Acts of ambition

V.K. Sasikala stays put on the strength of the MLAs she has lodged in a resort despite overwhelming opposition to her elevation from the party cadre and the general public.

Published : Feb 15, 2017 12:30 IST

V.K. Sasikala   and the MLAs supporting her, at a resort on the outskirts of Chennai on February 12.

V.K. Sasikala  and the MLAs supporting her, at a resort on the outskirts of Chennai on February 12.

Power, once attained, should not be shared. The axiom seemed to be at play in the extraordinary political twists and turns witnessed in Tamil Nadu beginning with the revolt against All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) general secretary and legislature party leader V.K. Sasikala by O. Panneerselvam, who had resigned from his post as Chief Minister and was asked to continue in office until alternative arrangements were made. If Sasikala claimed to have the support of the party legislators, Panneerselvam was confident that he had the people.

In fact, there was palpable resentment among a vast majority of the people over what they saw as an attempt to hijack the party and the government by Sasikala and her cohorts. After all, according to them, the vote in the 2016 Assembly elections was for Jayalalithaa, the party supremo who passed away on December 5, and no one else, least of all Sasikala.

Governor Ch. Vidyasagar Rao, who came to Chennai from Mumbai on February 9, received letters from both Sasikala and Panneerselvam. While Sasikala submitted a list of the names of MLAs who supported her, Panneerselvam refused to divulge any details about his letter to the Governor. Meanwhile, the Sasikala-led AIADMK, boasting the support of the majority of the lawmakers, threatened to take the delay in the swearing-in of Sasikala to the President.

Until the time of this article going to press, no concrete decision had been taken over government formation though the Governor had two options before him: ask the rival factions to prove their majority on the floor of the Assembly or to recommend President’s Rule if he came to the conclusion that government formation was not possible. The chances of the latter, however, seemed remote.

With Panneerselvam’s revolt, the elevation of Sasikala as party general secretary and leader of the legislature party, and Sasikala’s summary expulsion of AIADMK presidium chairman E. Madhusudhanan from the primary membership of the party, it was sure that the third largest political party in the Lok Sabha was under severe stress and on the verge of a split, similar to the one in 1987 after its founder-leader M.G. Ramachandran, or MGR, died.

Sasikala “sacrificed her life for our Amma [Jayalalithaa]”, as a senior Minister put it, but little did she think that she would face the wrath of the people after the unexpected revolt from within. The people and a major faction of the party cadre alike believed that she was in an unseemly hurry to become general secretary on December 29 and subsequently Chief Minister.

While many a legal luminary pointed out that with the majority of the MLAs on her side there “is nothing constitutionally and legally wrong” in her getting elected as the legislature party leader and Chief Minister consequently, people saw it differently and expressed as much openly on social media platforms. Memes, messages, campaigns and comments on social media and other platforms point to her attempt to grab power through the back door to install “one family rule” in the State, as Madhusudhanan termed it.

The cracks that had developed in the party after Panneerselvam became Chief Minister following Jayalalithaa’s death widened when he consolidated his position as an able administrator overseeing relief operations after Cyclone Vardah, and tackling the water crisis in the State, and the jallikattu issue. Sensing a threat to her ambition, Sasikala decided to strike at the earliest to grab power on the grounds that in the party’s tradition established by Amma one person had to hold the posts of the party general secretary and Chief Minister.

Jayalalithaa was all in all in the party and no one else mattered, and Sasikala wished to be the same. But in the eyes of the people and the majority of the AIADMK cadre, Sasikala could just not be equated with Jayalalithaa. Thus it irked them when the party’s rules were tweaked and the “close aide’s” long association with Jayalalithaa was invoked to ease Sasikala’s path to power. As they saw it, the party was being usurped by an outsider whose role was confined to that of a caretaker of “Veda Nilayam”, Jayalalithaa’s house at Poes Garden in Chennai.

“Any act that has political and constitutional validation, if executed tacitly, would be viewed as dark and sinister. It has to be dealt in a transparent manner,” said former Minister K.P. Munusamy, one of the early voices of dissent against Sasikala and now in the Panneerselvam camp. “Such an act has a profound negative effect on the values of democracy,” he said.

Flawed election

In fact, several questions were raised on the ethical aspects of her elevation to power in the party. Under the ruse of keeping the party intact, said a general council member, its members succumbed to pressure to elect her as general secretary. Many functionaries who attended the general council meeting said they were not given adequate time to “think and vote”.

“We were forced to sit in the meeting hall where an announcement was made that Sasikala would be asked to take over the party’s mantle. Not even our signatures were obtained. We put our signatures in the roster kept outside the hall to mark our attendance,” said Magilanban, a council member from Egmore, Chennai.

The entire election process smacked of impropriety. According to rule, all membership cardholders of the party—1.5 crore roughly—should vote to elect the general secretary, besides the 2,000-odd general council members (“Going by the rules”, Frontline , January 20). But it was impressed on them that since an extraordinary situation prevailed following the death of Jayalalithaa, the election of a general secretary (here Sasikala) was going to be an interim arrangement.

