The script kept shifting with the same stunning immediacy as the scenes, acts and dramatis personae. The story that began unravelling on the night of December 5, when the colossus-like J. Jayalalitha passed away, had the usual tangle of twists and turns—as always happens when a great mogul exits the stage. As the denouement wound on, a wildcard entrant, Edappadi Palanisamy, was in the spotlight. Saturday, February 18, is the day of reckoning for this relatively low-key Gounder face from Salem. By then, the one who had threatened to dominate Tamil Nadu politics, Sasikala Natarajan, would be into her first lonely weekend in a Bangalore jail.
It’s surely been one of the longest political dramas in three decades—and that’s saying something in a state not especially new to drama—but it may not end with an oath of office, or even Saturday’s floor test. After the rebellion mounted by the ‘almost man’, O. Panneerselvam, Sasikala’s camp had just about stanched the loss of blood—and the numbers are behind Palanisamy for now. But there are seeds of instability too. For one, Sasikala’s family, the ‘Mannargudi mafia’, will make a play for control over party and government and no one knows if AIADMK leaders and cadres would accept it in the long run. And interested parties with a stake, from opposition DMK to the BJP central leadership, will be watching keenly.
Before this, it was the Supreme Court (SC) that put a spoke in Sasikala’s plans—her conviction came as a body-blow to Chinnamma’s hopes of becoming the successor to Jayalalitha. She was already styling herself as the first properly Tamil woman CM! But given how Governor Vidyasagar Rao had delayed playing his hand, and the court hinted at how it had scheduled the date of verdict, perhaps she was aware that the long arm of justice would finally catch up with her.
The disproportionate assets (DA) case in which Sasikala and her relatives Ilavarasi and Sudhakaran have been sentenced to four years began in 1996, soon after Jayalalitha’s first, somewhat notorious five-year rule. Subramanian Swamy, then president of Janata Party, had filed a case saying she had amassed wealth to the tune of Rs 66.65 crore disproportionate to her known sources of income. Ironically, Jayalalitha had declared in 1991 that she would only take a token Re 1 as her salary for discharging her duties as CM. Jayalalitha was arrested in December ’96, and the investigations proceeded apace.
“In making Dinakaran deputy general secretary, Sasikala has ensured that the party remains under the family’s control.”
It was in 2003, when Jayalalitha was in power, that the DMK’s K. Anbazhagan requested the SC to transfer the case to Karnataka, saying a fair trial was difficult in TN with Jayalalitha occupying the CM’s post. The SC then ordered the constitution of a special court in Bangalore to try the case. In 2014, special court judge Michael D. Cunha held Jayalalitha, Sasikala, her sister-in-law J. Ilavarasi and estranged nephew Sudhakaran guilty and sentenced all accused to four years of imprisonment. In May 2015, Karnataka High Court judge C.R. Kumarasamy overturned this order, acquitting all accused. In June 2015, the Karnataka government went on appeal against the acquittal and on February 14 this year, the SC restored the trial court’s order holding all accused guilty and dropping the case against Jayalalitha because of her death.
Activists feel the DA case is only the tip of the iceberg. Jayaram Venkatesan of the Arappor Iyakkam, an NGO that has been exposing Sasikala and her family’s ‘excesses’, says they have evidence that the family owns at least 43 benami companies. “Midas Golden Distilleries, arguably the largest supplier of liquor to the government-owned Tasmac in Tamil Nadu, was started with an investment of Rs 14 crore in 2002,” reveals Venkatesan. “It was later established that the entire investment was made in black money. Midas was initially owned by Hot Wheels Engineering (48.37 per cent stake), but this was in turn owned by Sasikala (31 per cent holding), Ilavarasi (31 per cent) and Sri Jaya Finance and Investments (38 per cent). Hot Wheels later became ‘Jazz Cinema’, owned almost entirely by Sasikala. Midas had a taxable turnover of Rs 360 crore in 2010-11, this increased to Rs 1,412 crore in 2013-14 within three years of the AIADMK coming to power.”
