Last resort

From being herded into a resort at Koovathur to gathering at Fort St. George, the seat of power in Tamil Nadu, for the confidence vote in the Assembly, AIADMK MLAs dutifully followed party general secretary V.K. Sasikala’s plan of action.

Published : Mar 01, 2017 12:30 IST

Edappadi K. Palaniswami and other MLAs leaving the Golden Bay Resorts at Koovathur on February 14.

Edappadi K. Palaniswami and other MLAs leaving the Golden Bay Resorts at Koovathur on February 14.

A LITTLE after 9 p.m. on February 7, an All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) functionary, known for his skills at organising anything at short notice and who was in the good books of party general secretary V.K. Sasikala, received a phone call from “The Garden”. The caller summoned the functionary to the Poes Garden residence of former Chief Minister Jayalalithaa. He reached the house 12 minutes later; by then, a few other party seniors had also arrived. Much before the then Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam (OPS), broke his silence at 9:40 p.m. at the Jayalalithaa memorial on the Marina beach in Chennai, Sasikala told her trusted men in a voice filled with rage that he had broken ranks, and she even took recourse to some choicest expletives. It is not as if the Sasikala camp had not expected this eventuality. Going by accounts from at least three different sources, it appears that Sasikala was aware that Panneerselvam would “do something”, but was not sure when.

“He was not trusted in The Garden for some time [by Sasikala],” said a leader. “This has to do with the manner in which he was conducting himself in the past few months,” he added. This part is also corroborated by people close to OPS and has been recorded in an earlier issue of Frontline .

The Sasikala faction had another factor in mind. In the event of a conviction in the disproportionate assets (D.A.) case (which was expected in a week from February 7), it would be at a disadvantage with OPS as Chief Minister. “Once he was not deemed trustworthy, his fate was sealed,” said a leader, who was part of the inner circle. Hence began the campaign on the dual power centres and the chorus to make her Chief Minister. The faction somehow wanted OPS out of the seat so that Sasikala, in the event of the D.A. case verdict going against her, could anoint another pliable person as Chief Minister. At that time, the names doing the rounds were those of K.A. Sengottaiyan and Dindigul Srinivasan. Edappadi K. Palaniswami, a Sasikala loyalist, was not in the reckoning because he was considered a junior and had spent some time earlier in his career as an understudy to Sengottaiyan.

On the evening of February 7, the leaders had their tasks cut out. They had to make sure that the party remained united behind Sasikala; they had to talk to the district secretaries, Members of the Legislative Assembly and Members of Parliament, and take appropriate action where there was a problem of compliance. The first priority, Sasikala had told them, was to make sure that the MLAs remained with them.

Scramble to reach MLAs

Even as OPS meditated at the Jayalalithaa memorial looking for deliverance, the Sasikala camp was at work. Phone calls flew thick and fast. The message was clear and simple: get to the party office. Most of the MLAs were still in Chennai since they were expecting Sasikala to be sworn in as Chief Minister any day. The fact that Tamil Nadu’s Acting Governor, Ch. Vidyasagar Rao, had neither given a message nor indicated a day when he would come to Chennai meant that they had to remain in Chennai to get a clear date before they could go back to their constituencies.

By the time OPS opened his eyes and cleared the tears off his cheeks at 9:35 p.m., more than 100 MLAs and most of the party seniors had been contacted and briefed about what was going to unfold. They watched the show unfold live on television. “Actually, many of us were horrified,” claimed one MLA. “We did not believe that this was happening in our party,” he said.

The leaders and many of the MLAs had reached the party office by the time OPS finished his speech. The leaders immediately addressed the group of MLAs. It was an unstructured meeting, and everyone was given an opportunity to speak. It is unclear how many used the opportunity though. But the message was clear: stick together or perish. The MLAs were told that much depended on them. Hence it was required to remain together. The deliberations went on late into the night with all senior leaders speaking to the MLAs in groups and later individually. The next morning, buses were arranged for the MLAs to go to the MLA Hostel to pick up their clothes and other necessities. They were told that they were being taken to a place to remain safe, outside the influence of the OPS group. Even if some of the MLAs wondered why this was done, they did not voice their concern.

