Tamil Nadu: Why is Chinnamma in such a hurry?

Barely two months after the demise of former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa, her close aide VK Sasikala has taken over the party and is now aiming at the Chief Minister’s chair

Photo courtesy: Twitter.com/AIADMKOfficial
Photo courtesy: Twitter.com/AIADMKOfficial

Sandhya Ravishankar

Late Tamil Nadu Chief Minister and cult politician Jayalalithaa Jayaram breathed her last on December 5, 2016. Barely three weeks later, on December 31, 2016, her close aide VK Sasikala played a well-orchestrated choir to ensure her ascendance to the post of General Secretary of the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), albeit a temporary position.

A little over a month later, on February 5, Chinnamma—or Small Amma, as Sasikala is known—was unanimously elected by the 135 MLAs of the AIADMK to become the Chief Minister of the state. O Panneerselvam promptly resigned and Governor in charge of Tamil Nadu, C Vidyasagar Rao accepted it, all on the same day.

All political hawks in Tamil Nadu knew she would claim the Chief Minister’s seat in the near future. It was inevitable. The power and control over party funds wielded by Jaya was transferred, upon her death, to Sasikala. The latter had slowly and steadily positioned her own loyalists in key positions, both in government as well as in the party, consolidating her influence in decision making, over at least the past year.

Sasikala, is practically invincible for now, as far as the AIADMK is concerned. Despite rumblings of dissent within, leaders and cadre, barring a few sidelined hands, have fallen in line.

Photo courtesy: Twitter.com/AIADMKOfficial
Photo courtesy: Twitter.com/AIADMKOfficial
VK Sasikala (centre) at the party meeting on February 5, when she was unanimously elected by 135 AIADMK MLAs to become the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu

So why the hurry?

“I think she is in a hurry because the real control of the party is not with her fully yet,” said Aazhi Senthilnathan, political analyst. “The leaders may be with Sasikala but the lower rung of the party cadre is not happy with her. She may have wanted to gain acceptance officially and therefore the rush to become Chief Minister,” he said.

A key reason, according to sources within the AIADMK is that of the goodwill and efficiency brought in by former Chief Minister O Panneerselvam, who was sworn in after Jayalalithaa’s demise. His handling of the aftermath of Cyclone Vardah in December 2016, working with the Centre to bring in the ordinance facilitating Jallikattu (bull taming sport) in January and his quick response to farmer suicides and drought in January have not gone unnoticed, either by bureaucracy or by the people.

Sasikala probably did not expect such a performance from Paneerselvam, who was always comfortable being in the shadows of his leader Jayalalithaa, even when he stood in for Jaya twice in 2001 and 2014, when she was unseated by the courts.

Three FERA (Foreign Exchange Regulation Act) cases slapped on her in 1995 and 1996 have come back to haunt Sasikala, with the Madras High Court refusing to discharge the AIADMK chief from these, on February 04. Another case looms large next week—a 19-year-old disproportionate assets case which is on appeal in front of the Supreme Court and awaiting final orders. If convicted in the DA case, Sasikala would face a jail term of four years.

“The DA case verdict is on the cards,” said Senthilnathan. “Maybe she did not want Panneerselvam to get too comfortable in his seat. Perhaps there is even a fear that the BJP may make things difficult for her if too much time passes,” he added.

“The leaders may be with Sasikala but the lower rung of the party cadre is not happy with her. She may have wanted to gain acceptance officially and therefore the rush to become Chief Minister.”
Aazhi Senthilnathan, political analyst

These pending cases are likely to be the reason for the delay in her being sworn in by Governor-in-Charge C Vidyasagar Rao, who cancelled his travel plans to Chennai on February 6 and headed to Mumbai instead. AIADMK sources, who had informed reporters that Sasikala would be sworn in on February 7, said they were taken aback by the developments.

With Sasikala’s impending elevation to the Chief Minister’s post though, the dissenters have come out of the woodwork. “Only the party cadre can elect the General Secretary and there is no provision in the party bylaws for a temporary General Secretary to be appointed,” said PH Pandian, AIADMK member and former Speaker of the state Assembly at a press conference in Chennai on Tuesday.

Sasikala’s MLAs have rallied around her for now. Panruti Ramachandran, a senior leader of the party and a former Minister, refuted Pandian’s claims, stating that Sasikala’s appointment as General Secretary and Chief Minister was perfectly above board and legally sound. “Nothing can stop Chinnamma from becoming the Chief Minister,” said KA Sengottaiyan, Gobichettipalayam MLA and a former minister.

But as Senthilnathan points out, whether these hurried moves will backfire on her, is something that needs to be watched. “I think she should have done what Sonia Gandhi did—waited for a while, met the people and interacted with them and gained acceptability amongst the cadre and voters. I am not sure whether this haste will hurt her prospects in the long run.”

This article was updated at 10.40 am on February 8 to reflect the correct total number of AIAIDMK MLAs.

Sandhya Ravishankar is an independent journalist based in Chennai. She tweets at @sandhyaravishan

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Published: 07 Feb 2017, 7:00 PM