Marching orders

Published : Feb 10, 2012 00:00 IST

Jayalalithaa, along with Sasikala, during an election campaign in 2010.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Jayalalithaa, along with Sasikala, during an election campaign in 2010.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

In a surprise move, Jayalalithaa expels close associate Sasikala and her family members from the AIADMK.

IT was thought that it would remain a whodunit forever. On March 16, 2011, when the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) unilaterally released the list of its candidates for 160 seats, which included Assembly constituencies for which its allies had staked a claim, it almost broke up the alliance led by the party for the April 13 elections in Tamil Nadu. As the air became thick with the possibility of the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK), the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Communist Party of India, the All India Samathuva Makkal Katchi and others forming a Third Front, the AIADMK backed down and held seat-sharing talks with them. There was much speculation whether AIADMK general secretary Jayalalithaa had endorsed the list. It was also widely believed that although a relative of Jayalalithaa's close associate V.K. Sasikala had jumped the gun and released it, Jayalalithaa might not have been in the dark about the list or its release. The AIADMK-led alliance went on to score a landslide victory over the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK)-led alliance. Jayalalithaa became the Chief Minister in May 2011 ( Frontline, April 8, and June 3, 2011).

Nine months after the mysterious release of the list, the incident came to haunt Sasikala and her extended family. On December 19, 2011, when Jayalalithaa expelled Sasikala, husband M. Natarajan, and 12 of their close relatives from the AIADMK's primary membership, the question that crossed everybody's mind was, Is it just a drama? For, in 1996, when Jayalalithaa announced that she was dissociating herself from her surrogate sister Sasikala, it turned out to be a sham as the sister was quietly reinstated in Poes Garden (Jayalalithaa's residence in Chennai) a few months later. Since 1987, Sasikala and her relatives had emerged as a puissant power centre in the party and in the administration whenever the AIADMK was voted to power (1991, 2001 and 2011). So it was not surprising that sheer disbelief greeted Jayalalithaa's announcement that Sasikala and her relatives were being removed from the party.

Besides Sasikala and Natarajan, the others given marching orders included Vanithamani (Sasikala's sister), Sasikala's three brothers Sundaravadhanam, Divakar and Vinodhagan; Vanithamani's three sons T.T.V. Dinakaran, V. Bhaskaran and V.N. Sudhagaran; Natarajan's brother M. Ramachandran; Sundaravadhanam's son Dr S. Venkatesh; and Vinodhagan's son T.V. Mahadevan. Others expelled from the party were Ravanan, Mohan, Kulothungan, Rajarajan and Thangamani. On December 22, M. Palanivel, brother of Natarajan, and Kaliyaperumal, a relative of J. Ilavarasi, widow of Sasikala's brother Jayaraman, were also removed from the party. Inexplicably, no action was taken against Ilavarasi, who is said to be as close to Jayalalithaa as Sasikala was.

That the break in the 25-year-old relationship with Sasikala was irrevocable became clear when Jayalalithaa narrated a story at the party's general council meeting near Chennai on December 30 to reiterate her resolve. She said: When all the trees in a wood petitioned God not to allow the manufacture of iron axes with which trees were cut down, God told them, Before you tell me to stop the production of iron axes, you should not allow yourselves to become the wooden handles of the axes. On hearing this, the trees bowed their heads in shame. She narrated another anecdote to drive home her point that the treachery we commit will make us sleepless and rattle our conscience. The refrain of her speech was that if we remain united and do not betray ourselves, we can defeat any army under the sun.

There were several kinds of politicians and party cadre, she said. Some of them, when removed from a party for their misdemeanour, would atone for the mistakes, keep away from politics and lead a quiet life; some would shift allegiance to another party when one party throws them out; and there were others who, when expelled for their treacherous acts, would vow to return to the party fold to regain influence and wreak vengeance on those who antagonised them. There will be no pardon for those who have caused the party leadership, by their actions, to suspect them, Jayalalithaa warned the general council members. There will be no pardon either for those who believe and act according to their diktat.

Indicating that she meant business, Jayalithaa announced the expulsion of eight more leaders from the party's primary membership. They included four from Mannargudi in Tiruvarur district, the hometown of Sasikala. (Natarajan was a public relations officer in the State government in the 1980s and it was at that time that Jayalalithaa joined the AIADMK at the instance of its founder and then Chief Minister, M.G. Ramachandran. Jayalalithaa was introduced to Natarajan and Sasikala by a common friend. The couple stood by her when she faced difficult times in the party after MGR's death in 1987. Sasikala lived in Jayalalithaa's home in Poes Garden and became a powerful figure after Jayalalithaa became Chief Minister in 1991. Sasikala formally joined the AIADMK in 2000 and became a member of its general council.)

There were straws in the wind of a likely rift between Jayalalithaa and Sasikala and her relatives soon after Jayalalithaa became Chief Minister in May 2011. The unilateral release of the candidates list (the Sasikala group had reportedly ensured that about 40 of its loyalists received the party ticket) had aroused Jayalalithaa's suspicion. The group had infiltrated the candidates' list with an eye on the future, informed sources said. It had hoped to consolidate its flock. Moreover, the sources alleged that members of the Sasikala group had set up themselves, after the AIADMK returned to power, as paramount power centres in the party and administration. Many party functionaries, handpicked by them, were appointed district secretaries. Several AIADMK legislators loyal to them were appointed Ministers, the sources alleged. (In the 1990s, several MGR loyalists such as Karuppasamy Pandian, Salem Kannan, S. Muthusamy, S. Thirunavukkarasar, K.K.S.S.R. Ramachandran and Sedapatti R. Muthia were systematically sidelined from the party, allegedly at the instance of Sasikala and her relatives.)

