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Sasikala is trying to get in to Jayalalitha´s boots
Sasikala is trying to get in to Jayalalitha´s boots

Sasikala Natarajan tries to assume leadership of AIADMK and Tamil Nadu. It is a tough bettle. Can she last the battles that await her?

On Thursday, after a week of drama, the spotlight on Tamil Nadu’s political battle shifted to governor C Vidyasagar Rao as AIADMK general secretary VK Sasikala staked claim to form the government even as acting chief minister O Panneerselvam dug his heels in and said “dharma” will triumph over intrigue.

Panneerselvam and Sasikala,  elected the AIADMK legislature  party leader, met the governor separately at the Raj Bhavan though  it was not immediately known  what transpired in the meetings.  Panneerselvam, who was named  the chief minister after J Jayalalithaa’s death in December, quit on  February 5, clearing the way for  Sasikala’s elevation to the state’s  top job. The governor accepted  his resignation the next day but on  Wednesday Panneerselvam revolted, saying he was forced to resign  and was willing to reconsider his  decision.

The governor, who arrived in Chennai on Thursday afternoon, reportedly gave no assurance to either of the two. He is expected to consult legal experts and examine all claims before him, satisfy himself and then take a decision, sources said.

The governor is understood to have sent a report to the Centre and President though he has not taken any decision. Speculation is also rife that the governor could take time to study the issue in depth, consult legal and constitutional experts and wait for the Supreme Court verdict on a disproportionate assets case in which Sasikala is an accused. According to sources, the verdict could come early next week.

“We had a detailed discussion…about all that is happening in Tamil Nadu…For sure, good thing will happen, dharma will win,” Panneerselvam told reporters at his residence after returning from the Raj Bhavan.

He quoted a popular Tamil verse of nationalist poet Subramanya Bharathi, the import of which is, “though dharma could be eclipsed by intrigue, it will be dharma which will triumph ultimately”. He, however, did not take any questions.

Shortly afterwards, Sasikala visited Jayalalithaa’s memorial at Marina Beach prior to her meeting with the governor.

Attired in her signature green saree, a teary-eyed Sasikala placed before at memorial an envelope believed to be the list of MLAs who have endorsed her candidature for the top post.

This is the second time the AIADMK is electing a chief minister who has not been active in politics. In 1987 it propped up Janaki Ramachandran as chief minister following MGR’s death. But her government lasted only for 24 days.

Like V K Sasikala, Janaki too was not an MLA and had not addressed even a single public meeting before becoming CM. Another parallel in the political history of the country is Rabri Devi, who was elected CM of Bihar in 1997 after her husband Lalu Prasad Yadav was forced to resign when warrants were issued against him. Though Narendra Modi too was not an MLA when he became CM of Gujarat, he was active in politics for many years.

When Janaki took charge as chief minister, the then assembly had only two years to complete, but now, the 15th assembly has more than 4 years to go. “As per the Constitution, Sasikala has to win from an assembly constituency within six months of becoming CM. Nothing stops her from becoming CM,” said a former AIADMK minister.

“Rabri Devi was also pulled out of her kitchen to occupy the CM’s post. All through her tenure, it was Lalu who was controlling the administration. But in Tamil Nadu, Sasikala is in control. But the moot point is that in the last election, people had voted for Jayalalithaa and not anyone else,” advocate and political analyst Ravinthran Thoraisami said.

Sasikala’s will be the sixth cabinet in the last two-and-a-half years. Jayalalithaa was the chief minister when she was convicted in the disproportionate assets case in 2014. O Panneerselvam replaced her, only to be replaced again by Jayalalithaa in 2015 after she was acquitted. In the 2016 assembly election, once again, Jayalalithaa was sworn in as CM. On her demise, OPS got yet another turn to occupy the hot seat, only to step down now for Sasikala.

OPS remained loyal to Amma during her lifetime
OPS remained loyal to Amma during her lifetime

Bereft of their leader and inspiration, the ruling party in Tamil Nadu have turned to the next best thing: Amma’s friend and confidante, VK Sasikala, who is the closest like-for-like replacement available. Even Sasikala’s nickname of “Chinnamma” implies continuity, and suggests that Amma’s politics live on in her successor. True to this perception, Sasikala has promised to “realise Jayalalithaa’s dreams” and ambitions for the state. Initial fears that Jayalalithaa’s over-centralisation of power would leave a vacuum and a battle for succession -in much the same way as the AIADMK split into two factions following the death of MGR -appear to be mistaken so far. Rather than dissolving into factional infighting, the party has stage-managed a smooth and orderly transfer of power. Astonishingly, although Amma had no heir apparent, it is the DMK that appears to have more problems with leadership at present, despite naming Karunanidhi’s son Stalin as next in line. In what follows we try and make sense of what is happening in contemporary Tamil politics.

Following Amma’s death, the party moved swiftly to anoint the perennial standin, O Panneerselvam (“OPS”), to the role of leader. This was the third time that he had taken office, having covered for Amma’s absences before, and so the decision was uncontentious. OPS had the experience, the knowledge and the backing of party members to do the job. The one question was whether he was the right man for the future. Whilst seen as a safe-pair of hands, he is not the sort of figure to mobilise and enthuse people. One report of his campaigning in the last election spoke of him as “dull”. His unflashy and practical approach was perfect to reassure people that business would continue as normal and to win the backing of party members. None could accuse OPS of harbouring secret ambitions and designs on the throne, and the fact that he took over came as no surprise. Equally, however, it is no surprise that he has already sought to pass on the baton of leadership and return into the background.

Sasikala may finally succeed in getting control of the party and government. But the question is: can she run both like her mentor and predecessor J Jayalalitha?

From a shadow to the Leader

All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) General Secretary VK Sasikala’s role in the life of former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa was highlighted during Amma’s last days. Throughout the funeral procession, she was seen standing next to Amma’s mortal remains and later performed the last rites of the AIADMK supremo. After O Pannerselvam proposed the name of Tamil Nadu’s Chinnamma as the leader of AIADMK Legislature Party Leader, Sasikala Natarajan looks all set to become the chief minister of the state.

Here are 5 things  you need to know about her:

  1. Sasikala was introduced to Jayalalithha in 1980 by IAS officer-turned-politician VS Chandralekha on the request of his PRO R Natrajan, Sasikala’s husband.
  2. Sasikala’s marriage with M. Natarajan happened with the blessings and in front of then DMK Chief M Karunanidhi.
  3. When Jayalalithaa met Sasikala, she was working as the Propaganda Secretary of the AIADMK and the duo eventually became close friends. In fact, Sasikala even started living with the former CM.
  4. Jayalalithaa was heavily criticised for spending crores on Sasikala’s nephew and her foster son V N Sudhakaran’s wedding.
  5. In 2011, Sasikala was accused to have been slowly poisoning her friend by giving chemical substances and sedatives so that her husband could replace Jayalalithaa as the CM.