Former Chief Minister Jayalalithaa’s close associate, V.K. Sasikala, returned to Tamil Nadu on February 8 to a tumultuous welcome after serving four years in a Karnataka prison following her sentencing in a case relating to the amassing of wealth disproportionate to her known sources of income. She was released from prison on January 27 but could not return immediately because she had tested COVID-19 positive during her last days in prison and had to be hospitalised. She was advised isolation for a week after her discharge from hospital on January 31. As she left the hospital Sasikala did not speak to the mediapersons gathered there, but did enough to create more than a flutter: she got into an SUV used by Jayalalithaa, and it was flying the AIADMK flag.
The symbolism was not lost on anyone. Without uttering a word she had served notice on the duo who had in the eyes of her supporters “betrayed her and the party”, Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami and Deputy Chief Minister O. Pannerselvam, and indicated her readiness to take them on. Her nephew and founder of the Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam (AMMK), T.T.V. Dinakaran said as much and announced that Sasikala would return to Tamil Nadu after the quarantine period.
An enraged and confused set of AIADMK Ministers preferred a complaint with Director General of Police, J.K. Tripathy, against her using the party flag. The DGP, whom the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) regime had sidelined by appointing another officer in the same rank in charge of law and order, sought the opinion of the Public Prosecutor, A. Natarajan. In his opinion, Natarajan said, “The AIADMK flag is a property of the AIADMK party.” Side-stepping the issue whether she had been expelled from the party, the legal opinion employed a deft play of words: “If Mrs V.K. Sasikala is using the AIADMK party flag in the car in which she travels, it is amounting to indirectly making the people believe that she had the right to use the flag and still continues in the party as a member, which is amount to deception.”
The AMMK insists that Sasikala has not been expelled from the party, while AIADMK spokespersons claim that she ceased to be a member because Sasikala had not renewed her membership before the end of its five-year validity! AMMK spokesperson Elantamil Arvalan, speaking to Jaya Plus TV said that the flag issue was at best a civil dispute and that there were many issues relating to the AIADMK pending before the court. He added that it was “childish” to use the police to settle scores with a seasoned politician.
Sasikala leaves Bengaluru
Just before the onset of Rahu Kaalam at 7.30 a.m. on February 8, considered inauspicious by many, Sasikala left the Prestige Goldshore Resort on her way to Chennai to begin her battle against the current AIADMK leadership to regain the party and what her supporters described as gain her rightful place as general secretary of the party.
Sasikala began her journey along with Dinakaran after paying homage to a portrait of Jayalalithaa. Just as she did after her discharge from a hospital on January 31, Sasikala began her journey in an upmarket SUV with the AIADMK flag fluttering on the bonnet. At the Karnataka border, she shifted to another vehicle. It was not immediately clear why. Dinakaran clarified a little later: “She’s travelling in an AIADMK member’s vehicle [since the police ordered AMMK members not to use the AIADMK flag]…. AMMK volunteers will not use the AIADMK flag. Only AIADMK members are using the flag.” He added that the number of AIADMK flags along the route were an indication of how many AIADMK cadres were with her.
At the first major town in Tamil Nadu, Sasikala visited the Muthumariamman Temple, offered her prayers, smeared her forehead with sandalwood paste and sat for a minute before coming out to greet the cadre and resuming her journey.
Dinakaran said Sasikala would pay her respects to former Chief Minister and AIADMK founder M.G. Ramachandran at his Ramavaram residence. But Sasikala will not be able to enter the house where she had stayed, Jayalalithaa’s Veda Nilayam residence, or pay her respects to either M.G. Ramachandran or Jayalalithaa at their memorials: the AIADMK, in anticipation of her return, had declared both memorials shut for renovation. Ironically, the renovated Jayalalithaa memorial was opened for public viewing only on January 27. It was shut under a week, leading many politicians to allege that this was just to prevent Sasikala from visiting the memorial.
The Veda Nilayam residence was hurriedly inaugurated as a memorial on January 28, even as a case on ownership is pending in the Madras High Court. In its order on January 27, the Madras High Court bench of Justice N. Seshasayee noted that “in the fitness of things, when… matters are pending, the government should have refrained from opening the memorial”, but since the Advocate General informed the court that “arrangements for holding the function has been made, and any stay of the function might create considerable difficulties for the Government,” he was allowing the function to go ahead.
In another move, the Tamil Nadu government decided to implement a Supreme Court order in the disproportionate assets case just as Sasikala’s return was announced and took over a slew of properties belonging to Sasikala’s relatives, Sudakaran and Ilavarasi. The State is yet to take over or act on Jayalalithaa’s property. Jayalalithaa is the first accused in the case.
AMMK leaders are livid over the series of actions, which, in their view, targets Sasikala. Talking on Tamil news TV, they alleged that Sasikala had been betrayed by the Chief Minister. They recalled the past, to remind Palaniswami of the circumstances in which he was made Chief Minister.
On February 14, 2017, Sasikala was sentenced to four years in prison, and was asked to surrender in 24 hours, over a week after she was elected leader of the AIADMK legislature party. Sasikala, who managed to hold the party together despite an open revolt by former Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam, installed Palaniswami as the Chief Minister before leaving for Bengaluru to serve her prison sentence.
In just under six months, Palaniswami made peace with Panneerselvam, brokered by the Bhratiya Janata Party, and distanced himself from Sasikala and Dinakaran. Dinakaran contested and won the 2017 December byelection in R.K. Nagar, a seat held by Jayalalithaa. In 2018, he formed his own party, the Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam, with an aim to “redeem the AIADMK”. But the party polled a mere 5.27 per cent votes, relegating him to an insignificant player in Tamil Nadu politics.
Sasikala’s arrival is a shot in the arm for Dinakaran and his party because of the expertise in AIADMK affairs that she brings with her. One senior AIADMK leader said that Sasikala had a hand in selecting “at least half the candidates for the 2016 Assembly election. All the 234 candidates were beholden to her in one manner or another.” Dinakaran was kept away by Jayalalithaa and came into the AIADMK only after her death, and hence Sasikala is the person who will be able to wean away a significant number of persons from the current AIADMK.
Suddenly, this has become a problem for the AIADMK because it is yet to present its last budget (vote on account) ahead of the Assembly election, possibly because the AIADMK leaders did not expect Sasikala to receive such a welcome in Tamil Nadu – after all, she was a convict and apparently the person responsible for Jayalalithaa’s death.
One senior AIADMK leader is of the opinion that at least a dozen AIADMK MLAs and a few Ministers will cross over to the Sasikala side in the coming weeks. If this happens ahead of the presentation of the budget, the government will be precariously placed – and this suits both the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Sasikala faction for different reasons. For the BJP, this means the party’s central leadership can concentrate on Tamil Nadu after the crucial Assembly election in West Bengal; while for Sasikala, it gives her a breather to recoup.