Wednesday, Sep 28, 2022

Exorcising The Mannargudi Ghost: Sasikala’s Craving For Chief Ministerial Post Proved Costly

Dhinakaran, who was seen as a master strategist, had misread the situation badly.

PTI File Photo

It was the worst week for VK Sasikala and her family. Her husband M. Natarjan was lying critical in a Chennai hospital with multi-organ failure. Her nephew TTV Dhinakaran had to shepherd his 21 MLAs to a resort in Coorg in Karnataka following simmering discontent about their prolonged captivity.

And the lady, who was christened Chinnamma and hailed as the savior of AIADMK and Tamil Nadu just nine months back, now languishing in jail, found herself unceremoniously sacked from the post of General Secretary of the AIADMK.

A determined general council of the party that met on Sept 12, even abolished the post, saying it was permanently reserved for Jayalalithaa (not that she was coming back) and appointed an 11 member coordination committee to run the party.

“As political coups go this one should rank high in recent Indian political history. There was no surprise element as the moment EPS and OPS joined hands Sasikala’s days were numbered. But the manner in which Palaniswami pushed ahead, even after Dhinakaran rendered his government unstable by pulling out 21 MLAs (out of the 132), proved that he is a smart tactician. Once he was able to show the commanding numbers at the general council the stature of EPS the politician shot up,” explained political observer Sumanth Raman.

Dhinakaran, who was seen as a master strategist, had misread the situation badly. When the Governor simply tossed his no-confidence petition against EPS back to the party, he should have realized that the BJP would not allow a merger blessed by it to be undone by the family. Ideally he should have redrafted his petition stating withdrawal of support to the government and not the chief minister. But he dithered and refused to further rock the boat by forcing a trust vote.

Though he kept threatening about sleeper cells in the EPS camp that would derail the ruling dispensation, the sleepers never woke up. Even at the general council, there was not a murmur of protest when the resolution unseating Sasikala was passed.  

“Confronted with a stalemate he should have worked out a face saving compromise. Instead he let EPS run the government as if nothing had happened and the successful conduct of the Sept 12 general council only cooked the Mannargudi goose,” admitted a TTV aide.

Dhinakaran’s suo motto sacking of Jayalalithaa appointed functionaries and replacing them with his own nominees only earned him more enemies and even Sasikala loyalists like Handlooms Minister OS Manian decided to stick with EPS than side with the family.

“Even Jayalalithaa never resorted to such wholesale changes in the party setup that Dhinakaran has been ramming through. This bull in the china shop approach has only conveyed the impression that he wanted to wreck the party out of his ego rather than find a solution to the present impasse,” pointed out AIADMK MP Anwar Raja.

“Both Sasikala and Dhinakaran committed the same mistake – they wanted to be Chief Ministers in a hurry. If only they had remained content running the party and remote control the government they still would have OPS and EPS genuflecting before them. Instead both their proxies turned rebels in no time. The DNA of the Sasikala family is such that the interests of their family comes first and this obsession proved to be their undoing,” argued Sumanth Raman.

As the endgame turned decisively against him and one of his camp MLAs switched sides a desperate Dhinakaran, who till then said he would send EPS home, openly threatened that he would overturn the government.

This only sent out more wrong signals to party functionaries. To bring down the government he would have to join hands with the DMK – a definite no-no in the dictionary of every AIADMK cadre. And also he would be bringing down a government that was elected under Jayalalithaa’s leadership – which would be viewed as another blasphemy.

In contrast EPS played his cards well. He kept organizing MGR centenary functions every week in different districts. That helped him reconnect with party functionaries and reaffirm their continued support. He also ensured that Assembly Speaker P Dhanapal, who the TTV camp had touted as a substitute to EPS, presided over these meetings thus neutralizing any fleeting thoughts of rebellion in the Speaker’s mind.

EPS also constantly reassured MLAs that the government would be safe and there would be no midterm elections – the biggest fear of most first time MLAs, who could lose out on their pensions if they had not completed two years as MLA. “EPS proved to be a good crisis manager, delegating his Ministers to be minders of MLAs from their respective districts and also keep the district level functionaries in the loop. This was one reason why the turnout at the general council was more than 90% of its total strength of 2,300 members. The smooth conduct of the council with such a large turnout has underlined EPS as a shrewd and silent operator,” observed Ravindran Duraisamy, political commentator.

The AIADMK – always used to a sole powerful leader at the helm – shall be piloted by a joint leadership now that the general secretary’s post has been abolished. O. Panneerselvam, who was nursing hopes to become general secretary after the merger, now has to be satisfied as co-ordinator of the 11 member steering committee and will have to share equal powers with EPS who will be joint co-ordinator. “It is a bold new experiment in democratizing the party set up in the absence of a charismatic leader like Jayalalithaa. We are determined to make it succeed,” said Education Minister K.A. Sengottaiyan, who has served under both MGR and Jayalalithaa.

Even as the blood-letting was happening in the AIADMK, its principal rival the DMK could only watch the goings on as a spectator unable to influence the course of events. This raised serious doubts about the leadership of M.K. Stalin, the working president of the party and comparisons were made how his father Karunanidhi would have used the confusion to the advantage of the DMK.

“The job of an opposition party is to keep the ruling party on tenterhooks. Here was the AIADMK, deprived of its working majority, embattled by striking government servants and protests by students on NEET and Stalin could hardly make the ruling party sweat in spite of having 98 MLAs with him. He simply lacks the killer instinct of his father,” frowned a senior Congress leader.

Only after three meetings with the governor did Stalin approach the High Court seeking a floor test, something he should have done after the lack of response from the governor after the first meeting.

“We were unsure how many of Dhinakaran’s MLAs would stand behind him in case of a trust vote. If EPS survives the vote it would only strengthen him ahead of the local body elections. So we had to play our cards carefully,” said a senior DMK MLA.

The coming week might finally see the Assembly vote on another trust vote which could lead to a spell of president’s rule if the EPS government falls. On the other hand if EPS proves his survival skills once again by parading the numbers to stay in power, he would consolidate his position and emerge as the real go to man in Tamil Nadu politics.