Tamil Nadu

Sasikala’s party

Print edition : January 20, 2017

A banner outside the venue of the AIADMK general council meeting at Vanagaram on December 29, 2016. In a fully coordinated action, soon after the announcement of Sasikala’s appointment as general secretary of the party, this was pulled over the existing banner of Jayalalithaa. Photo: M. PRABHU

O. Panneerselvam and other leaders at the general council meeting while paying tributes to Jayalalithaa whose photograph is kept on a chair that she used. Photo: M. PRABHU

AIADMK cadre with pictures of Sasikala and Jayalalithaa, at Poes Garden after Sasikala accepted the party's decision to make her general secretary. Photo: L. SRINIVASAN

Sasikala paying floral tributes to Jayalalithaa at her burial place on the Marina beach in Chennai a day after the general council meeting. Photo: G. SRIBHARATH

Jayalalithaa’s confidante V.K. Sasikala takes the reins of the AIADMK with the support of leaders. Will the cadre endorse it?

IN a major development in the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), the largest, and ruling, political party in Tamil Nadu, V.K. Sasikala aka Sasikala Natarajan became its general secretary after she was nominated to the post by the party’s general council which met at Vanagaram, near Chennai, on December 29, 2016. Resolution number five passed unanimously at the urgent general council said it nominated her as general secretary until she was elected to that post. Sasikala has now set her sights on becoming the Chief Minister, replacing O. Panneerselvam. A game of brinkmanship is already under way in the AIADMK to dethrone Panneerselvam and install Sasikala as the Chief Minister.

The posts of AIADMK general secretary and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister fell vacant with the death of Jayalalithaa on December 5 in Apollo Hospitals, Chennai, after a prolonged illness. Two hours after her death, Panneerselvam, who was Finance Minister and number two in the Jayalalithaa Cabinet, was sworn in as Chief Minister by Ch. Vidyasagar Rao, Maharashtra Governor who is in charge of Tamil Nadu too. When AIADMK Ministers, MLAs and Sasikala came together at Apollo Hospitals in the afternoon of December 5, it was decided that Panneerselvam should be made Chief Minister. Panneerselvam insisted on one condition: that he should not be “disturbed” for the remaining four and a half years of the five-year term for which the AIADMK was voted to power in the May 2016 Assembly elections.

Sasikala held no organisational posts in the AIADMK when she became its general secretary on December 29. She was a primary member and executive committee member. She was no Minister or legislator. Yet, the general council pitchforked her into the top party post as “‘Chinnamma’, as we all fondly call her, was alone fit to work as the general secretary”. In its assessment, she had “lived with Jayalalithaa for 33 years, protected her as the eyelids would shield an eye and learnt all the administrative nitty-gritty” from her. Resolution number five used Rule 20(ii) of the party’s constitution to unanimously “nominate” Sasikala as the party general secretary until she was elected to that post. Rule 20(ii) says the general secretary should be elected by the party’s primary members in Tamil Nadu and the members of its units in the Andamans, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Puducherry and New Delhi. The resolution also bestowed on Sasikala all the powers that the rules give the general secretary to administer the party.

Rise of Sasikala

Sasikala had been sharing Jayalalithaa’s residence for the past 25 years. When Jayalalithaa, a former film actor, was made the party’s propaganda secretary in the early 1980s by the AIADMK’s founder-leader and Chief Minister M.G. Ramachandran, she addressed a party conference in Cuddalore. Sasikala’s husband, M. Natarajan, was the government’s Public Relations Officer in Cuddalore then. A common friend introduced Jayalalithaa to Sasikala and Natarajan. Sasikala at that time ran a shop called “Vinod Video Vision”. Jayalalithaa engaged Sasikala to videograph the various AIADMK rallies that she addressed in different places. When the party split after MGR’s death in December 1987 and Jayalalithaa headed one faction, Natarajan and Sasikala stood by Jayalalithaa. After Jayalalithaa became Chief Minister for the first time in June 1991 defeating the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), Sasikala and several of her relatives became a permanent fixture in Jayalalithaa’s posh residence in the exclusive Poes Garden in Chennai.

