Transition, and signs of trouble

Published : Sep 29, 2001 00:00 IST

The choice of O. Panneerselvam as Jayalalithaa's successor is seen by many in the AIADMK as a sign of the increasing clout of her friend Sasikala's family in the party.

THE crisis in the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) after the Supreme Court unseated Chief Minister Jayalalithaa has been temporarily overcome with the installation of O. Panneerselvam as her successor. Although the transition was smooth and the AIADMK unitedly faced the crisis, the unmistakable message is the increasing dominance of Sasikala Natarajan's family in the AIADMK and its tightening grip on Jayalalithaa. A close associate of Jayalalithaa, Sasikala lives in the AIADMK general secretary's house in Chennai.

Although a first-time legislator, 51-year-old Panneerselvam was in charge of the important Revenue portfolio in the outgoing Cabinet of Jayalalithaa. He was elected from the Periakulam constituency in the May 2001 elections. Sources in the AIADMK say Panneerselvam was a nominee of the Sasikala family. They belong to the Mukkulathor community, which has a strong presence in the southern districts of Tamil Nadu. Panneerselvam is a protege of T.T.V. Dinakaran, Sasikala's nephew and Lok Sabha member from Periakulam. In the 1999 Lok Sabha elections, Panneerselvam worked hard for Dinakaran's success. He belongs to the Mukkulathor community.

According to AIADMK sources, Panneerselvam was chosen because he was "a harmless man". He is not ambitious and has no political base of his own. Finance Minister C. Ponnaiyan, who was a front-runner, looked disappointed. Though many AIADMK legislators preferred him, he was seen as being ambitious, and did not have the backing of the Sasikala clan.

Although the party was shocked, Jayalalithaa herself has not lost hope of her returning to power. After meeting Governor C. Rangarajan on September 21 following the Supreme Court judgment, she said: "Nothing has happened now. The AIADMK government is going to continue. This is only a temporary arrangement. I will prove my innocence in courts. I shall get elected as a legislator and resume power." She appealed to AIADMK cadre not to resort to violence because the Opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the Bharatiya Janata Party would use that opportunity to hatch a "conspiracy" to impose President's Rule.

The Madras High Court has before it Jayalalithaa's appeals against her conviction and sentences on charges of corruption when she was Chief Minister from 1991 to 1996 in the TANSI (Tamil Nadu Small Industries Corporation) and Pleasant Stay Hotel cases. If acquitted, she can contest elections again.

On October 9, 2000, Special Judge P. Anbazhagan convicted and sentenced Jayalalithaa to three years' and two years' rigorous imprisonment in the Jaya Publications and Sasi Enterprises cases (relating to the purchase of land that belonged to TANSI) respectively (Frontline, September 28, 2001). Consequently, she was disqualified under Section 8(3) of the Representation of the People Act (RPA), 1951, from contesting the Assembly elections in May this year. But her party won a big majority, and Governor M. Fathima Beevi, a retired Supreme Court Judge, swore her in Chief Minister in what was seen as a controversial action.

Quo warranto petitions were filed in the Supreme Court seeking to set aside the appointment. On September 21, in a unanimous judgment, a five-member Constitution Bench headed by Justice S.P. Bharucha ruled that her appointment was "not legal and valid". Justice Bharucha said: "We are satisfied that in the appointment of Ms. Jayalalithaa as Chief Minister, there has been a clear infringement of a constitutional provision and that a writ of quo warranto must issue."

As the grim news came from the Supreme Court shortly after 10-30 a.m., the AIADMK sank into gloom but Jayalalithaa went out in style, looking poised and smiling occasionally. After the Cabinet met at her home, she drove to the Raj Bhavan in her car, which did not fly the national flag but only the AIADMK flag. She submitted no resignation letter to the Governor. She explained: "There is no need for that. The court has ruled that my appointment is invalid."

For weeks, there was speculation regarding her possible successor in case the apex court struck down her appointment. Names that made the rounds were those of Ponnaiyan, Education Minister M. Thambi Durai, Electricity Minister D. Jayakumar, Tourism Minister Uppiliyapuram R. Saroja and a non-legislator, Visalakshi Nedunchezhiyan (wife of the late Finance Minister V.R. Nedunchezhiyan).

When the Cabinet met after the judgment was delivered, the Ministers were reportedly asked to indicate their preference. While the majority chose Ponnaiyan, some wanted Thambi Durai and a few opted for Assembly Speaker K. Kalimuthu. There was a feint as well. Visalakshi Nedunchezhiyan, in her 70s, was called to Jayalalithaa's Poes Garden residence. After the Ministers dispersed, looking gloomy and avoiding presspersons, and Jayalalithaa returned from the Raj Bhavan, there was a "hectic debate" at her residence on who should take over from her. Informed sources said that Sasikala's family insisted that only a person from the Mukkulathor (also called Thevar) community should become Chief Minister. Natarajan, Sasikala's husband, allegedly operated from behind the scenes and strongly backed Panneerselvam, who was also supported by Dinakaran.

In the evening, a section of the AIADMK Legislature Party (many legislators could not reach Chennai in time) met under the leadership of Jayalalithaa, who announced the surprise choice of Panneerselvam. Panneerselvam himself looked shaken. Besides being Revenue Minister, he was AIADMK secretary for Theni district and the chairman of Periakulam municipality.

LEGAL experts say that there was no way the Supreme Court could have upheld the Governor's action. For more than 20 years, it has ruled in several judgments that it would not condone the criminalisation of politics. As the arguments got under way from September 4 in the quo warranto petitions, it was clear from the observations made by the Constitution Bench which way the judgment would go. Counsel for Jayalalithaa K.K. Venugopal told the Bench that her disqualification would go against the will of the people.