The next day, the MLAs trooped back into the party office and waited for instructions. For some strange reason their transport from the party office to the place of safe-keeping was not happening. “We couldn’t find a place,” confessed a leader who was involved in the process of finding a place for the safe-keeping of the MLAs. Finally, after a lot of searching, one “connection” clicked. The owner of Golden Bay Resorts at Koovathur near Chennai agreed to host the MLAs. With his links, a second place of stay was also found some distance away. “No other place wanted to host us,” the leader added.

Once in Koovathur on February 8, the MLAs had a clearer picture of what was happening around them. They were informed of the developments taking place in the OPS camp. “The message conveyed to them was very clear. At no point was there any attempt to convey things that were not consistent with the truth of what was happening outside,” said another leader, on condition of anonymity.

‘You want to face an election?’

The one message that was repeated to the MLAs was simple: It is either going to be a Sasikala-led (or blessed) government or no government. The question posed to them was this: Do you want to go back and face an election? “You are all aware what will happen if we have to face an election now,” an old-timer, who witnessed the 1988 turmoil, told them. “One, many of you will not get seats in the party. Second, the problems that have cropped up in the party will only aid a DMK [opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam] victory. Now, it is up to you to decide what you want to do.”

Not many of those who were part of the 2011-16 AIADMK team were given the party ticket for the 2016 Assembly elections. In fact, Jayalalithaa had cleared the names of only 24 MLAs, including Ministers from the earlier regime. There are 46 first-time party MLAs in the current Assembly. A dissolution of the Assembly, merely nine months old, would mean that the MLAs would gain nothing, not even a pension.

The other angle that the Sasikala camp’s leaders sought to project to the party’s cadre and lower-rung leaders involved the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). They pointed to OPS’ meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi twice, the unprecedented act of a Chief Minister writing to the Prime Minister thanking him before laying down office, his sudden success in Hyderabad in getting Krishna water for Tamil Nadu, the timing of his “meditation”, and the fact that the Governor did not invite Sasikala to form the government.

They pushed the view that OPS had struck a deal with Modi and that was why he met the latter twice in a short span of time. The success in Hyderabad, they told the MLAs, was because an influential BJP leader brokered the water deal. The clincher was the fact that the Governor was not around for four full days. Sasikala pointing fingers at the DMK was a red herring. AIADMK men were convinced that the entire OPS script was written in New Delhi.

Many political observers expected the AIADMK MLAs to desert the Sasikala camp after the Supreme Court’s verdict on February 14. When this did not happen, many, including opposition political parties, claimed that the MLAs were being detained against their will. But a few MLAs this correspondent spoke to refuted this claim. “The claim that the doors to the rooms we were staying in were locked remotely is nonsense. Please go there and see for yourself,” said an MLA.

The MLAs stayed two to a room, and the hotel was anything but a luxury resort. The door knob was of the press-and-lock variety, the kind that can be opened from outside with a sharp object. Also, the walls surrounding the resort were not very high—two different accounts put it at four feet—and hence if anyone wanted to leave the premises, he or she could have done without too much effort, claimed another MLA. “The fact is that we didn’t want to leave,” he added.

The MLAs were provided snacks from a popular restaurant chain in Chennai, picked up by a local MLA each day. The resort provided meals thrice each day. Those who needed alcohol had to send the few trusted hangers-on to buy it from outside; they consumed alcohol in their rooms and not in the open as some WhatsApp pictures had suggested. More than 20 packs of cards, handed over to them by one trusted leader, kept boredom away. A hall in the ground floor served as the dining room, while a hall on the upper floor was used for meetings. Sasikala addressed all the meetings in this hall.