Sasikala wielded enormous power as an extraconstitutional authority in both the government and the AIADMK when Jayalalithaa was Chief Minister from 1991 to 1996. She also operated behind the scenes in the party and the government when the AIADMK was in power from 2001 to 2006, 2011 to 2016 and again in 2016 when Jayalalithaa became the Chief Minister ( Frontline, January 6, 2017).

Ironically, a large number of the 2,700 general council members who chorused for Sasikala to become the party general secretary, had demanded that Jayalalithaa break her ties with Sasikala in 1996. The demand came up in the aftermath of the humiliating defeat that the AIADMK suffered at the hands of the DMK and the Tamil Maanila Congress in the Assembly elections. The party leaders alleged then that an angry electorate had taught a lesson to the AIADMK because Sasikala’s and her relatives’ property-buying spree had caused deep disenchantment with the leadership. People also resented the arrogant, vulgar display of wealth at the “mother of all marriages” of Jayalalithaa’s “foster son” V.N. Sudhakaran in 1995. Sudhakaran is the son of Vanithamani Vivekanandan, the elder sister of Sasikala.

After initial reluctance, Jayalalithaa broke her ties with Sasikala and her relatives in August 1996. On August 27, 1996, she said, “I am distancing myself from Ms. Sasikala and her relatives in deference to the wishes of my partymen, the general public and my friends and well-wishers.” Jayalalithaa also disowned her “foster son” Sudhakaran. However, a few months later, Sasikala was ensconced again in Jayalalithaa’s spacious residence. Later, when she was Chief Minister, Jayalalithaa showed the door again to Sasikala in December 2011, but the latter was readmitted after a few months. Such was the love-hate relationship between them.

Chorus of entreaties

With Sasikala now nominated as the general secretary, informed sources in the AIADMK said it was only a matter of weeks before she took over chief ministership. If an orchestrated chorus of entreaties to Sasikala to take over as the party general secretary went up from the party district secretaries, Ministers, MLAs and office-bearers of the party’s various wings, it was seen as a game of brinkmanship that Ministers played to oust Panneerselvam and bring her in as the Chief Minister.

It was Thanga Tamil Selvan, AIADMK legislator from Andipatti and the political foe of Panneerselvam in Theni district, who first demanded on December 17 that Sasikala should become Chief Minister as well. As if on cue, the next day, members of a party wing called Jayalalithaa Peravai (association), whose secretary is Revenue Minister R.B. Udayakumar, passed a resolution at the “samadhi” of Jayalalithaa on the Marina beach in Chennai batting for Sasikala as Chief Minister. Udayakumar handed over a copy of the resolution to Sasikala. Later, when reporters asked him about the resolution when Panneerselvam was already in the saddle, Udayakumar replied that it was the tradition in Tamil Nadu that the leader of the ruling party was also the head of the government. “There would be criticism if the Chief Minister meets the general secretary for some consultation. That is why the same person should head both the party and the government,” the Minister said.

Informed sources said Sasikala was not keen on becoming Chief Minister and was content with becoming the party general secretary. But it was a bureaucrat, who is in the spotlight now, who sold her the idea that she should become Chief Minister too. “This [January] is the right time for Chinnamma to become Chief Minister. Otherwise, Panneerselvam would consolidate his position as the Chief Minister,” said a confidant of Sasikala.

However, there is resentment among AIADMK cadres and the public that Sasikala not only has succeeded in her “machination” to take control of the party, which is awash with funds, but also is trying to usurp Panneerselvam’s chief ministership.

