Less than 48 hours after Tamil Nadu chief minister O Panneerselvam (OPS) met Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Chennai shook. Income Tax sleuths raided the residence of Tamil Nadu chief secretary P Ramamohana Rao early on Wednesday morning and 12 other locations in Andhra Pradesh, Chennai and Bengaluru. Later in the day, they landed up at the chief secretary's chambers at the Tamil Nadu state Secretariat. Sitting just 200 metres away in his chamber was the CM, even as Rao's office was being searched for crucial files.
The import of the optics was not lost on anyone. It was as if Fort St George, that houses the Tamil Nadu Secretariat, was under siege by an army of the Dilli sarkar.
The CRPF and not the Chennai police, was deployed at the chief secretary's residence in Anna Nagar while the raid was in progress, another indication that the Union government was taking charge of the situation.
West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee tweeted, making a comparison between the raid on the office of Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal's principal secretary and the Chennai raid, arguing that it was an attack on the federal structure of governance. She said the "vindictive and unethical'' act by the central agencies devalues the institution of the head of the civil services. A charge refuted by Union minister of state Nirmala Sitharaman, who said this was not "an act of vengeance''.
Indeed no one can possibly find fault with going after an alleged case of corruption, however powerful the person may be. At the same time, the narrative is not linear either. While the raid is the result of connecting the dots with other cases of alleged wrongdoing, in the complicated political matrix of Tamil Nadu, the raid on the chief secretary is also designed to send across a message to those who matter.
First of all, it seems highly unlikely that an IT team would have proceeded to Rao's Anna Nagar residence without clearance from the very top in New Delhi. Two, sources indicate that homework to collect evidence of alleged wrongdoing against Rao has been on for several months. The Centre is aware that a botched up raid would mean it would land up with egg on its face, since the man in question is the top bureaucrat in Tamil Nadu.
While the raid is the result of connecting the dots with other cases of alleged wrongdoing, in the complicated political matrix of Tamil Nadu, the raid on the chief secretary is also designed to send across a message to those who matter.
Ramamohana Rao was handpicked by Jayalalithaa for the top job. Before he became chief secretary in June this year, he was secretary in the Chief Minister's office, reporting directly to Jayalalithaa. The AIADMK will be worried as the raid at Rao's residence and office could be seen as a comment on the image of the late CM. Given that Sasikala is gaining strength by virtue of having been Jayalalithaa's shadow, it weakens her position as well.
The DMK has alleged that Rao also tried to get Jayalalithaa off the hook in the Disproportionate Assets case and that was the reason he was rewarded with the chief secretary's post. While the accusation is not backed with any evidence, it is clear that a Rao-Jayalalithaa connection is sought to be made.
During the period that Jayalalithaa was in hospital from September 22 to December 5, it was the troika of Sasikala, Rao and Sheela Balakrishnan (advisor to the government) that called the shots. An indication of Rao's proximity to Sasikala.
The CBI has arrested Shekhar Reddy, a politically well-connected PWD contractor on Wednesday. Over Rs 130 crore in cash, Rs 34 crore of that in new currency and 120 kg of gold was recovered by the IT teams. Reddy was so influential that his name was recommended by the Tamil Nadu government for inclusion as a member in the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams, the cash-rich Board that runs the Lord Balaji temple. The joke in Chennai was that one has to get a darshan of Reddy first for him to facilitate a darshan of the Lord at Tirumala. The possibility that the raid on Reddy led to the raid on Rao has not been ruled out.
Tamil Nadu could be one state which could bridge the gap for the BJP. It sees in the AIADMK a possible ally but would not want the regional party to dictate terms to it, like Jayalalithaa did.
On the day of Jayalalithaa's last rites, senior BJP leader Venkaiah Naidu had said that his party and the AIADMK were ideologically similar. Sources suggest that Tamil Nadu and the AIADMK are on the BJP radar, with the next Lok Sabha elections in mind. With the party having peaked in Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, it is bound to lose seats in 2019. Tamil Nadu could be one state which could bridge the gap for the BJP. It sees in the AIADMK a possible ally but would not want the regional party to dictate terms to it, like Jayalalithaa did.
Which is why the BJP has been looking closely at the fast-paced political developments within the AIADMK, that are choreographed to anoint Sasikala not just as party chief but even as chief minister. If Sasikala gets elected from RK Nagar, the constituency represented by Jayalalithaa, her election as the next CM is certain, given the entire legislature party wants it. Today's developments, given their political import, would make the AIADMK press the pause button and rethink.
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