High Court order

On February 10, the Madras High Court ordered the police to inquire into the status of the MLAs held at Koovathur and another nearby resort. The police, led by north zone Inspector General Senthamarai Kannan, descended on the resort and checked it for about six hours. His team came a cropper. At the end of the six hours, the patience of the AIADMK leaders wore thin. They asked the police why they were still hanging around and asked them to vacate the premises. Not one MLA left with the police.

The Sasikala camp was also prepared for the eventuality of her conviction in the D.A. case. The smooth manner of the election of Palaniswami as the legislature party leader and the elevation of Sengottaiyan in the party point to the fact that the Sasikala camp had been looking a few steps ahead of the opposition camp. “We had everyone against us. But we were sure that we would win. That is what Amma has taught us,” says a leader from a southern district, who lost the May 2016 Assembly elections but played a key role in the current crisis.

This is where the role of T.T.V. Dinakaran comes in. “Yes, he is part of the Chinnamma family. But look at us. Who else do we have to network in Delhi or for that matter to control the party in Chinnamma’s absence?” asks a leader. He added that there was a lot of uneasiness over the sudden induction of Dinakaran and his elevation as party deputy general secretary. But AIADMK spokespersons have repeatedly defended this. “It is what is required at this point in time,” Gokula Indira, former Minister, said. “Even Amma would have forgiven him shortly,” claimed Thanga Tamilselvan, who rose to fame for vacating his Andipatti seat so that Jayalalithaa could contest.

A few Sasikala camp supporters and MLAs who spoke to this correspondent on condition of anonymity did not dismiss people’s resentment. “It is genuine. There’s a story that Chinnamma was behind the death of Amma in the hospital. There’s also this charge of family politics. Plus, the fact that all MLAs were in Koovathur for 10 days. All these are negatives and have been talked about by a lot of people,” admitted a leader. But he believes that the negatives will not stay with the people forever.

However, it is not that simple as the Sasikala camp MLAs are discovering in their constituencies. On February 20, B. Sathyanarayanan, who represents T. Nagar, was in for a rude shock at the busy Jeeva Park. More than 30 morning walkers surrounded him and began questioning his decision to remain with Sasikala. Questions flew thick and fast, and the MLA found that no answer was good enough for those who were asking the questions. His refrain that the government wanted to fulfil Amma’s vision was met with jeers, and he managed to extricate himself after a gruelling 30 minutes. All MLAs have since been provided with security, both for their MLA offices and for themselves.

The Deputy Speaker of the Assembly, V. Jayaraman, was welcomed with sarees and bangles when he reached his hometown, Pollachi. His supporters said that this was the work of DMK men and not his voters. A.B. Sakthivel, who went back to his South Salem constituency, was surrounded by people of the town, demanding an explanation. Similar stories are coming in from parts of the State where the Sasikala camp MLAs have gone back to. It is not clear if the common people are solely involved in all these incidents, but it is a fact that there is huge revulsion for the Sasikala camp in the State.

Even non-MLAs are not being spared. AIADMK spokesperson C.R. Saraswathi and Gokula Indira claimed that they were receiving abusive calls. In fact, Saraswathi made it a point to lodge a formal complaint with the Police Commissioner’s office.

With most of the technology-savvy AIADMK men switching sides to the OPS camp, the Sasikala camp lost the perception war even before it began. Central to this war is the fact that many in Tamil Nadu believe that Sasikala was responsible for the death of Jayalalithaa. This is being reinforced by the so-called “proof” appearing in social media and on obscure websites. Another problem is that Sasikala is seen as an usurper.

Technology was put to good use by Sasikala’s opponents, but it is not clear who authored the whole process. A Sasikala camp MLA, sitting in front of me, telephoned me from his hand phone. “This is just to show that I am using the phone number you are familiar with,” he said. Then, using a fake caller app, he called me again from his phone. This time, the number that showed up on my phone was +1-4384-088-517. “See, this is what I am trying to tell you. I received over 5,000 calls from so-called voters on my phone. Some were abusive, while the others asked me to join the OPS camp. But can you see where these numbers are coming from?” he asked. Fake Caller App is allowed in India zone, a major anomaly, which the BJP-led Union government does not want to clamp down on.

