On December 31, less than a month after the death of All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam chief Jayalalithaa, Revenue Minister RB Udayakumar demanded that her aide, VK Sasikala, be made chief minister in place of O Panneerselvam. By then, Sasikala had become the general secretary of the AIADMK.
“The party and the government should be led by the same person to ensure stability,” he said, initiating weeks of turmoil that led Panneerselvam to rebel against Sasikala after he was forced to resign as chief minister on February 6.
On Wednesday, in what political opponents described as a “clean political somersault”, Udayakumar heaped praise on Panneerselvam. “We all learnt the virtue of loyalty from Panneerselvam,” he said.
The statement came just an hour before party deputy general secretary and Sasikala’s nephew, TTV Dinakaran, decided to step aside from party affairs, bowing down to the majority opinion in the AIADMK.
The period since Jayalalithaa’s death in December has seen a gripping drama playing out in Tamil Nadu. Though Panneerselvam, who took charge after the long-time leader’s death, stepped aside to allow Sasikala to become chief minister, he soon staged a revolt. In the days before Sasikala could prove her majority, more than 120 of the AIADMK’s 135 MLAs were sequestered in a beach resort, ostensibly to ensure that they would not declare allegiance to Panneerselvam. Some of their relatives alleged that they had been abducted by Sasikala’s supporters.
Though Sasikala was unanimously elected the AIADMK’s legislature party leader, before she could take charge as chief minister, the Supreme Court on February 14 upheld her conviction in a disproportionate assets case and sentenced her to four years in jail. Before setting out for prison in Bangalore, Sasikala quickly appointed Edappadi Palaniswami as chief minister and made her nephew TTV Dinakaran. Palaniswami won a trust vote in the state legislature with the support of 121 MLAs to Panneerselvam’s 11.
But the trouble did not end here. On April 9, the Election Commission cancelled the bye-election to fill Chennai’s RK Nagar seat, which had been held by Jayalalithaa, after allegations that voters were being bribed with cash. It fixed blame on the AIADMK (Amma) faction, whose candidate was Sasikala’s nephew, Dinakaran.
As the AIADMK struggled to contain the chaos, negotiations began to unite the party’s various factions.
Wednesday witnessed the dramatic climax of the developments that rattled the AIADMK over the last six days. With only eight MLAs backing him and majority of ministers wanting his exit, Dinakaran decided to “step aside”.
“I do not have any regrets in leaving the party. I thank all those who supported me,” he said. A meeting of MLAs and party district secretaries Dinakaran had called was cancelled after he realised that it could turn out to be an embarrassment as very few in the party were behind him.
Party officials close to Dinakaran said there were desperate attempts to reach out to MLAs on Tuesday night. The idea was to get the support of enough legislators to ensure that the government won’t survive without Dinakaran’s backing. But even some of the eight MLAs who turned up at Dinakaran’s house on Monday and Tuesday were non-committal on threatening the government. This forced Dinakaran to accept the inevitable.
However, his exit does not mean it would be a smooth sailing for the two factions led by Palaniswamy and Panneerselvam in merging into one unit.
On Wednesday, Udayakumar did not stop with praising Panneerselvam for his loyalty. He suggested that the decision by Chief Minister Palaniswamy to remove Dinakaran was a “supreme sacrifice” for the benefit of the party. This did not go down well with the Panneerselvam faction, which now feels that the strategy of removing Dinakaran could be Palaniswamy’s way of consolidating his position and ensuring that he continues as chief minister.
But some view this as a masterstroke. Since public opinion was against Sasikala family, by getting rid of them, Palaniswamy has assumed the moral high ground. “Here is a chief minister willing to bow down to public opinion. This is how they will try to frame this debate,” an AIADMK MP in Panneerselvam’s team said.
According to the parliamentarian, Palaniswamy has protected his position as chief minister by getting rid of Sasikala family.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a minister said that the Panneerselvam faction had two primary demands: Get rid of Sasikala and Dinakaran and constitute a judicial inquiry into the death of former Chief Minister Jayalalithaa. The first one has now been fulfilled and there is nothing in the AIADMK to stop Palaniswamy from ordering an investigation.
“Panneerselvam said he was not after chief minister’s chair,” the minister added. “We hope he will honour his word.”
If Panneerselvam insists on becoming chief minister again, Palaniswamy feels it would dent his image among the public and paint him as a power-hungry politician. This could help ensure status quo in the government.
Secondly, it would be difficult for Panneerselvam to demand his appointment as general secretary since he has maintained that the post is an elected one in AIADMK and not a nominated one. This is the central point of his challenge of Sasikala’s elevation in the party before the Election Commission of India. Thus, by kicking out Dinakaran, Palaniswamy’s hold on both the government and the party has become stronger.
The minister also said that Panneerselvam’s strength was the support he received from the Centre and the Bharatiya Janata Party, which has little presence in Tamil Nadu and is seen to be seeking alternative methods of influencing the state’s politics. The BJP’s main problem, the minister claimed, was Sasikala. “If they try to pressurise us after this, they will end up being exposed,” the leader said.
However, not many are convinced that the BJP will now stop meddling in AIADMK’s affairs. A party Rajya Sabha member said the Income Tax raids against AIADMK functionaries could continue till Panneerselvam manages to take control of the party and government. “But since Dinakaran is out, we now have a better chance of explaining the BJP’s intentions to the people,” the MP said. “They will be more receptive.”
Further, he said if Palaniswamy manages to weather the storm and retain his position, the BJP might be tempted to reach out to him. “Remember, he belongs to the powerful Gounder community,” the MP said. The BJP will not like to make enemies there.”
One more reason to have friendly ties with a strong Palaniswamy is the upcoming presidential elections. The BJP is short of about 35,000 votes. Given the AIADMK’s strength in the Parliament and the state Assembly (it has 49 MPs and 134 MLAs), it could make BJP’s work very easy.
AIADMK officials said the formal talks to merge the two factions could start as early as on Thursday. “We are hoping Sasikala will also resign in the next few days,” the minister added.