Friday may go down as the day when the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam unraveled. The followers of the party, which has ruled Tamil Nadu intermittently for 26 years since it first came to power under the iconic MG Ramachandran in 1977, are now split into three units, weakening an organisation that only last May had won a comfortable majority in the state elections.

Ironically, the day on which the cracks in the organisation grew wider was the birth anniversary of J Jayalalithaa, the party supremo and Tamil Nadu chief minister who died on December 5.

On Friday evening, Jayalalithaa’s niece Deepa Jayakumar announced that she was starting a platform, the MGR Amma Deepa Peravai. She also declared that she would contest the by-elections.

She joins a power struggle that is already being fought between VK Sasikala, a close aide of Jayalalithaa who officially leads the AIADMK despite being in jail, and former Chief Minister O Panneerselvam.

Crucial by-election

Celebrations of Jayalalithaa’s birth anniversary were especially intense in Chennai’s Dr Radhakrishnan Nagar, which had been the leader’s constituency from 2014 till she died. In May, a by-election will be held to fill the vacant seat, making it a crucial battle ground for the various factions in the ruling AIADMK to prove their support.

Former Chief Minister Panneerselvam, who took office hours after Jayalalithaa died, was in the area to give away free bicycles and kitchen utensils to families. He had resigned from the position on Feburary 5, to allow Sasikala to take his place. But two days later, OPS – as the AIADMK leader is known – claimed he had been forced to step down. Since then, a tussle for power has raged between factions led by Panneerselvam and Sasikala.

Adding to the uncertainty is the fact that Sasikala was convicted in an illegal wealth case on February 14 and sent to jail for four years.

VK Sasikala at Jayalalithaa's funeral. Credit: PTI

Failed alliance

After the verdict against Sasikala and two others made it clear that Jayalalithaa, who was the prime accused in the matter, was also guilty in the disproportionate assets case, supporters of both Panneerselvam and Deepa Jayakumar put up a defence of the late leader. They claimed that Jayalalithaa was not corrupt, but had been manipulated by Sasikala and her family.

However, even though Panneerselvam and Jayakumar had a common enemy in Sasikala, it wasn’t clear whether they would join forces to fight for control of the party and the state government, which is led by Sasikala loyalist Edappadi K Palaniswami.

When asked about Deepa Jayakumar decision to start her own federation, Panneerselvam said that if Jayalalithaa’s niece was willing to join his faction, she was most welcome.

But even on February 16 when they paid homage together at Jayalalithaa’s memorial, it was quite clear that the Panneerselvam faction was of no use to Deepa Jayakumar. Shortly after Jayalalithaa died in December, Jayakumar made it clear that she would want to be her aunt’s political heir.

Had she joined hands with Panneerselvam, she would have had to play second fiddle to the former chief minister, who has 40 years of political experience behind him and currently enjoys the support of a battery of senior AIADMK leaders, parliamentarians and legislators.

The absence of an alliance between Deepa Jayakumar and Panneerselvam has clearly disappointed their supporters.

“Deepa has not come to this camp and spoken to the people,” said Sujatha, a member of the transgender community who supports Panneerselvam.

Striking resemblance

On Friday, AIADMK supporters from across Tamil Nadu gathered outside Deepa Jayakumar’s residence in T Nagar. The fact that Jayakumar had a striking resemblance to her aunt has captured the imagination of some supporters. Many villagers from neighbouring districts of Tiruvallur and Kancheepuram had travelled to see the person whom they felt was the true heir to Jayalalithaa.

“We wanted to see what she looked like,” said M Rajeshwari, a domestic worker.

Photographs of Jayalalithaa and her niece were displayed for sale on the roadside. But there were no pictures of Panneerselvam, indicating that the alliance may never happen.

“Nobody is asking me for Panneerselvam’s pictures,” said J Rajesh, a postcard salesman. “Deepa is far more popular. She is the actual blood of Jayalalithaa. In a few years, she will be the leader of Tamil Nadu.”

This sympathy for Jayalalithaa means that Deepa Jayakumar’s inexperience in politics doesn’t matter, though some did question the obvious contradiction of her husband being present at Friday’s press conference even as she vowed to rescue the AIADMK from family rule. Another odd feature that became a talking point was the self-aggrandising manner in which she placed her name along with MGR’s and Jayalalithaa’s in the name of the federation she launched – the MGR Amma Deepa Peravai.

But supporters like S Manivalan, an autodriver, were hopeful. “We want to support this young girl because she is educated and seems knowledgeable,” he said.