While admitting that not all the call numbers might be fake numbers, another Sasikala loyalist drew attention to the fact that all the techno-savvy AIADMK men were in the OPS camp. Besides, the Sasikala camp had reliable information that an extraconstitutional authority of another dominant political party was actively lending his information technology prowess to aid the OPS campaign.

The Palaniswami doctrine

The Sasikala faction was looking at the future with hope, the loyalist said, and added that despite the severe setbacks, including the incarceration of Sasikala, it would not be prevented from functioning as the ruling party in the State. That is why Palaniswami staked his claim to form the government.

Sure enough, on day one of his job, Palaniswami, who heads the most unpopular government ever in the State’s history, brushed aside this minor detail and got down to business. He ordered the closure of 500 liquor stores against which people had given representations, announced the implementation of the 50 per cent grant scheme for working women who wanted to buy a two-wheeler, hiked the unemployment dole and the maternity allowance, and announced the construction of 5,000 houses for fishermen. The Palaniswami doctrine of governance is what the AIADMK’s new boss, Dinakaran, has given him.

Dinakaran, who was thrown out of the party in 2011 by Jayalalithaa and was readmitted on the eve of Sasikala’s trip to the Bengaluru jail, believes that people will accept the new government if it provides efficient and clean administration. He has made it clear that he will be closely scrutinising all Ministers and activities of the government. People’s memory, the argument goes, is short, and they will accept the AIADMK version 3.0. After all, it was the same people who elected six AIADMK MLAs in Chennai city, barely six months after the devastating floods which claimed over 400 lives. Clearly, the AIADMK is banking on the people-forget-everything logic.

Though Sasikala’s faction is now in control, the sudden decision of Jayalalithaa’s nephew, Deepak, to speak against Dinakaran’s elevation in the party as deputy general secretary points to the new fault lines that are emerging in the AIADMK. Deepak was close to some of Sasikala’s relatives, and this possibly has something to do with his claim that Dinakaran was not acceptable to the party, one insider said.

Most members of Sasikala’s extended family are deeply unhappy that they had been left in the lurch, and hence the problems, said a Sasikala camp senior. He pointed to the manner in which Sasikala’s husband, M. Natarajan, was treated at the Parappana Agrahara court complex to drive home his point. Though Sasikala realised that her husband was there in the courtroom, she did not have a conversation with him, one important party man, who was in the courtroom, said.

As Sasikala was walking towards the women’s jail, Natarajan was seen walking behind her for a few paces. He was stopped by the policemen on duty. The AIADMK senior said that Sasikala wanted to avoid all talk of the AIADMK becoming a party run by her family. “I wouldn’t be surprised if she soon writes a letter asking partymen not to have any truck with any member of her family,” he added.

Even as the AIADMK anxiously tries to push the events of February 18, the day of the trust vote in the Legislative Assembly, into the background, many questions keep popping up. Going by all accounts in Tamil Nadu, including at least one independent survey, Sasikala’s takeover of the party and the swearing-in of Palaniswami as the Chief Minister were hugely unpopular moves. The most popular person for the post of Chief Minister now is OPS. The fact that Sasikala has the support of MLAs and OPS that of the people is reflected across the State as MLAs begin going back to their constituencies.

It is obvious that the framers of the Constitution did not foresee this eventuality. The AIADMK had become so identified with its leader Jayalalithaa that she was the party’s lone star campaigner in the May 2016 elections. The mandate was for Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK, but there is no provision to go back to the people if the leader is no more. Also, the MLAs were inaccessible to the people for more than 10 days as the trust vote process was being worked out.

Despite the Palaniswami government having the numbers, the moral authority of the government will be called into question as long as it lasts. For now, even if any of the 122 MLAs switch sides owing to moral or material pressures, the Sasikala camp is confident of gaining MLAs from the opposition.

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