AIADMK leaders at various levels, however, are confident that the cadres can be “convinced” into accepting Sasikala as both general secretary and Chief Minister. Kallur E. Velayudham, the AIADMK’s Manur panchayat union secretary in Tirunelveli district, said: “We will easily convince our cadres into accepting Sasikala as general secretary and Chief Minister. We will brainwash them. We will tell them that if they do not accept her leadership, it will pave the way for Stalin [M.K. Stalin, DMK treasurer and Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Assembly] to capture power.” Moreover, the cadres themselves did not want the party to split, he added.

Velayudham dismissed arguments that Jayalalithaa had not named Sasikala her political successor. It was the late Chief Minister who gave “political recognition” to Sasikala by making her a primary member of the AIADMK and an executive committee member, he said.

N. Selladurai, the party’s Coimbatore district deputy general secretary, was equally confident that the party’s office-bearers could “easily convince” the cadres into accepting Sasikala’s leadership in both the party and the government.

Durai Karunanidhi, senior journalist and a keen observer of the developments in the AIADMK for the past 40 years, however, does not think so. In his estimate, “95 per cent of the AIADMK cadres and 100 per cent of the public” were opposed to Sasikala becoming the general secretary and the Chief Minister. But there were no leaders in the AIADMK to “mobilise this opposition, consolidate it” and take forward a struggle against her, he said.

The AIADMK leadership claims that there are 1.72 crore primary members in the party. Its earlier claim was that there were 1.5 crore primary members. According to Durai Karunanidhi, the AIADMK has one lakh branches at the level of villages, hamlets, wards, and so on. There are 14 party wings such as youth wing, women’s wing, students’ wing, fishermen’s wing, weavers’ wing and farmers’ wing. Each wing has its unit at the lowermost branch level too. About 10 of these 14 wings function at every branch level. There are at least nine office-bearers for each of these wings at the level of the party branch. This works out to 90 members in each branch. This multiplied by one lakh branches is 90 lakhs. “These 90 lakh office-bearers can be convinced. But the remaining cadres cannot be convinced into accepting Sasikala’s leadership. The public cannot be convinced,” Durai Karunanidhi said.

With Sasikala having become general secretary now, Durai Karunanidhi said, there would be an encore from district secretaries, legislators, Ministers, Members of Parliament, and office-bearers of branches and various wings, with resolutions that Sasikala should become Chief Minister. On the strength of these resolutions, she would be installed as Chief Minister, he said. When MGR was Chief Minister, he allowed others such as V.R. Nedunchezhiyan, P.U. Shanmugam and S. Raghavanandam to be general secretaries. But Jayalalithaa set the trend of her being both the general secretary and the Chief Minister. She was unanimously elected general secretary seven times. The present crop of AIADMK leaders wanted to continue this trend when they appealed to Sasikala to hold both the posts. In their assessment, this would ensure the stability of the party and the government, Durai Karunanidhi said.

According to informed sources in the AIADMK, Panneerselvam is reconciled to his exit as Chief Minister. He is fed up with the pressure mounted on him by both the Sasikala group and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government at the Centre. While the BJP top brass wanted him to continue as the Chief Minister, it was not favourably disposed towards Sasikala, the sources said. Panneerselvam was prepared to be “flexible” and was “ready” to accept Sasikala as Chief Minister, the sources added.

‘Search strike’

If the chorus for making Sasikala the Chief Minister began on December 17 and reached a crescendo in the next couple of days, it fell silent from December 21, the day the men of the Investigation Directorate of the Income Tax Department knocked at the doors of Chief Secretary Rama Mohana Rao’s two-storeyed residence in the upscale Anna Nagar area around 5.30 a.m. Rama Mohana Rao, an Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer of the 1985 batch, was at home when the searches began. They ended only next morning.

The operation “Search Strike”, as the raids were called, became a sensation for their scale and magnitude and the fallout they led to. More than the searches at his house, what sent tremors across the AIADMK government was the exhaustive search mounted by income tax officials in Rama Mohana Rao’s chamber in the Secretariat, the seat of power of the State government. The searches in his chamber took place even as Panneerselvam was in his office in the same building. Income tax officials carted away scanned copies of hundreds of pages of documents, pen drives and CDs at the end of the raids in the Chief Secretary’s chamber.

