The night before the Supreme Court was to deliver its verdict in the disproportionate assets case against Jayalalitha, Sasikala, her sister-in-law Ilavarasi and nephew V.N. Sudhagaran, Sasikala decided to spend the night at the sprawling Golden Bay beach resort, 90 kms south of Chennai.
She had a foreboding about the nature of the verdict. The MLAs lodged there had become edgy after five days of confinement, despite the luxurious surroundings. So she layered them with sob tales of her sacrifices for Jayalalitha to keep them committed to her camp. “If I spent 33 years with Amma, it is not only to look after her but also to look after the party she loved so much. If I have to sacrifice my life to protect this party, I would happily do so,” she said in a dull monotone. She also described herself as a lioness, who would guard the party and the MLAs as lion cubs, who would rally around her if she was in trouble.
The next day she woke up to the news that there was no need to sacrifice her life, the ‘lioness’ was sent to a Karnataka cage. But protecting the AIADMK was not exactly the thing on Sasikala’s mind. She was used to controlling it—through Jayalalitha or behind her back. And that is exactly what she continued to do after the judicial setback.
Edappadi K. Palanisamy
“Sasikala’s family would work overtime to move her out of the Bangalore prison to the Central Jail just outside Chennai. ”
Once her jail term was confirmed, Sasikala had Edappadi K. Palanisamy elected as chief minister by the captive MLAs. A known loyalist and a money bag, who, as PWD minister ensured the regular payment of EMIs to the Sasikala family, Palanisamy was the perfect proxy who would unhesitatingly take orders from the family. To make sure someone from the family was at his elbow, she appointed her nephew T.T.V. Dinakaran as the deputy general secretary.
Dinakaran, a former MP had been expelled along with 11 other relatives of Sasikala from the party by Jayalalitha in December 2011. Sasikala brought him and another nephew, S. Venkatesh, back into the party before driving down to the Bangalore jail, sending the message that the family would pilot the party. “Dinakaran’s appointment would ensure that the party would remain in the safe hands of Chinnamma. Palanisamy would have to take his orders from Dinakaran. And since Dinakaran had been the political mentor of O. Panneerselvam, he would find it difficult to oppose Dinakaran that vehemently,” says Thanga Thamilselvan, the Andipatti MLA from the Sasikala camp.
“Edappadi (as he is known after the village in Salem district he hails from) would soon become Dinakaran’s ‘edupidi’ (a Tamil word for a lowly servant),” quipped an MLA in the OPS camp, forgetting that his new boss was very much that a few months ago. Even now, OPS refers to Dinakaran as “Dinakaran sir” for having suggested him as Jayalalitha’s first proxy CM in 2001. Dinakaran, though has a few chinks in his armour—a fine of Rs 28 crore to be paid in a FERA case and a couple of more FERA cases in which Sasikala is also indicted. He has however emerged as a good political manager
As more than 120 MLAs stuck together behind Palanisamy, it became obvious that the Governor would give him the first shot at power, provided he proves majority in the Assembly through a trust vote on Saturday. That would see the installation of a Sasikala-friendly government which would run or ruin the state to meet the demands of her family.
Their first job would be to move her out of the second class cell in the Bangalore prison to more comfortable environs in the Central Jail just outside Chennai. “It is unlikely that Sasikala’s family members will remain mute witnesses to her existence under such tough conditions. Having lived in the plush comfort of Poes Garden, she is simply not used to it. Even during the 21 days she had spent in the same prison in 2014, the presence of Jayalalitha, a serving chief minister, entitled her to better facilities. But not now, as she is confined to a small cell given to B-class prisoners. Her family would work overtime to move her out of the Bangalore prison,” says a senior Minister and a Sasikala loyalist.
Subramanian Swamy, the man who first filed the DA case against Jayalalitha, has already fired the first shot seeking Sasikala’s transfer to a Tamil Nadu prison citing security reasons. If that happens, the state government will be run from a prison. Imagine the sight of ministers with beacon-fitted cars making weekly visits to prison to pay obeisance to ‘Chinnamma.’
From proximity to proxy has been a journey of ups and downs for Sasikala. The last time she and Jayalalitha got jailed in Sept 2014 in the assets case, ‘proxy Panneerselvam’ lived up to his name, when he surrendered the seat back to Amma in May 2015.
Sasikala could take pride that the man she chose as proxy in 2001—during Jayalalitha’s first disqualification—had not betrayed her trust. When he became a full-fledged chief minister after Jayalalitha’s death, Sasikala expected a similar surrender from him when she asked him to step aside. He did under protest but then had a rebellious afterthought that stopped her from occupying her late Akka’s CM chair.
Tamil Nadu’s main political battle during the coming weeks would be one between proxies—Dinakaran and Palaniswami versus Panneerselvam. While the anti-Sasikala mood in the state crystallised into support for OPS and brought in MLAs and MPs in ones and twos, he could not sustain the momentum beyond a week, in spite of an indulgent Governor offering him more time to apparently wean away the required MLAs, at least to deny the opposite camp a majority.
Pannnerselvam could not go beyond nine MLAs (out of the 134) and could only helplessly complain to the Governor that as long as the 120 MLAs were confined to the resort under protection of bouncers, he could not eject anyone out. The trickle which he hoped would become a tsunami never happened as the bulk of MLAs remained bottled up in the resort. “If OPS was short by 30 MLAs, the stragglers from the Sasikala camp would have joined him. But he was short by more than 100 MLAs, that left little room for hope. Even the DMK, with 89 MLAs could have propped him up if he showed at least 30 MLAs behind him, but he failed even on that count,” says Prof Ramu Manivannan, HoD of political science, University of Madras.
For someone who till a week ago was the toast of Tamil Nadu, OPS now stares at an uncertain future. He has to refashion himself from follower to leader. As a ‘by-the-way’ leader, he ran the government during the last two months, but the supplicant in him reared its heads whenever he was before Sasikala. But he has not given up as he has teamed up with Jayalalitha’s niece Deepa Jayakumar, who was the anti-Sasikala fulcrum in the AIADMK until Panneerselvam’s revolt.
“The two will float an Amma ADMK and join hands with the BJP for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections hoping that the mood against a Sasikala-centric government would help him consolidate the Jayalalitha vote bank,” says P. Thirumavelan, editor of Ananda Vikatan. The women in particular would not be enamoured of a party run by Sasikala as the ministers would be only invoking Chinnamma’s name.”
Even a government blessed by ‘Chinnamma’ and run by her proxies could prove to be short lived for two reasons. In the absence of a strong, hands-on leader, Sasikala may slowly lose her moral authority and egos will come into play while running the government. Seniors like K.A. Sengottaiyan are already peeved that his disciple Palanisamy has been elevated over his head. A veteran MLA since 1977—when MGR first became chief minister—Sengottaiyan could be the man to revolt next if he feels sidelined.
The internal caste contradictions with Palanisamy’s powerful and numerically stronger Gounder MLAs (28) gaining the upper hand would not be relished by the Thevars (20 MLAs), who had their man OPS as the head of government. Similarly the Dalit MLAs, who form the largest chunk at 31, would expect to be constantly placated since they have been at the receiving end of the Thevars and Gounders socially. Dalit boys have been victims of honour killings that have happened at the hands of Thevars or Gounders across the state and this inherent caste tension will also have its play in the way the government is run.
“A mid-term election remains a distinct possibility as the haze of uncertainty would continue to hang in the air,” says Thuglak editor S. Gurumurthy. “In the absence of Jayalalitha’s all-pervasive command, a convicted Sasikala will show up to be a charlatan only keen on protecting her family and its wealth. Only fresh elections will clear the air.”