges. Given this, eyebrows were raised when Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi spent a few hours at Jaya'a funeral. It is no secret that Sasikala's husband Natarajan, said to be a distant relative of Congress leader S Thirunavukkarasu, has been pushing for closer ties with the party, though Sasikala herself is inclined to go with the BJP.

That the BJP is not willing to cede any ground to its rival can be seen by the way Prime Minister Narendra Modi consoled both OPS and Sasikala at the funeral. Insiders speculate that the BJP is very keen on staying in the AIADMK's good books, at least till next year's Presidential elections.

So, given a pliant, non-confrontational chief minister and a central government keen on good ties, observers feel the real threat to Sasikala will emerge from another quarter.

Her 20-odd close relatives, it is expected, will over time try and muscle in on the state administration, which will have a major bearing on the state's governance, leading to loss of faith among the public. This scenario, it is expected, will unfold within the next one year.

Till then, the Tamil Nadu government seems to be on a firm wicket.

Image: AIADMK cadre interact with Sasikala at the party office in Chennai. Photograph: AIADMK/Twitter 

R Rajagopalan is a senior journalist, an observer of the AIADMK since its inception in 1972, and a close watcher of Tamil Nadu affairs.

R Rajagopalan