Arappor Iyakkam has also filed a complaint against Sasikala and her relatives usurping government and private lands, but no action has been taken. According to Iyakkam, music director Gangai Amaran was forced to part with his palatial bungalow in Payyanur for a mere Rs 13 lakh to Sudhakaran in 1994. It was later established that the bungalow was registered in Sasikala’s name.
“But we are not giving up. We are sure there has been widespread corruption even after 1996. Even Midas is a clear case of conflict of interest and there are many companies which have received investments from Sasi Enterprises and Jaya Publications named in the DA case. We are collecting all the details. For now, we are focusing on land grab cases because very many commoners have been affected by them,” Venkatesan adds.
Sasikala, however, is keeping a straight face. Calling the DA case a vindictive action of the DMK, she says she would continue to “work for the party” from jail. Observers say her plans betray her deep insecurity. She brought back her nephew T.T.V. Dinakaran, expelled by Jayalalitha in 2011, to the party fold and within hours made him the party’s deputy general secretary. “It is evident that she doesn’t want to trust the party with anyone else but her family. Even though he was not a party member, Dinakaran accompanied Sasikala when she met the governor to stake claim,” says Durai Karuna, a political observer. “Dinakaran was made an MP by Jayalalitha, but she did not readmit him into the party even when she took back Sasikala in 2012. Sasikala doesn’t seem to realise this will not go down well with cadres, who are already seething with anger against the way she has operated after Jayalalitha’s death.”
When Sasikala picked Palanisamy, a Jaya loyalist rather than her own person, as the CM candidate after her conviction, she was doing so perhaps under coercion, say observers. The names doing the rounds otherwise included Deepak Jayakumar, Jayalalitha’s nephew and a political greenhorn. Deepak was asked to visit Sasikala at the Golden Bay resort in Koovathur on February 14, hours before the judgement was to be pronounced, fuelling rumours about his elevation. Sources say the suggestion was quickly rejected by many MLAs who demanded that ‘one among them be made the CM candidate.’
Besides being a powerful Gounder leader, Palanisamy was among the four seniors who constituted Jayalalitha’s influential coterie. Soon after her death, speculation about an intra-OBC Thevar-Gounder power struggle within the party was rife. After Thevars, Gounders form the second most influential caste bloc in the party with 28 MLAs and five ministers. Though Thevars had only 20 MLAs, the community boasted of nine ministers in the cabinet. Observers call it unfortunate that with 31 MLAs, Dalits could not exercise the kind of influence Thevars or even Gounders do in the party. When Panneerselvam became the CM after Jayalalitha’s death and Sasikala took over as the party’s general secretary, the two most influential posts had been pocketed by Thevars. But senior Gounder leaders in the party decided to play it down, preferring the stable attractions of the four-and-half years left of AIADMK rule.
By anointing Palanisamy, Sasikala would have appeased the Gounders for now. But by making Dinakaran the party’s deputy general secretary, she has thwarted any total Gounder coup in the party. “The scenario is this: If Dinakaran is like Jayalalitha, Palanisamy is like a Panneerselvam to him,” says Karuna. “That’s how Sasikala perhaps thought it out. But one can never be sure if Palanisamy will be as loyal to Dinakaran or Sasikala as Panneerselvam was to Jayalalitha. In fact, Sasikala brought in Dinakaran only to ensure the party remains under the family’s control in her absence.”
Sasikala tried all she could to woo the party to stay by her side. She visited Jayalalitha’s memorial at Marina Beach before starting for Bangalore and, while paying respects, dramatically hit her hand on the stone thrice as if taking a vow. Party sources say she vowed to ‘finish off Panneerselvam and the DMK’. But observers say it’s another ‘crass attempt by Sasikala’ to claim the Jayalalitha legacy. Karuna says Sasikala wants people to believe that she is Jayalalitha’s true heir. “But once she’s in jail, it will be difficult for her to exercise the same kind of control she did when she was in Poes Garden.”
Meanwhile, all’s not well with Panneerselvam’s camp. They were jubilant over Sasikala’s conviction, and had hoped that more MLAs would come over after the judgement. But many factors, including the announcement of Palanisamy as the CM candidate, contributed to stymie his newfound ambitions. His supporters still keep the faith. Like former education minister K. Pandiyarajan, who says the rank and file stay with Panneerselvam and they will eventually sustain.