As if to add insult to injury, it was the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) that provided security at the Chief Secretary’s residence in Anna Nagar and the Secretariat when the searches took place. Paradoxically, Rama Mohana Rao was also Commissioner, Vigilance, when the searches took place.

Income Tax Department personnel also raided his son Vivek Papisetty’s residence near Tiruvanmiyur and offices at Nandanam, his daughter’s residence at Manapakkam, all in Chennai, and Vivek Papisetty’s father-in-law D.K. Badrinarayana’s residence at Chittoor in Andhra Pradesh. Badrinarayana is vice president of the Telugu Desam Party in Chittoor district. The “Search Strike” covered 13 premises in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. A team of income tax officials reconnoitred the Chief Secretary’s native village, K. Bitragunta, near Jarugumalli in Prakasam district in Andhra Pradesh. The searches that took place in a building on Chamier’s Road, Nandanam, Chennai, revealed the fact that Vivek had floated three companies: Trans Earth Logistics, Blue Ocean Personnel and Allied Services Private Limited, and Virtu Technologies. There were also searches in the office of 3LOK Infra and Logistics Private Limited, Bengaluru, owned by Vivek.

About Rs.30 lakh of unaccounted money and five kg of gold were seized from the various premises. Newspaper reports quoted a top income tax official as saying on December 23 that “Vivek has admitted to a total unaccounted income of about Rs.17 crore which includes the Rs.5 crore disclosure made by him yesterday.”

Rama Mohana Rao was Secretary-II in Chief Minister Jayalalithaa’s office from 2011 to 2016. On June 1, 2016, after Jayalalithaa returned to power in the May 2016 Assembly elections, she promoted him as Secretary-I. He was elevated as Chief Secretary on June 8. Informed IAS officers said the posts of Secretaries to the Chief Minister were sinecures until Jayalalithaa became the Chief Minister in 1991 and made them powerful, coveted ones.

On December 22, a day after Rama Mohana Rao’s residence and chamber were searched, the Panneerselvam government removed him from his post and appointed Girija Vaidyanathan the Chief Secretary. She was Additional Chief Secretary and Land Commissioner. Rama Mohana Rao was kept on “compulsory wait”, that is, he was not given any posting.

The searches on the premises of Rama Mohana Rao and his son were a sequel to the massive raids that the income tax personnel had mounted earlier in the posh residences and offices of J. Sekhar Reddy in Chennai and Katpadi on December 8, 9 and 10. The searches covered 13 of his offices in T. Nagar, Chennai, and Gandhi Nagar, Katpadi. Income tax men said material seized from the premises of Sekhar Reddy indicated links between him and Rama Mohana Rao. The premises of Sekhar Reddy’s two associates, K. Srinivasa Reddy and Prem Kumar, were also searched.

Sekhar Reddy (47) belongs to Thondan Thulasi village, about nine kilometres from Katpadi railway station. He began his career as a small-time builder in nearby Vellore and later became a contractor for the State Public Works Department (PWD). His rise was swift during the Jayalalithaa regime. He bagged licence from the Jayalalithaa government for mining sand in entire Tamil Nadu. Sand mining comes under the PWD. Informed sources said Sekhar Reddy’s rise in the highly competitive sand-mining trade came when Panneerselvam was Public Works Minister. Sekhar Reddy was a trust board member of the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams, Andhra Pradesh. He visited Apollo Hospitals after Jayalalithaa was admitted there on September 22 for Tirumala prasadams to be given to her. Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu sacked him from the TTD board after news came out about the searches in his residences and offices.

A press release issued by the Central Board of Direct Taxes, Department of Revenue, Finance Ministry, New Delhi, on December 9 said: “The Investigation Directorate of Income Tax Department at Chennai conducted searches on 08.12.2016 in the case of a group engaged in sand mining. The group has sand mining licence for the entire State of Tamil Nadu. Eight premises (six residential and two offices) were covered in the search. During the search, Rs.96.88 crore in old high denomination [that is, the demonetised Rs.500 and Rs.1,000 notes] and Rs.9.63 crore in new Rs.2,000 currency notes along with gold weighing 127 kg, worth approximately Rs.36.29 crore, were found and seized as unaccounted assets....”

