Released from prison after 4 years, can Sasikala continue to wield the same clout to lead AIADMK again and emerge as the game-changer in the coming polls?
Tamil Nadu Polls have always created a lot of buzz across the nation as it is the state in which the national parties are pushed to play the second fiddle and the two major Dravidian parties continue to dominate the polls for the last five decades. Most importantly, the state is going for the first Assembly polls after the demise of the two doyens of Dravidian parties – M Karunanidhi and J Jayalalithaa.
The death of two undisputed leaders has undoubtedly created void in the leadership of both DMK and AIADMK. While MK Stalin took over the mantle after Karaunanidhi’s demise, AIADMK faced many upheavals.... the AIADMK witnessed several factional fights in its rank and file with the former Chief Minister O Pannerselvam breaking away from the Sasikala camp and threatened to split the AIADMK.
In the meanwhile Tamil superstar Rajinikanth announced his political plunge. Couple of months back, pundits gave full marks to Rajnikanth and most of them predicted that Tamil superstar Rajinikanth’s entry will definitely dent the victory margins of both DMK and AIADMK especially in the absence of two undisputed leaders. But it turned out to be a damp squib as. Rajinikanth decided to stay away from politics after several deliberations.
VK Sasikala served her four-year sentence in Bengaluru’s Parappana Agrahara prison since February 2017. Though she has been finally released on January 27th, considering her health condition she was advised one more week of isolation which she completed in Bengaluru itself and finally headed towards Chennai by road on the morning of February 8. She was discarded a grand reception by supporters of AMMK, a party floated by her nephew TTV Dinakaran.
Now Sasikala’s return to Tamil Nadu is being keenly watched as it comes at a time when the state is gearing up for the assembly elections. While superstar’s decision to back out from the political battle has come as a great relief to the Dravidian majors, Sasikala’s release from prison, at the time of polls is expected to create a flutter in the political landscape of Tamil Nadu. Her return is likely to make an impact in the polls, especially for the AIADMK.
It may be recalled that the AIADMK faced crisis of leadership after the demise of former Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa. The rudderless phase of the AIADMK started with the hospitalisation of J Jayalalithaa and her subsequent demise, which created vacuum at the top. Though, O Panneerselvam was immediately made the interim Chief Minister, the infighting started with the rising ambitions of Sasikala. Subsequently, when O Panneerselvam broke away and it led to many speculations and also brought to fore the inclinations of many leaders to take over AIADMK.
Then came the disqualification of Sasikala with the Supreme Court verdict condemning her in the disproportionate assets case and sent to the Parappana Agrahara jail in Bengaluru. Out of the blue, she passed on the mantle to her nephew TTV Dinakaran, much to the displeasure of many AIADMK old guards. After lot of deliberations, Edappadi Palaniswami, who was then in the Sasikala camp, was chosen for the top job. By choosing EPS for the coveted post of Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, the Sasikala clan hoped to keep him as a puppet and dominate both the government as well as the party. But, the politician in EPS sensed the signals early and acted wisely according to the situation.
Since the demise of the two stalwarts of Tamil Nadu politics, the DMK patriarch M Karunanidhi and the AIADMK supremo J Jayalalithaa, M K Stalin has been portrayed as the next tallest leader in Tamil Nadu. When Edappadi Palaniswami was sworn in as Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu on February 2017, Stalin said that AIADMK government under EPS will not even survive for few months and will collapse. But, despite many attempts, Stalin could not trigger the fall of EPS.
Having assumed office at one of the most turbulent times in the history of AIADMK, with tremendous infighting and threats of the party getting split in to several factions, but in the process, Edappadi Palaniswami had to carefully wade through the troubled waters of the AIADMK.
But Edappadi Palaniswami is no novice in politics. Having joined the AIADMK at a young age in the 1980s, he has a good track record and has been well connected to the ground. Started as a die-hard fan of AIADMK founder M.G. Ramachandran, he rose through the ranks from the Western parts of Tamil Nadu representing the powerful Gounder OBC community. After MGR’s death he showed unstinted support to Jayalalithaa when the party split and ended up becoming part of her inner circle.
In the last four years as Chief Minister, EPS has deftly handled various issues and he has slowly and steadily consolidated his position in the party to a status of an undisputed leader. EPS also sensed the threats posed by TTV Dinakaran who at one stage threatened to bring the reins of AIADMK under his control and had to clearly steer away from him. Edappadi Palaniswami had to fight a fierce battle against TTV Dinakaran.
In a matter of months amidst chaos and suspense, EPS struck a compromise with O Paneerselvam and offered him deputy CM and chairman of the party’s steering committee. Then, finally on September 2017,,AIADMK convened general council meeting and made a slew of changes to the party bylaws and passed 12 resolutions including the ouster of VK Sasikala from the post of party general secretary and her nephew TTV Dinakaran from the post of deputy general secretary of AIADMK.
The merger of the OPS faction and subsequent ousting of Sasikala were seen as the masterstroke by Edappadi Palaniswami. He has successfully managed to ascertain his grip over the party and the government and established himself as an undisputed powerful leader of AIADMK. The fact that today, he is facing the Assembly elections as a Chief Ministerial candidate speaks volumes of his courage and conviction.
EPS’ deft handling of the administration as well as the senior leaders in the party, in the post-Jayalalithaa era has been so complete. Now, clearly EPS has not only asserted his position in the AIADMK succession battle but also proved his mettle as the prominent and dominant figure in the AIADMK.