“We accepted it. Thus the entire mass base of cadres who, as per the party rule should have voted to elect their general secretary, was kept out of the democratic process, which is sheer injustice,” said Madhusudhanan, who was expelled from the primary membership of the party for shifting his loyalty to the Panneerselvam camp. He said there had not been any visible attempt to make her post permanent though he had been insisting on it. “Not doing so is against the very spirit of the rules of the party,” he said.

Another question that did the rounds was whether Sasikala had completed five continuous years as a primary member, a prerequisite for election to a party post according to its rule. Madhusudhanan said that Sasikala was expelled from the party by Jayalalithaa for “anti-party activities” and also from Veda Nilayam on March 3, 2011. “She was readmitted after a series of letters of apology on March 31, 2012. Hence, her elevation stands disqualified,” he said. As presidium chairman, he faxed a message to the Election Commission of India (ECI) in this regard and, in turn, got expelled by the Sasikala faction. In retaliation, he expelled her.

Back-room manoeuvres

The Mannargudi clan’s—Sasikala’s family from Mannargudi town in Thiruvarur district—alleged back-room manoeuvres to grab power were eventually out in the open and became a hot topic of discussion and analysis. A few people, including Sasikala Pushpa, a Rajya Sabha member from Tuticorin who had differences of opinion with Sasikala even when Jayalalithaa was alive and was expelled from the party, went to court against Sasikala’s elevation. The case was subsequently dismissed. She too wrote to the ECI on the issue.

“I have been fighting against this family for long. My husband was brutally beaten up by them in full public view when he went to get a nomination form to contest the post of general secretary. Tamil Nadu should not fall to such evil forces,” she told Frontline over phone from New Delhi.

“Kitchen cabinets” behind many a political regime are not something new. Not even MGR’s government escaped the charge. But here was a woman who literally emerged from the anteroom of Veda Nilayam with the hope of being anointed head of the government. If she were to succeed, she would be the State’s third woman Chief Minister.

In her first ever public address after becoming party general secretary, Sasikala spoke of her three-decade-long association with Jayalalithaa and claimed that she had been with her almost everywhere and at all times. Her death, Sasikala said, had hit her hard. “The party was the life for Amma, while for me she was my life,” Sasikala said, adding that she had spent 33 of the 62 years of her life looking after Jayalalithaa.

Her inexplicable proximity to Jayalalithaa baffles many. “In fact, this closeness of Sasikala alienated our madam Jayalalithaa from all of us, cadres and functionaries,” said Bader Sayeed, a former MLA from Triplicane and a classmate of Jayalalithaa during her Church Park Convent days. The 70-year-old Bader Sayeed, a lawyer-cum-activist, who has been fighting against the triple talaq custom, told Frontline that once on a request to meet the leader, she received a curt message from Veda Nilayam that she could stand amid the crowds on the roadside and see her. Wounded, she has since then kept away from active politics. Such tales of rebuff are aplenty and indicate that Jayalalithaa had been kept “isolated”.

The pertinent question here, however, is how Sasikala, as Chief Minister, will handle the people’s dislike for her and the discomfiture of the party cadre. The answer may lie in the fact that she has been schooled in Jayalalithaa’s style of administration. She was first introduced to Jayalalithaa in 1982 and moved into the Poes Garden residence in the early 1990s ( Frontline , January 6, 2017). Since then she has lived there along with her family members and was allegedly operating as an extraconstitutional authority too.

That Sasikala and her family members have several serious cases against them is the main factor that works against her today with the public. Legal experts wonder whether it was prudent on Sasikala’s part to opt for the Chief Minister’s post at a time when the verdict in the Rs.66.65 crore disproportionate assets case in the Supreme Court was impending. The verdict has been pending since June 7, 2016, in which Sasikala and her family members J. Ilavarasi and V.N. Sudhagaran are the co-accused.

The prosecution case was that Jayalalithaa, during her tenure as Chief Minister from 1991 to 1996, amassed assets worth Rs.66 crore disproportionate to her known sources of income. The assets included bungalows, a tea estate, agricultural land and jewellery in her name and in the names of the other accused. Jayalalithaa had claimed that she drew a salary of Re.1 a month for 27 months as Chief Minister ( Frontline , January 6).

The prosecution began after the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), headed by M. Karunanidhi, was voted to power in 1996. Officers of the Directorate of Vigilance and Anti-Corruption, Tamil Nadu, filed a charge sheet on June 4, 1997, before the Special Court-III. The case dragged on for 19 years. On a writ petition from DMK general secretary K. Anbazhagan, the Supreme Court transferred the trial from Chennai to Bengaluru on November 18, 2003. Jayalalithaa was the Chief Minister then. The Karnataka government became the prosecuting agency.

