POLITICS

As The Family Tree Takes Root In Poes Garden, India Will Be Keeping A Close Eye On Tamil Nadu Under Sasikala's Reign

Her time starts now.

06/02/2017 8:08 AM IST | Updated 06/02/2017 8:51 AM IST
Babu Babu / Reuters
O. Paneerselvam bows to J. Jayalalithaa (R) before taking his oath as state's finance minister during a swearing-in ceremony at Madras University Centenary Auditorium in Chennai May 16, 2011.

The AIADMK slammed him for what they called for "hitting below the belt'' but MK Stalin had hit the stone where it hurts most. The mandate in May 2016 was for Jayalalithaa and the 135 legislators who were elected, not for anyone from her household, the Leader of the Opposition in the Tamil Nadu Assembly had said. What was implied very clearly was that the hot Sunday afternoon on 5 February had seen a hijacking of the mandate.

A hijack is defined as "illegally seizing while in transit and force the object to go to a different destination or use it for one's own purposes''. In this case, the Amma of all ironies is that VK Sasikala replaces a man who was seen as doing an efficient job and who was even praised and supported by opposition parties like the BJP and the DMK.

AFP/Getty Images
General secretary of southern Tamil Nadu state's ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), VK Sasikala (C) gestures to cadres on her arrival to take up office at the AIADMK headquarters in Chennai on December 31, 2016. VK Sasikala was elected as the general secretary of southern Tamil Nadu state's ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) after its chief, Jayalalithaa -- popularly known as 'Amma' or mother -- died aged 68 on December 5. / AFP / Arun SANKAR (Photo credit should read ARUN SANKAR/AFP/Getty Images)

Panneerselvam, who scored a hat-trick of resignation as CM of Tamil Nadu, realised that scoring runs as a nightwatchman and running between the wickets with an enthusiastic Union government, made his captain declare his innings. The sad smile on his visage told the story, Panneerselvam was retired hurt. He resigned on Sunday, resigned to his fate.

By evening, #TNSaysNo2Sasi was trending on Twitter, if social media chatter is any indication of the mood on the ground.

Panneerselvam, finance minister in Jayalalithaa cabinet and three-time chief minister has made way for an administrative novice. When Jayalalithaa was alive, she gave no indication that she wanted her close aide to step into her shoes after she was gone. At no point, was a party or a government post given to Sasikala. All this has only strengthened the impression that Sasikala has grabbed what was not meant for her - first Jaya's party and now her government.

The chatter on the street points out that not only has a good man been shown the door, Sasikala's Mannargudi family has moved in as well, making many a party activist squirm in discomfort.

The chatter on the street points out that not only has a good man been shown the door, Sasikala's Mannargudi family has moved in as well, making many a party activist squirm in discomfort. Because, in 2011 Sasikala and her family had been thrown out of Poes Garden, bag and baggage, because Jayalalithaa suspected they were hatching a conspiracy against her.

Sasikala was taken back four months later after she wrote a teary-eyed letter in which she wrote: "Only after coming out of Poes Garden, I became aware of the machinations of my relatives who have misused my proximity and brought disrepute to Akka (elder sister) and the party. I have no role whatsoever in that. Hereafter, any relative, whosoever it might be, who had conspired against Akka, will remain a persona non grata for me as well.''

Five years since that letter, Sasikala is back with all the "persona non grata" in her family. Not only that, the last two months have seen a brazenness with which the family has muscled its way to positions of influence. Sasikala's brother Dr V Dhivaharan claimed around Pongal that there was a "huge conspiracy to kill Jayalalithaa in 2011 which Sasikala's family managed to avert''.

The family tree has taken firm roots in Poes Garden. The concern is that at least four members of this family have been convicted at some stage or the other, for economic offences.

The family tree has taken firm roots in Poes Garden. The concern is that, at least four members of this family have been convicted at some stage or the other, for economic offences. That is hardly a feel-good factor for Tamil Nadu. And the Supreme court verdict in the Disproportionate Assets in which Sasikala is an accused is pending.