At the end of three days of searches, the unaccounted money seized came to more than Rs.132 crore, out of which Rs.34 crore was in new Rs.2,000 currency notes, and about 177 kg of gold. The Rs.132 crore included Rs.24 crore in the Rs.2,000 note kept in a mini truck in Katpadi. The vehicle was continuously on the move for several hours before the taxmen tracked it and seized the unaccounted money.

The ease with which Sekhar Reddy exchanged old notes worth Rs.34 crore for new Rs.2,000 notes showed the nexus between him and bank officials, income tax officials said. Besides, it exposed Sekhar’s money-laundering activity.

Rama Mohana Rao hits back

On December 27, Rama Mohana Rao hit back, taking on both the Centre and the Panneerselvam government. In a theatrical outburst, he called the raids “a constitutional assault on the office of the Chief Secretary” and wanted to know how the CRPF could enter the Chief Secretary’s chamber. “Did they get the CM’s permission? Isn’t this an unconstitutional assault? Where is the State government?” he asked. “Would the CRPF have dared to enter the Chief Secretary’s chamber had Jayalalithaa been alive?” he wondered. He alleged that he was placed under “house arrest by the CRPF at gunpoint”.

Rama Mohana Rao said it was “Puratchi Thalaivi” (revolutionary leader) Jayalalithaa who appointed him to the top post. She “trained” and “nurtured” him for the past five years and a half and “she taught me everything”, he said. While he was all praise for Jayalalithaa, he had sharp words for the Panneerselvam government. “I was appointed to this post by Puratchi Thalaivi and this government does not have the guts to serve the transfer order to me. I am still the Chief Secretary of Tamil Nadu. Maybe the new person [Girija Vaidyanathan] has been made in-charge but I am still the Chief Secretary,” he claimed.

The former Chief Secretary denied any links between him and Sekhar Reddy. “I have nothing to do with Sekhar Reddy. I have no business links with him,” Rama Mohana Rao said. The search warrant from the Income Tax Department did not mention his name, he said. It was in the name of his son, Vivek, who had not stayed in his (Rao’s) residence even for a week, he said. Only Rs.1.12 lakh in cash, about 50 sovereigns of gold ornaments of his wife and daughter, and about 25 kg of silver articles, idols of Ganesh, Venkateswara and Mahalakshmi, were found in his house during the raids, the former Chief Secretary said.

When reporters asked him how Sekhar Reddy could obtain sand-mining contracts for the entire State during the AIADMK regime, Rama Mohana Rao pointedly replied that only PWD officials could answer these questions.

What surprised the income tax officials was Sekhar Reddy insisting repeatedly that all the unaccounted money seized from his offices and residences belonged to him alone. The searches on his premises revealed the nexus between businessmen, politicians, bureaucrats and bank officials, informed sources said.

The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) arrested Sekhar Reddy and his associates K. Srinivasa Reddy and Prem Kumar on December 21. The arrests were made under the Indian Penal Code (IPC) Sections 120-B (punishment of criminal conspiracy) and 420 (cheating and dishonestly inducing delivery of property), and Section 409 (criminal breach of trust by public servant, or by banker, merchant or agent). The arrests were made after Enforcement Directorate officers registered a case against them under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA). The CBI arrested Sekhar Reddy’s two other associates in sand mining: K. Rathinam of Dindigul and S. Ramachandran of Pudukottai.

On December 22, Enforcement Directorate officials arrested Paras Mal Lodha, yet another associate of Sekhar Reddy, at the Mumbai airport under the PMLA for allegedly converting demonetised notes worth Rs.24 crore into new ones with the help of hawala operators.

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