On September 27, 2014, Special Judge John Michael D’Cunha in Bengaluru found Jayalalithaa guilty. He convicted and sentenced her to four years’ simple imprisonment under Section 13(1)(e) read with Section 13(2) of the Prevention of Corruption Act and imposed a fine of Rs.100 crore on her besides convicting and sentencing all the three co-accused to four years’ simple imprisonment. Soon thereafter, Jayalalithaa and the other accused were taken into custody and sent to prison. Jayalalithaa was unseated as Chief Minister from the date of her conviction and Panneerselvam took over the mantle briefly.

Sasikala had spent a year in jail in the TANSI land scam case. She also faces four other cases of the Enforcement Directorate and the Central Bureau of Investigation, which include Foreign Exchange Regulation Act (FERA) violations, while her husband, M. Natarajan, is fighting two cases in connection with the import of a Lexus car.

Besides, her nephews, T.T.V. Dinakaran and Sudhagaran, her brother Divakaran, and her late brother Jayaraman’s widow, Ilavarasi, are facing various charges. Dinakaran, a former MP of Periyakulam, has a fine of Rs.28 crore slapped on him for FERA violations and in two other cases relating to JJTV. Divakaran also has two land grab cases against him, for which Jayalalithaa got him arrested in 2012.

Social media reactions

That the people have clarity in their minds about who should be their ruler is well demonstrated and documented in social media where the response to Sasikala’s power-grabbing moves is a loud “NO”. The bashing of Sasikala, especially on social media, is just an extended expression of the youth and other people who exhibited the same spirit of defiance during the struggle for jallikattu. Otherwise how can one understand “OPS for CM” and similar hashtags going viral and drawing support from 18 lakh netizens?

Donning the role of victim to perfection, Panneerselvam burst into the limelight. This, it is widely claimed, cannot be construed as an isolated act. M.H. Jawahirullah, a senior leader of the Manithaneya Makkal Katchi, told Frontline that “the BJP has been trying to find a foothold in Tamil Nadu against Dravidian parties. The BJP finds itself more comfortable with Panneerselvam than with Sasikala.” Jawahirullah said it was a cleverly manipulated move to keep Panneerselvam on their side.

Sasikala’s elevation was “political bullying”, claimed the rapper-activist Sophia Ashraf, who sprang a surprise on the night of the February 5 at Poes Garden where Sasikala and her extended family lives. Accompanied by a guitarist and a group of singers and defying policemen there, she rapped along questioning the validity of Sasikala’s elevation as the leader of the AIADMK legislature party and saying that “democracy is dead”.

“We are not comfortable with her,” said the singer-activist. The public dissent against her was strong since she was a woman “who had not been elected” by the people of the State.

“A gang that wishes to loot propels Sasikala,” said Selvam, a lawyer and a spokesperson for the Panneerselvam faction from Tuticorin. Electing Sasikala would usher in an age of darkness in Tamil Nadu, said the Pattali Makkal Katchi’s youth wing leader Dr Anbumani Ramadoss. The Tamil Nadu unit of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) expressed its displeasure but cautiously over the “hurried” move of Sasikala to capture power.

Clearly, “gen-next” in Tamil Nadu is uneasy with the personality-centred politics in the State. People are growing weary of a system that represses their aspirations and ambitions and constantly keeps them in the dark on many issues that keep coming up. “We have the right to know,” said a youth who represents a group that created a hashtag in support of Panneerselvam., on which a person posted a message against Sasikala’s elevation, logged 2.5 lakh signatures in support as of the second week of February. They see in Panneerselvam’s brief reign as Chief Minister a down-to-earth approach in handling administrative issues. It is a refreshingly new political culture in the State which in the past few years was used to the overbearing, non-transparent rule of Jayalalithaa, the Numero Uno of the party and government.

High drama at Koovathur

It was also high drama at Koovathur, a coastal hamlet on East Coast Road near Chennai where the majority of the MLAs (at the time of going to press) were kept in a private resort since February 8 evening by the Sasikala camp under the ruse of “keeping them safe from possible poaching”. The media were prevented from entering the vicinity of the resort, with over 100 private guards on the job. Some of the media personnel were threatened by unidentified goons claiming that it was private property and no trespassers would be allowed. Mobile phones of a few reporters also were snatched away by unidentified persons. Residents of the village complained that since the day the MLAs were brought there, their normal life had been disrupted. They alleged that some men from outside were preventing them from moving freely. “There are threats and our women are afraid to venture out,” said a resident.

None of the MLAs was allowed to speak to the media, leading to widespread accusations that the MLAs were kept in Sasikala’s custody against their wishes. But she denied it strongly saying that “they are here of their own will since they fear intimidation and harassment from our rivals”. Twice she made visits from the Poes Garden residence in Chennai to Koovathur, a 50-kilometre drive, to “reassure them and keep their morale high”.

“I have asked them to remain calm and patient. No covert attempt to dislodge us can win if we remain united,” she said. Informed sources claimed that these MLAs were also asked to take an oath on the portrait of Jayalalithaa that they would stand by Sasikala. It is not clear who will emerge winner in this battle for succession. What is becoming clear is that the party founded by M.G. Ramachandran in 1972 after breaking away from the DMK is hurtling towards disintegration.

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