POLITICS in the South is no different from that of the North. The personality cult dominates in both. People go mad over the leaders they prefer and even go to the extent of self-immolating themselves in frenzy. The government has banned the practice but it has failed to stop it. VK Sasikala in Tamil Nadu has become such a figure having been a close aide to former chief minister J. Jayalalithaa. Today, she is the general secretary of AIADMK and party has elected her as leader of its legislature wing. The outgoing chief minister O. Panneerselvam was asked to put in his resignation. He was not even present where decision was taken.
But the sudden turn of events in Tamil Nadu has sent everyone into a tizzy. Panneerselvam, the close confidant of the deceased chief minister, has come out strongly against Sasikala, accusing her of trying to usurp power. The swearing-in ceremony, which was to be held on Tuesday, seems to have been put off for the moment as the governor, apparently at the instance of Union Home Ministry, is dragging his feet. Even otherwise, this is not the opportune moment for a change of guard in the state as verdict over the disproportionate case against Sasikala and her mentor Jayalalithaa is awaited. The apex court has already indicated that a judgment will be delivered within a week. Whether she wins or loses, her stock is already waning.
As for Sasikala, she has been a long-standing friend of the former chief minister and by virtue of being close to Jayalalithaa she wielded enormous power. But she was never nominated by her as successor. Sasikala’s claim to fame can be attributed to the proximity with Jayalalithaa. There were occasions when even the former chief minister was annoyed with her friend that she choose to keep her away. Considered part of the Mannargudi mafia, Sasikala rubbed people on the wrong side which had on occasions embarrassed Jayalalithaa. M. Natarajan, Sasikala’s husband, was seen to be behind what she did and ultimately he was sidelined not only by Jayalalithaa but also Sasikala later. It is an open secret that Sasikala rose to accumulate so much wealth and was convicted, along with the former chief minister by the special court.
Whenever Jayalalitha was either in jail or during her brief period of wilderness owing to cases in the court, it was Panneerselvam whom she depended on and foisted him on the chief minister’s gaddi. And, as a loyal party worker, he had kept the seat warm all the time and vacated it when she would return. Not only that, Pannerselvam revered Jayalalithaa so much that he would never sit on the chair which she occupied and instead would have another chair to sit. He had her photo in the chamber apart from the one he always carried in his pocket to express his blind loyalty to her. He became so dependable that every time there was a problem, Jayalalithaa chose him as the ‘caretaker’ chief minister.
Indeed, Jayalalithaa was so tall that nobody else came anywhere near. This was like Jawaharlal Nehru who, like a banyan tree, did not allow any other plant to grow. She, singlehandedly, carried the party and her government despite a strong opponent like the DMK with patriarch M. Karunanidhi, still in party chair. The ruling BJP at the Centre has very little following of its own in Tamil Nadu because it is considered a party of the North. In the last Lok Sabha, the BJP won only one seat as compared to 37 by AIADMK. The current turmoil in the state is an ideal situation for the BJP to make inroads but the 37 AIADMK Lok Sabha members are crucial for it to get a bill or motion passed.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s strategy seems to be keeping a close watch. Maybe, the Supreme Court verdict against Sasikala would end the speculation one way or the other. However, it will be their endeavour to register their presence in the state. Sasikala’s husband, Natarajan is confabulations with Congress leaders may also have triggered BJP president Amit Shah to take stock of the situation. He is said to be in favour of Panneerselvam, an affable man. The party hopes to ride on his shoulders to make a future presence in Tamil Nadu. What seems to be going in favour of Panneerselvam is the public mood against Sasikala who was blamed for not allowing Jayalalithaa’s niece to visit her ailing aunt. She has already formed a party and has threatened to divulge several secrets soon. People, however, resent all this because of Sasikala’s antics to rise to the place where she is today. All this is familiar in politics in the North. Nehru wanted her daughter Indira Gandhi to be his successor. But Lal Bahadur Shastri was too popular to be ignored. Therefore, then Congress president K. Kamaraj settled matter when he announced that it would be Shastri first and Indira Gandhi later. Morarji Desai never accepted that and was the first to throw in his hat in the ring after Nehru’s death.
Indira Gandhi preferred to split the party than to accept Desai. She even sidelined Kamaraj after he had put her in the gaddi. Learning from the experience, she combined the posts of Prime Ministership and the party president. In the same way, the split in the AIADMK ranks seems imminent even though it is stage managed. The legislature members want Sasikala to be both party general secretary and the chief minister. How this entire drama would unfold is difficult to say. But one thing certain is that Sasikala is a force to reckon with. So is Panneerselvam. Fortunately for the latter, the public is behind him. At least that is what it looks like at this juncture. However, the fate of Sasikala hinges on the court verdict. Sasikala is no Jayalalithaa and DMK is waiting in the wings.
—The writer is a veteran Indian journalist, syndicated columnist, human rights activist and author.