That the feud was becoming divisive was evident when two intelligence officers, suspected to be close to the Sasikala camp, were transferred in December. Around the same time, A. Panneerselvam, Officer on Special Duty in the Special Programme Implementation Department, resigned. He had retired from the Indian Administrative Service and was appointed to the post after the AIADMK assumed office. The resignation of Panneerselvam, who is said to be close to Natarajan, was another signal of the growing rift between the Chief Minister and the Sasikala group, party sources said. Jayalalithaa met Ministers in groups and told them that they should receive orders from no one but herself. Some party district secretaries, who were divested of their posts at the instance of the clan, were reinstated. Jayalalithaa began to assert herself increasingly.

The situation came to a head when members of the Sasikala group allegedly plotted to choose a successor to Jayalalithaa in case she was convicted and sentenced to imprisonment in the disproportionate wealth case that is being heard in a Special Court in Bangalore.

According to the charge sheet filed in the case on June 4, 1997, by the Directorate of Vigilance and Anti-Corruption ( Frontline, June 27, 1997), Jayalalithaa (during her tenure as Chief Minister from 1991 to 1996) and three of her associates (Sasikala, V.N. Sudhagaran and Ilavarasi) had acquired assets worth more than Rs.66.65 crore, which was alleged to be disproportionate to her [Jayalalithaa's] known sources of income. She drew a salary of Re.1 a month when she was Chief Minister. Among the assets acquired were palatial farmhouses and bungalows in and near Chennai, agricultural land at Oothukottai and Tirunelveli, a tea estate in the Nilgiris, industrial sheds in Chennai, jewellery, cash in bank accounts and investments in financial firms. These were in Jayalalithaa's name or in the names of the other accused or in the names of some firms, the charge sheet said. In November 2003, the Supreme Court transferred the case to a Special Court in Bangalore.

Sources in the AIADMK said what had made Jayalalithaa deeply suspicious was the gathering of several members of the Sasikala clan in a Bangalore hotel when Sasikala, Ilavarasi and Sudhagaran had gone there in December to attend the hearing in the Special Court. The sources said that while Jayalalithaa had selected M. Thambidurai, AIADMK Lok Sabha member from Karur, to succeed her as Chief Minister if she were to be convicted and sentenced to prison in the disproportionate wealth case, the group had its own plans. Jayalalithaa's initial reaction, on hearing about the group's plan was to quit politics, but she was persuaded to go on the offensive instead, the sources said. So, Jayalalithaa took on December 19 the decisive step of expelling Sasikala, Natarajan and others from the party's primary membership. She gave no reason for the expulsions. There was no reaction from the expelled members, either. They do not know what to do, informed sources said.

The expulsions hit the party like a powerful temblor and rattled the Ministers and legislators. AIADMK sources are sure that unlike in 1996, the break in the relationship is for real this time. Be sure for hundred per cent, it is not a drama, one of them asserted.

On August 27, 1996, after the AIADMK was defeated in the Assembly elections, Jayalalithaa had announced that she was distancing herself from Sasikala and her relatives in deference to the wishes of partymen. She had declared that from this day, I have no foster son [referring to V.N. Sudhagaran] and that she was making an oral withdrawal since he was not adopted legally. But her statement was greeted with cynicism because it came at a time when the AIADMK had suffered a split after its electoral debacle and it was viewed as a legal strategy to face the court cases and charges of corruption against her and Sasikala.

A former AIADMK leader had then pointed to a contradiction in Jayalalithaa's statement. She had claimed that she had taken this firm stand because numerous complaints, rumours, false propaganda by political adversaries and media stories have given an impression of my being under the control of the family of Ms. Sasikla. The choice of words such as rumours, false propaganda, media stories and alleged power centre showed that she did not really believe in the allegations made against Sasikala and her relatives, the leader had pointed out ( Frontline, September 20, 1996). Also, in December 1996, Jayalalithaa issued a statement that Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi and Union Finance Minister P. Chidambaram were harassing Sasikala, who was detained under COFEPOSA (Conservation of Foreign Exchange and Prevention of Smuggling Activities) Act then. This time the parting of ways appeared real because the group had threatened Jayalalithaa's supremacy in the party and in the administration. It had not conspired against Jayalalithaa in 1996, the sources pointed out. So the chances of a re-union are remote now. However, in their assessment, Jayalalithaa had taken a risky decision because the Special Court had not yet given its verdict in the disproportionate wealth case.

G. Ramakrishnan, CPI(M) State secretary, demanded an explanation from Jayalalithaa on the background to the expulsions. Although it was an internal matter of the party, against the backdrop of the allegations about Sasikala's interference in the administration, the Chief Minister owed an explanation to the people, he said on January 1. Reports of interference by Sasikala and her family members in the State administration and allegations of political overreach should be explained by the Chief Minister, Ramakrishnan said.

What has emerged in broad relief through the expulsion episode is Jayalalithaa's ambition to play a decisive role in the politics in New Delhi. In her speech at the party general council meeting on December 30, she repeatedly said the AIADMK was heading towards a situation where it will go beyond the borders of Tamil Nadu and make great achievements in national politics. She added, The situation is becoming ripe for us to decide who will become the next Prime Minister. We will be part of the next government to be formed at the Centre. This is for sure, she asserted. If we want to usher in a golden age when the AIADMK flag will go beyond Fort St. George [Tamil Nadu's seat of power] and fly also in the Red Fort, the party cadre should realise their responsibility and work hard, the party supremo said.

Jayalalithaa, party sources said, had always entertained an ambition to become the Prime Minister or a Deputy Prime Minister. They, therefore, ruled out any rapprochement with the Sasikala group until at least the Lok Sabha elections in 2014. She would lose her credibility if she decided otherwise, they said.

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