Courting Controversy

Mystery over Jayalalithaa’s death deepens as AIADMK leaders point fingers at Sasikala

As party leaders accuse Sasikala of making them lie about their ailing chief’s health, questions also arise about her final decisions.

Claims by senior members of the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in Tamil Nadu that party leaders lied about former Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa’s condition during her 75-day hospital spell last year have raised serious questions about her death. Jayalalithaa was admitted in Chennai’s Apollo Hospital on September 22, 2016, for “dehydration and fever” and died on December 5 after suffering a cardiac arrest.

At a public meeting on Friday, Forest Minister Dindigul Srinivasan apologised to the state’s people for misleading them about the former party chief’s condition. He said access to the intensive care unit where Jayalalithaa was kept was secured by her aide VK Sasikala and her family. No one, not even O Panneerselvam, who held the chief minister’s portfolio in Jayalalithaa’s absence, was allowed to see her, he added.

Srinivasan also said senior party leaders spread false information about Jayalalithaa’s condition because they feared Sasikala’s family.

Backing his claims, his party colleague C Ponnaiyan – who had briefed the media almost every day during Jayalalithaa’s hospitalisation – told Scroll.in that party leaders had only parroted the information Sasikala’s family members had given them.

Their remarks came days after the party removed Sasikala as interim general secretary and her nephew TTV Dinakaran as deputy general secretary on September 12. Jayalalithaa’s death had split the party three ways with Sasikala and Dinakaran heading one faction. The other two were led by Panneerselvam, now the state’s deputy chief minister, and Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami. Panneerselvam and Palaniswami merged their factions in August.

On August 17, Palaniswami had announced an inquiry into Jayalalithaa’s death. And on Monday, his government appointed former Madras High Court judge A Arumugasamy to head the investigation committee.

These developments not only raise questions about Jayalalithaa’s death but also some of the decisions attributed to her during her hospitalisation. For instance, at a high-level meeting with Karnataka in Delhi last September over the sharing of the waters of the Cauvery river, the Tamil Nadu government had read out a speech purportedly dictated by the chief minister from her hospital bed. The ruling party had also used her thumb impression in the nomination papers of three candidates during elections to two Assembly seats and bye-polls to one seat in October.

The Opposition has now questioned the veracity of the thumb impressions, demanding to know if Jayalalithaa was conscious when they were taken. However, the Sasikala camp has called the controversy an attempt to corner her and said they have evidence to back their stand that nothing suspicious happened during Jayalalithaa’s hospital stay. Sasikala is currently imprisoned in Bengaluru, serving a four-year sentence in a corruption case.

‘No one was allowed to meet her’

Srinivasan said on Friday, “Nobody saw Amma [Jayalalithaa] eating idli or drinking tea or chatting… all are lies.” He added, “We were afraid of Sasikala at that time and lied about Jayalalithaa’s health condition.”

Ponnaiyan said, “No one was allowed to meet her.” The former minister added that Sasikala’s family members stopped party members from seeing Jayalalithaa by saying that they could spread infections. “Even the governor was not allowed to see her,” he said.

When asked why he and other ministers had said at one point that Jayalalithaa was improving, Ponnaiyan said this was the version given to them. “Even then, doubts were raised by the public through social media, which made us uncomfortable,” he added.

Controversy over thumb impressions

On the matter of Jayalalithaa’s thumb impressions on her party candidates’ nomination papers, Ponnaiyan said no one knows how they were obtained. “The simple fact is we cannot tell whether she was conscious or not,” he said.

Elections to the Thanjavur and Aravakurichi seats during Assembly polls in May 2016 were countermanded in the wake of allegations of voters being bribed and were held along with the bye-poll to the Tiruparangundram seat, which fell vacant after the incumbent’s death.

Election Commission of India officials said they were yet to look into reports of a possible fudging of Jayalalithaa’s thumb impressions. No complaint has yet reached them, a senior official said on condition of anonymity.

State government officials said the investigation committee headed by the retired judge would establish the facts and action would be initiated after it submitted its report.

Dinakaran’s video defence

Rejecting the allegations as false, Dinakaran said his aunt Sasikala had shot a video of Jayalalithaa at the hospital and the family members would present it as evidence to the investigation committee, if summoned. “We did not release the video because the leader was in her night dress and did not wish those clips to come out,” he said.

Meanwhile, a minister said party leaders had decided against questioning the treatment given to Jayalalithaa not out of fear of Sasikala but because it might anger the chief minister herself if and when she found out. “Our only worry was we might be pulled up by Amma if we did anything without her permission,” said the minister, who did not wish to be identified.

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