The Bench retorted that "the Constitution is supreme" and that the "will" of the people was subordinate to it. After becoming Chief Minister on May 14, Jayalalithaa's game plan was to get her appeals in the TANSI cases heard in the High Court quickly. She was racing against time because she had to get elected within six months to continue as Chief Minister. So her deadline was November 13. But what she did not anticipate was the bunch of quo warranto petitions filed in the Supreme Court. Solicitor-General Harish Salve told the Bench that six months was the time given for a person to acquire the qualification to be a Minister and not to shed the disqualification.

Her plans to get her appeals in the High Court heard quickly came a cropper when K.V. Venkatapathi, Special Prosecutor in the appeals, obtained a stay from the Supreme Court on August 30 after he complained to it that he was not supplied with all the documents in the cases. The Supreme Court directed that another Judge of the Madras High Court hear the appeals and that the arguments should not begin earlier than October 1. The apex court added that the incoming Chief Justice of the High Court would name the new Judge. (Chief Justice N.K. Jain had been transferred to the Karnataka High Court.)

It was obvious that Jayalalithaa had run out of time because the Election Commission needed 45 days' time to notify an election. Even if the arguments in her appeals begin on October 1 and she is acquitted, say 10 days later, there is no way she can get elected before November 13.

On September 8, Justice B. Subhashan Reddy of the Andhra Pradesh High Court was appointed Chief Justice of the Madras High Court and he took over on September 12. On September 20, he named Justice N. Dinakar to hear the appeals.

As the Supreme Court reserved its orders on the quo warranto petitions, the AIADMK sprang a surprise. Kalimuthu announced on September 19 that Thanga Tamizhselvan, elected from the Andipatti constituency in May, had resigned with effect from September 15. This was to enable Jayalalithaa to contest from Andipatti before November 13. Andipatti has a sizable population of Mukkulathors, who traditionally back the AIADMK. Kalimuthu demanded early elections from the Andipatti and Saidapet constituencies. (The legislator from Saidapet, V. Perumal, died on August 13.)

Thanga Tamizhselvan's resignation was announced in the forenoon of September 19, and the Madras High Court witnessed a development the same afternoon. Justices K. Narayana Kurup and P. Sathasivam decided not to advance to that afternoon a petition from advocate G. Rajendran, seeking to declare Section 8(3) of the RPA ultra vires of the Constitution. The petitioner argued that he wanted an early hearing because the notification for the panchayat elections was to be published that day. The Judges were originally to hear the petition on October 3. The petitioner said Section 8(3) was discriminatory compared to Section 8(4) and sought an interim stay on its operation. Section 8(3) debars a person who is convicted and sentenced to not less than two years of imprisonment from contesting elections.

About 45 minutes earlier (on September 19), Additional Solicitor General V.T. Gopalan met Chief Justice Subhashan Reddy. Following this, Justices Narayana Kurup and Sathasivam met the Chief Justice and later declined to take up the matter for hearing the same day. Justice Kurup accepted Gopalan's argument that the RPA was not applicable to local body elections and posted the matter to October 3 because that day was "only a heartbeat away".

IN a statement, Jayalalithaa pointed out that although the Supreme Court had invalidated her appointment as Chief Minister, the AIADMK members of the Assembly continued to hold their posts. So "the next government will be an AIADMK government and MGR government." (The reference was to the late M.G. Ramachandran, the founder of the AIADMK and former Chief Minister.) She said Karunanidhi was waiting "like an eagle" to exploit the situation if violence were to break out. So she advised party members to remain calm.

Leaders of the AIADMK said that partymen felt despondent and vexed. But the party remained intact and it suffered from no friction at all, they claimed.

A Left party leader said AIADMK leaders remained united because the party faced a crisis and it was a question of survival for them. Besides, there had been no conflict of interests among them over this issue, they pointed out.

Although DMK members were jubilant, Karunanidhi was circumspect. The former Chief Minister said that the law had done its duty and that he was neither happy nor unhappy about the judgment. "If the law does its work, not only myself but everybody will feel satisfied."

The Polit Bureau of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) said that Jayalalithaa's appeals against her conviction in the TANSI cases must be disposed of without delay. D. Raja, national secretary of the Communist Party of India (CPI), said the judgment would have far-reaching implications with regard to the role of Governors. But it would have no impact on the political situation in Tamil Nadu since the AIADMK enjoyed a majority in the Assembly, he added.

Janata Party president Subramanian Swamy said the installation of Panneerselvam as the Chief Minister had made Jayalalithaa "irrelevant in Tamil Nadu politics". Sasikala and her family did not need Jayalalithaa any more and "they will ease her out", he added.

L. Ganesan, State general secretary of the BJP, said if the people of Tamil Nadu understood the import of the judgment, they would not sympathise with Jayalalithaa. But the BJP was not a sadist party to delight in her plight, Ganesan added. M. Venkaiah Naidu, BJP leader and Union Rural Industrial Development Minister, described the judgment as a slap in the face of the Congress and the Left parties.

The AIADMK will face its true test of unity during the panchayat elections slated to be held on October 16 and 18. The alliance headed by the AIADMK during the Assembly elections is in some disarray now. The Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) has pulled out and is all set to join the rival alliance headed by the DMK. There is heartburn in the Congress, which was not invited to the meeting called by the AIADMK to discuss the issue of panchayat elections. The Tamil Maanila Congress, the CPI(M) and the CPI are still with the AIADMK.

There is disaffection in the AIADMK over the increasing clout of the Sasikala family. Party insiders said it would now be difficult for the AIADMK to get the Dalit and Nadar votes in the southern districts because a Mukkulathor has become Chief Minister. (Traditionally there is much social tension between Dalits and Mukkulathors.) The AIADMK also stands to lose a big chunk of the votes of the Vanniya community, which constitutes the support base of the PMK.

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