A senior minister in the Panneerselvam government told this reporter in hushed tones last week that while the AIADMK leaders are comfortable with two branches of the Sasikala tree — Dr Venkatesh and TTV Dinakaran — her nephews, they do not share the same opinion about her husband, M Natarajan.

"His network of contacts goes well beyond Tamil Nadu, it is difficult to say what he is up to,'' the minister said.

AFP/Getty Images
In this photograph taken on December 6, 2016, close aide, VK Sasikala (L) stands next to the mortal remains of former chief minister of Tamil Nadu state, Jayalalithaa Jayaram during her funeral in Chennai. The party of Jayalalithaa Jayaram, a powerful Indian political leader who died earlier this month, on December 29, 2016 picked one of her closest aides to succeed her, ending weeks of speculation. VK Sasikala was elected as the general secretary of southern Tamil Nadu state's ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) after its chief, Jayalalithaa -- popularly known as 'Amma' or mother -- died aged 68 on December 5. / AFP / Arun SANKAR (Photo credit should read ARUN SANKAR/AFP/Getty Images)

To most, Sasikala as CM means Natarajan will be Super CM. One of his aides bragged to me in December that Panneerselvam will remain CM only till such time that he does not disobey Natarajan's diktat. "The day he crosses the line, Panneerselvam will become Kanneerselvam,'' he punned. 'Kanneer' translates to tears in Tamil. Sources say in Natarajan's book, the Modi-fication of Panneerselvam was unacceptable.

Natarajan, seen as a Tamilian Amar Singh, had tried to build bridges with the BJP leadership but was reportedly not entertained. He hit out at a Pongal event in Thanjavur by accusing the BJP of plotting to split the AIADMK, destabilise the government and "saffronise'' Tamil Nadu.

The AIADMK's second-rung leadership, that is more given to prostrating than standing up against any form of injustice, has fallen in line. Because 'Chinnamma Vaazgha' (Long Live Chinnamma) is their passport to political standing and benefits that come with an expiry date of May 2021.

For Tamil Nadu's bureaucracy, it will be back to status quo with Poes Garden as the powerful presiding deity. In the last eight weeks, the Sasikala camp noted with concern a growing sense of comfort the officers had dealing with a more accessible and affable Panneerselvam. Sasikala's ascent will mean they will have to revert to an iron curtain style of functioning. In the last two months, many AIADMK representatives had even started speaking to the media, a strict no-no during Jayalalithaa's time. The mute button will be pressed now.

But the takeover, clinically planned, has no patience with naysayers for now. Team Sasikala believes that unleashing a slew of populist welfare measures would mollify the Tamil Nadu electorate, used to a freebie culture.

At a shop near the AIADMK party headquarters at Royapettah in Chennai, a seller of party memorabilia refused to put a poster of Sasikala next to Jayalalithaa's. "Amma was Amma. Chinnamma can never be Amma,'' he said. Anbazhgan, an auto driver and a staunch MGR fan, grumbled saying the AIADMK two leaves will now start withering.

But the takeover, clinically planned, has no patience with naysayers for now. Team Sasikala believes that unleashing a slew of populist welfare measures would mollify the Tamil Nadu electorate, used to a freebie culture. Within minutes of the announcement that Sasikala has been elected leader of the AIADMK legislature party, the CM of Tamil Nadu Twitter handle was changed, even though she is not formally sworn in yet.

But even though Sasikala has not held a party post before, she is no Rabri Devi. Those who know her praise her understanding of politics, even though under Jayalalithaa, it was confined to playing the role of a backroom operator.

But she has a serious image issue and the manner in which she has made hurried moves to move from caretaker to chief minister in two months, has only reinforced the impression that she is an ambitious political mind. Sasikala's time starts now. With Tamil Nadu under her watch, India will be watching.

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