In February 2017, before heading to Bengaluru to surrender before a court, VK Sasikala stopped by the grave of J Jayalalithaa on Marina Beach in Chennai. She slapped the grave three times. The dramatic gesture, many believe, was nothing short of a vow to return to Tamil Nadu as its chief minister someday.

Sasikala had served as Jayalalithaa’s closest friend and aide for nearly three decades until the former chief minister and leader of the All India Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam died in December 2016. The second most powerful person in the party, Sasikala made a bid for the chief minister’s post after Jayalalithaa’s death. But her bid was cut short by the Supreme Court upholding her conviction under the Prevention of Corruption Act for amassing assets disproportionate to her known income. A lower court had sentenced her to four years in jail.

Much has changed in the AIADMK in the three years since Sasikala went to jail. O Panneerselvam, the acting chief minister of Tamil Nadu when Jayalalithaa died, who dramatically revolted against Sasikala and her family, eventually merged his faction with the parent party in 2018 and became the deputy chief minister.

Edappadi K Palaniswamy, who prostrated before Sasikala at a legislature party meeting when she picked him as chief minister just before she headed to jail, disowned her and her family and cemented his position by joining hands with Panneerselvam.

Sasikala’s nephew TTV Dinakaran fought for the AIADMK’s “two leaves” symbol, lost the cause and launched the Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam in 2018. When he won the RK Nagar bye-poll in December 2017, the seat that Jayalalithaa held until she died, he was seen as a formidable emerging force who could disrupt the plans of the original AIADMK. But his party failed miserably in the Lok Sabha elections and several bye-elections held last year and has since remained mostly muted.

With the elections to the Tamil Nadu Assembly scheduled to take place in April 2021, the prospect of Sasikala’s release has become a major talking point in the state. Would her return rekindle the simmering problems in the AIADMK or would the ruling party be able to neutralise her political maneuvering?

Credit: PTI

Release from prison

Sasikala’s prison term ends in February 2021, but prison rules allow the authorities to release a prisoner early on grounds of good behaviour.

The possible term reduction could be as much as five months, said Sasikala’s lawyer, Raja Sendura Pandian. While her original term is for 48 months, this could come down to 43 months. This means, if the jail authorities allow it, Sasikala could be out any time.

However, an AIADMK official said that Sasikala’s conviction was under the Prevention of Corruption Act. “Karnataka is under Bharatiya Janata Party rule now. Being a national party, it may not be conducive for the BJP to release a corruption convict before the term ends,” said the official, who did not want to be identified.

A possible reason why AIADMK officials do not want to publicly make an argument against Sasikala’s early release is because Jayalalithaa too was found guilty in the same case. Charges against her, however, abated since she died before the Supreme Court delivered its verdict in 2017.

IT proceedings

However, in a curious coincidence, with Sasikala’s release inching closer, the Income Tax department in August reportedly began the process of attaching her properties. According to media reports, which were based on conversations with anonymous IT department officials, the properties were estimated to be worth around Rs 300 crore. Some had been to be purchased through benamis or proxies, the officials claimed, including a bungalow being built opposite Jayalalithaa’s residence in Chennai’s posh Poes Garden area.

VK Sasikala with J Jayalalithaa. Credit: PTI

Jayalalithaa’s residence, in the meantime, is being taken over by the state government, which is planning to convert a part of it into the chief minister’s official residence and part of it as a museum. This is despite the fact that Jayalalithaa’s nephew J Deepak and niece J Deepa have been declared as the former chief minister’s legal heirs. The decision to convert her house into the chief minister’s official residence came after a suggestion by the Madras High Court in its ruling that declared Deepak and Deepa as Jayalalithaa’s legal heirs. But many in the AMMK believe the state government’s eagerness to take over Jayalalithaa’s home was aimed at thwarting any attempt by Sasikala to return to the building where she had spent nearly three decades of her life.

The Income Tax department’s recent action seems to be part of a series of proceedings against Sasikala and her family since 2017. According to a report in The Hindu, the department told the Madras High Court in 2019 that properties worth Rs 1,600 crore belonging to Sasikala had been attached under the Benami Transactions (Prohibition) Act. Some of the properties were allegedly purchased using demonetised currency notes.

In February 2020, the IT department reiterated before the court that it was justified in attaching the properties illegally bought with demonetised cash between November 8, 2016 and December 30, 2016.

With the Bharatiya Janata Party currently in alliance with the AIADMK in Tamil Nadu, the latest round of Income Tax action has raised doubts over whether it is an attempt to ensure Sasikala does not create any trouble for AIADMK after she is released.

An Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam leader close to TTV Dinakaran said that if the aim of the tax proceedings was to intimidate Sasikala, the attempt would fail. “Along with Amma (Jayalalithaa), she had faced cases and jail terms since the 1990s,” said the leader, who is a former member of the state assembly. “If these cases did not make her give up politics, will a couple of IT cases achieve it?”

The leader said Sasikala’s release is bound to cause a flutter in the AIADMK, especially closer to elections. “When election ticket distribution starts, many who are left out would invariably try to jump ship. Their first choice will be AMMK,” the leader claimed.

The AIADMK itself saw internal bickering last month when loyalists of Panneerselvam and Palaniswamy put out posters declaring their leaders as the chief ministerial candidate for the 2021 polls. Both leaders issued a joint statement asking party members to desist from such infighting.

Senior AIADMK leaders have maintained in public that Sasikala’s release will not affect the party in anyway. In a press conference last month, Fisheries Minister D Jayakumar said the party will stick to its decision of keeping her and her family away from the party. “Our stand is consistent yesterday, today and tomorrow, it will hold good. Sasikala or her family have no place in the AIADMK or the government,” he declared.