The transformation of an unassuming party worker in to a powerful leader has indeed been phenomenal. It is true that the circumstances have made him the Chief Minister, but he is not a reluctant leader. The rise of Palaniswami as the next most powerful and trusted leader has been assiduously built in his four year stint as the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu.
Despite criticism that Edapadi Palnisami is acting as per the whims of the BJP government at the Centre, the overall the data shows that EPS has not done badly when it comes to governance. While keeping alive most of the welfare measures that endeared Jayalalithaa to the poor, EPS also focused on industrial development.
Besides, sorting out the internal battles in the AIADMK, EPS has also did his best as Chief Minister and has delivered good governance be it handling COVID-19, launching several welfare schemes as well as attracting investments into the state. Overall he deftly handled the crisis situation by not engaging in any sort of confrontational politics.
Despite the fact that the post-Jayalalithaa era has given rise to multiple centres of power and influence in AIADMK, EPS has stood the test of time. Today, EPS has come a long way from being a tentative leader to become a confident Chief Minister and also a crafty politician. In the process EPS has earned a unique distinction of being the simple and people’s chief Minister
No doubt that Sasikala announced her return to Tamil Nadu with thunder. Flaunting the AIADMK flag on the bonnet of her car, defying the ban for use of AIADMK flag by her, Sasikala drove back to Chennai from Bengaluru. Her supporters put out posters and banners, hailing her as “permanent General Secretary of AIADMK”, “Raj Mata” and “Guardian Goddess” to welcome her back in Tamil Nadu. She also made her intentions very clear that she will not lie low and will be focusing on active politics.
First and foremost, Sasikala would strive hard to regain her control over the party. The fact remains that before she went to jail, she had been elected as general secretary of the party and leader of the AIADMK legislature party and was all set to be sworn in as the chief minister. In all probability she will claim her inheritance to Jayalalithaa’s legacy.
"My desire is that we must jointly work to ensure our common foe does not come to the ruling saddle again in Tamil Nadu," Sasikala said without naming anyone. If she only wants to restore Jayalalithaa’s legacy and look forward for a reunion and defeat DMK, then the question that comes to everyone’s mind is that why was she silent when TTV Dinakaran floated AMMK. She could have strongly objected to it and asked him to wait till she returns. The fact also remains that Sasikala challenged her expulsion in court, the Election Commission did not recognise her faction as the real AIADMK following a compromise between EPS and OPS.
Back then Sasikala was a convict. Now that Sasikala has served her prison term, and has been welcomed by her elated supporters, she looks set to shake up AIADMK ahead of assembly election. Sasikala, though, cannot contest election herself for six years, still she could play her role to damage AIADMK’s vote bank.
But in the last four years, lot of water has flown down the AIADMK. Today, both Palaniswami and Panneerselvam have a stuck up a healthy working relationship and also quelled the rebellions within the party. There is much speculation that Sasikala will engage in all sort of politics that could upset the fine balance between EPS and OPS and revive the power struggle.
Speculations are rife that If Sasikala decides to challenge the AIADMK leadership, many AIADMK leaders including some Ministers might lend her support. Moreover, TTV Dinakaran’s Amma Makkal Munetra Kazhagam (AMMK) might also get activated.
Anticipating turn of events that could trigger after Sasikala’s return the AIADMK leadership decided not to leave no stone unturned. They took all pre cautionary measures. On the day before her arrival, EPS convened a meeting at the party’s head quarters in Chennai and issued warning to all Ministers and leaders not to revive ties with Sasikala.
Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami, asserted that Sasikala’s release from prison will not have any impact on the AIADMK. He stated categorically that there was no chance of her return to the AIADMK. “She is not part of the party anymore; I can tell you, 100 per cent, there is no chance of Sasikala returning to AIADMK, as there are hardly any more followers with her,” Palaniswami said. Fisheries Minister D Jayakumar also dismissed the possibility of readmitting her or any likely impact on party fortunes because of her re-entry into the state politics.
No doubt, Edappadi K Palaniswami has stabilised a shaky government and also learnt the ropes to handle tough situations with ease. With resources and power on their side, Palaniswami is gaining strength day by day and look forward to the polls based on his government’s good works. Clearly, under the AIADMK today is hardly the party of 2017.
Though the present AIADMK leadership has indeed fortified its stand to not allow Sasikala and her clan to take control of the party, from her statements it is very clear that Sasikala is not going to get weaned with her political ambitions. Yes, she definitely enjoys some support from certain sections of the party, mainly from the people who benefitted from her and not from the leaders of any significance. Though she might get some support, with a few desertions here and there, it is unlikely that the impact will be severe to shake the current AIADMK.
As of now, to think that she will have a reunion with AIADMK, is hoping for too much. Earlier in 1980s Tamil Nadu witnessed a fight for MGR’s legacy. Now it is for Jayalalithaa’s legacy. But the fact also remains that Sasikala is not a charismatic leader like Jayalalithaa to make an impact in the minds of the people of Tamil Nadu.
But taking a closer look there are couple of options before Sasikala. Having remained as a shadow of Jayalalithaa and associated with the party, she is potent enough to engineer some trouble within the AIADMK. Secondly, she might strengthen TTV Dhinakaran’s AMMK. But AMMK has not emerged as a force to reckon with as the party came a cropper and has not had much electoral success. Finally, having waited for four years she might wait for few more months till the elections are over and take a call based on how the people of Tamil Nadu voted.