VK Sasikala is all set to be sworn in as the chief minister of Tamil Nadu on February 9. This shocking political development puts the new chief minister, the ruling party — AIADMK — and Tamil Nadu in the spotlight.
India is the world’s most populous modern democracy. Yet, it is caught in the trap of feudal-casteist nepotism and corruption that plague its politics. The ascension of VK Sasikala, alias Sasikala Natarajan — confidante and aide of the late charismatic chief minister, J Jayalalithaa — as the leader of the legislative party of the All India Anna Dravida Munetra Kazhagam (AIADM), is the latest case in point.
This development on February 5 paved the way for her to the office of the chief minister of Tamil Nadu, in southern India. The state has been constantly grabbing the headlines since J Jayalalithaa was admitted to Apollo Hospital last September. Later, her death, and subsequent elevation of O Panneerselvam as the chief minister and the recent popular protests over Jallikattu have made front page news. It doesn’t end there. It looks like Tamil Nadu will continue to hog the limelight in the coming days.
It is important to mention that there is nothing abnormal about Sasikala’s election as the leader of the majority party, despite the fact that she is not even an elected representative of people. And yet, she is all set to become the chief minister. Recent Indian history has witnessed many of the kith and kin of political leaders being sworn to constitutional offices for political expediency. Rajiv Gandhi was sworn in as India’s prime minister in 1984 when his mother and then prime minister, Indira Gandhi was assassinated.
Rabri Devi became the first woman chief minister of Bihar on July 25, 1997, after her husband, Lalu Prasad Yadav had to resign as the chief minister. Her ascension to the CM post followed the arrest warrant issued against her husband under corruption charges. In an unprecedented move, without letting go of the power, he appointed wife Rabri Devi, as the new chief minister of the state.
A video parlour owner
Now, for a peek into the background of Sasikala, the new chief executive officer of the state.
India has been known for producing the largest number of films in the world. Tamil Nadu has the distinction of being one of the Indian states famous for its film factories. That the celluloid world had become the opium for the masses in Tamil Nadu can be gauged from the fact that several stars from the silver screen successfully forayed into politics. First, it was MG Ramachandran, or simply MGR, and later his protégé, J Jayalaithaa, who won the respect and love of the people of Tamil Nadu.
During the 1990s, entertainment in the country also came from video parlours or video libraries that rented video films. Thousands of video parlours mushroomed across the country. Tamil Nadu was no exception, having produced innumerable blockbusters. One such video library was run by Sasikala herself.
Behind every successful woman is an intelligent man. Sasikala was blessed to have the backing of such a man in the form of M Natarajan, whom she married in 1973. The 60-year-old Sasikala, who was a high school dropout from Mannargudi in the Tiruvarur district of Thanjavur, in Tamil Nadu, built her political network thanks to Natarajan who was the public relations officer in the state government. He put her in touch with Jayalalithaa, then a growing leader in the AIADMK, through IAS officer VS Chandralekha. Besides giving video cassettes on rent, Sasikala used to record weddings attended by Jayalalithaa. This helped her to break into her inner circles and entrench herself politically. So much so that the Kallar community of Thevur region that she belongs to, is now well stationed in the party as well as in the bureaucracy across the state. Jayalalithaa too benefitted from the Thevur community vote bank in subsequent elections.
The Jayalalithaa-Sasikala relationship was like a roller coaster ride, with its share of ups and downs over the years. Four years back, in 2012, Jayalalithaa threw out Sasikala from Poes Garden. Members of the Mannargudi cartel (Sasikala’s brothers and their families) were either arrested or forced to go into hiding. Party workers known to be close to them were expelled. But, all was over in the next three months, and within about 100 days, Sasikala was back. Now, it is clear that she has control of the party and government in Tamil Nadu.
