Sources say that Sasikala and family said a firm ‘no’ and pushed through the case of O. Panneerselvam. When the Lok Sabha deputy speaker M. Thambidurai put out a statement on Sunday and it was circulated among the media houses by AIADMK headquarters, it seemed that the final word has been said on the succession issue in the ruling party.
He had already spoken on similar lines on television on Saturday, hailing Sasikala Natarajan for her sacrifices in protecting Amma and caring for her through thick and thin over the last three decades plus. The Sunday proclamation, however, sounded like the lost contender proposing the name of the victor in a succession battle so as to not just give the coronation a complete approval and drive away clouds of doubts and suspicions, but also to ensure that in the emerging political plot, the proposer gets a decent chair to sit on. Even before the doctors signed Jayalalithaa’s death certificate in the Apollo Hospital late night on December 5, reports trickled in that Delhi wanted Thambidurai to succeed her as the Chief Minister. His long years in the national capital had earned the crafty Gounder many influential friends in the national parties.
Sources say that Sasikala and family said a firm ‘no’ and pushed through the case of O. Panneerselvam. It is said that Sasikala told the AIADMK ministers at a hurriedly summoned session at the Apollo to back OPS as he had the experience being the CM, that too as Amma’s choice in a crisis. If Thambidurai’s Delhi gambit failed, he quickly made up for that by proclaiming loyalty for ‘Chinnamma’. Another source said OPS was Governor Ch Vidyasagar Rao’s choice. “Someone else wanted to somehow become the successor; I cannot mention any name. At least as an interim CM. But the Governor expressed himself strongly against that. He pointed out to Sasikala and others that since OPS was already holding the portfolios of Jayalalithaa, it would not be difficult for him to step into her shoes as CM”, the source said.
“The Governor also reportedly pointed out to them that since the AIADMK enjoyed majority in the Assembly, there was no threat of destabilisation for them to look at interim and temporary leadership just to keep the flock together and the wolf away,” the source added. OPS knew from day-one where the power lies and made no pretence in demonstrating absolute loyalty to ‘Chinnamma’. With the few cats that sulked on the wall also jumping in, the entire Cabinet has now rallied behind OPS to proclaim loyalty to her. When the TV screens repeatedly showed the ministers falling at her feet after paying respects to Jayalalithaa’s portrait kept for public view in Poes Garden, it became doubly clear that Sasikala would rule the post-Jaya dispensation — in the party as well as the government —with a firm grip, even if from a back seat. It’s not an easy task achieving such quick and complete transition of power in the male-dominated Dravidian politics; but then the AIADMK has not been quite Dravidian that way as Jayalalithaa had made things easy for ‘Chinnamma’ by getting the men in her party down to their knees, virtually.
Having achieved that universal acceptance among the party’s rank and file to take over as the AIADMK general secretary, it is now only a matter of time before Sasikala would have the general council and executive convened to get herself officially chosen as the party chief, unanimously. That would be a first for the AIADMK in having two different persons to run the party and the government. Both MGR and Jayalalithaa as CMs also held the position of party general secretary to ensure absolute control over both the institutions. It may not be difficult for Sasikala now to remote-control the government as well while holding the formal title as party chief. She was already exercising considerable clout even during Amma’s lifetime and learnt well the nuances of effectively running the party lieutenants as well as the government babus. Having witnessed and even shared most of the trials and tribulations that Jayalalithaa had to face in the post-MGR struggle to gain control of his AIADMK, Sasikala has learnt her lessons well and emerged winner through a few tests by fire, such as when ‘Akka’ (elder sister, as she used to refer to Jayalalithaa) banished her from Poes Garden soon after the 1996 poll debacle and again in December 2011 due to some suspicions. Not only did Sasikala manage to return to ‘Akka’ but also ensured the consolidation of her influence over the AIADMK supremo and the empire she controlled.
Sasikala did everything, well almost everything, for Jayalalithaa — from the mundane things like the medicines she must take and the food she liked, to intricate tasks such as handling party seniors and top bureaucrats, besides assisting in evolving strategies in dealing with the political rivals in the state and the powers in Delhi. Her husband M. Natarajan, though banished by Jayalalithaa from her premises and the party, reportedly helped hugely at critical times. In fact, it was Natarajan who had helped Jayalalithaa to a large extent, along with a few others, to win the post-MGR succession battle. That was a terrible battle for the woman who had started off as a very unwilling entrant into the male-dominated Dravidian politics. “It was a dangerous battle too. On the one side there was the rival DMK and on the other side we had the AIADMK faction led by Janaki (MGR’s widow) with money power and manpower. Jayalalithaa had no money. Help came from (former ministers) S. Thirunavukarasu and KKSSR Ramachandran. We built her empire brick by brick. I took care of the legal battle and Natarajan handled most of the political challenges”, recalled senior lawyer K. Subramanian, who had a major role in Jayalalithaa winning the AIADMK symbol (two-leaves) and the party headquarters, besides a crucial election petition in her first term.
With the state elections four-and-a-half years away, there are no major challenges for the party in the near future. The government may not be in a hurry to hold the local body polls either. However, there is one problem staring at Sasikala. The Supreme Court had on June 7 reserved judgment in the appeals filed by the Karnataka government against the acquittal of Jayalalithaa in the decades-old disproportionate assets case. Sasikala, along with sister-in-law J. Elavarasi and nephew V. N. Sudhakaran, are co-accused in this case. Should the court confirm the acquittal, there is no stopping Sasikala from emerging very powerful in TN politics. True, she does not have the charisma of Jayalalithaa but she is trying astutely to make up by creating a pro-people image for herself by making herself available to the party cadres and to the public. Her decision to throw open the doors of Poes Garden to the public to stream in and pay respects to the large portrait of Jayalalitha she has placed in the portico, is just brilliant. Pictures of her holding the hands of the weeping women in the queue before the late CM’s portrait were circulated to the media and went viral; so did the TV visuals of party seniors pleading with her to become the general secretary while she heard them teary-eyed.