With the resignation of O Panneerselvam as the chief minister, AIADMK legislators on Sunday elected General Secretary VK Sasikala as leader of their legislature party. She is all set to take on the mantle of Tamil Nadu’s third woman chief minister, after Janaki Ramachandran who became the first woman chief minister in January 1988, soon after her husband MGR’s death. However, her government lasted only 24 days.
Except the ruling party MLAs, Sasikala does not find favour with anyone else — neither opposition parties, nor her own party cadre or the people of the state. For instance, the leader and working president of the principal opposition party — DMK — MK Stalin has hit out at her, saying, “AIADMK MLAs have chosen VK Sasikala against the wishes of the people of Tamil Nadu.”
Questions are being asked as to why Sasikala, who is being endorsed by all the MLAs, was not given a seat despite the AIADMK contesting all the 234 seats in the Assembly elections last year.
DMK and other political parties will be closely watching the politics within the AIADMK. The ruling AIADMK has 135 seats, followed by DMK at 89, Congress at 8 and IUML at 1. One seat is vacant on account of J Jayalalithaa’s demise.
Sasikala faces several challenges. These include keeping the AIADMK MLAs together. Any rebellion now or later would mean that the bloodless coup she has carefully orchestrated is likely to deal a fatal blow to the very existence of the party itself.
Her second challenge is a lack of communication skills. Delivering a well-drafted script is one thing but negotiating — within the party, with the Opposition and the Central government — is quite another. Even if she is 10 percent as successful as Jayalalithaa was, she will be able to manage the rest of her tenure very well. But, many political observers doubt she will be.
Fondly called ‘Amma’ by the people of Tamil Nadu, the former chief minister who ruled Kollywood for a quarter of a century was not just beautiful, but bold and intelligent. Can Sasikala, who was her personal assistant, and who is now being propped as ‘Chinnamma’ by a handful of supporters, be able to make her way into the people’s hearts? Will this political drama be a hit at the box office?
On the administrative front, Sasikala will have to deal with a host of problems plaguing the state. Severe drought, an ever-worsening farm crisis, economic downturn and uncertainty following the GST bill are expected to have an adverse effect on the state’s economy. Tamil Nadu currently has a deficit of INR 158.55 billion.
But, her greatest challenge remains the legal cases against her. The Supreme Court of India is all set to pronounce its verdict next week in the INR 630 million disproportionate assets case against Sasikala, sister-in-law Ilavarasi and Sudhakaran, Jayalalithaa’s foster son. Jayalalithaa is the main accused in this case.
The apex court is hearing the Karnataka government’s plea challenging the high court acquittal of 60-year-old Sasikala and three others. The verdict will be pronounced by a division bench comprising Justices PC Ghose and Amitava Roy.
Besides, the Madras High Court last week set aside Sasikala’s discharge in at least four Enforcement Directorate-investigated cases. This has added to her cup of woes. It exposes her to trial in all these cases. There is already an appeal by the ED pending in the Supreme Court relating to her non-appearance despite the ED summons in a FERA violations case.
Cases against her, her husband and her immediate family members have picked up momentum for now.
The Constitution of India clearly provides that the governor has to invite the leader of the majority party to form the government in a state. Sasikala has to get elected from any one of the constituencies in the 234-strong assembly. This process has to be completed within six months of her taking charge as chief minister.
One wonders whether she will contest in RK Nagar, Chennai, which has fallen vacant after Jayalalithaa’s death. Interestingly, this assembly seat has gone to AIADMK since 2001. During the last two assembly elections, the seat was won by Jayalalithaa. However, given the intense disgust among the general public against Sasikala, this may not be an easy task for the AIADMK. She may have to seek a safer burrow in Kallar-dominated Tiruvarur to secure and save her immediate political future, if any.
The BJP at the Centre may not resort to any political misadventure in Tamil Nadu as the crucial presidential election is scheduled before July 25.
For now, the question is, whether Sasikala’s tenure will be short, similar to that of Janaki Ramachandran, or whether she will stay longer in Fort St George, home to the Tamil Nadu legislative assembly and the state government’s secretariat.