Kitsch and skulduggery in Chennai as the struggle for power and legacy pits the ambitious against the dutiful
TWO MONTHS AFTER a complex monarch died a most complex death, her legacy is being contested by a woman who wants everything and a man who has nothing. The two leaves of the AIADMK, symbolising sustenance and life, have split at the stem, exposing the pathologies of Tamil Nadu politics—a rot that has its roots in the late AIADMK chief J Jayalalithaa’s absolutism. An empire of over 150,000 party workers, which O Panneerselvam, the newly-minted rebel-in-chief, referred to as ‘an unshakeable fort’ less than a year ago, now stands unsteady in the interstices of power, drawn to the knight-errant who has set out to find the true north of his political career, even as party MLAs throw their lot with VK Sasikala, the self-appointed captain of the crew who hopes to keep the raft afloat. In the fragile space of Tamil Nadu politics post Jayalalithaa’s death, she did, indeed, appear to be the sole figure capable of taking control, adroitly stepping into Jayalalithaa’s shoes as AIADMK general secretary, wearing her benefactor’s Iyengar tika and chignon, driving her cars, operating from 36 Poes Garden, and calling the shots with an authority seemingly vested in her by the caretaker Chief Minister. Her endless reservoir of wealth, influence and family members, however, could not ease her ascent to the throne, as the Tamil Nadu Governor, C Vidyasagar Rao, went awol to avoid swearing her in on December 7th, two days after the AIADMK parliamentary party elected her as its leader, a position traditionally held by the party general secretary.
With the swearing-in ceremony put off indefinitely, the stained glass-studded 19th-century campus of Madras University facing Marina beach, deserted but for TV news crews and a few students, was a picture of thwarted expectations. Security equipment and barricades meant for the event were being hauled out in trucks, returned like bad pennies. Policewomen lounged under giant old trees, opening parcels of food, grateful for the break. Jayalalithaa had taken oath at the Madras University Centenary Auditorium five times out of six—other than the one time at Raj Bhavan in 2001, soon after which she had to step down as Chief Minister following a series of convictions—and Sasikala may have hoped the venue would prove lucky for her too. But she has several swords hanging over her yet-uncrowned head, including allegations of foul play in Jayalalithaa’s death, the possibility of conviction in the disproportionate assets case that is pending judgment, and widespread discontent in the state against her shockingly swift rise in politics.
Even more shocking, though, has been the revolt of O Panneerselvam, a man of pious platitudes and benign ambitions who decided, on the sleepless night of February 7th, to cast aside the bit part assigned to him and to take centrestage. His 40-minute-long meditation at Jayalalithaa’s final resting place on the Marina is an act that merits immense consideration—the silence so different from his political acquiescence so far, a calm before the storm, a hint of the inner strength and composure no one knew he had. Even so, it could have made him look like a sentimental reactionary if it wasn’t followed by a speech that threatened to scupper Sasikala’s plans. Speaking with affecting sincerity of the humiliations he suffered at the hands of Sasikala and her family, he evoked every emotion in the Tamil belly, and amid a rising chorus of ‘we are with you’, alleged that he had been forced to resign as Chief Minister—a charge that could potentially influence the Governor’s decision to allow Sasikala’s takeover. The contents of the speech were ‘known knowns’, to borrow Donald Rumsfeld’s famous phrase; it was Panneerselvam who was the unknown. Who was this man? Despite assuming office thrice, he had always been a stand-in—a stepney, as the Twitterati liked to call him—apparently uninterested in playing for the glory stakes. An object of public derision who had only recently won acceptance as an able administrator, could he now become the hero Tamil Nadu needed to take on someone it considered an imposter?
There was no wiping the smile from Panneerselvam’s face as an even bigger crowd of reporters and supporters mobbed him. He had nothing to lose and everything to gain from crossing swords with Sasikala, the most powerful and also the most reviled woman in Tamil Nadu
It is tempting to believe that he was encouraged to defect by the BJP, or manipulated by the DMK as Sasikala has alleged, but nothing could be farther from the truth. Though opposition leaders have empathised with him, he has shown that he can hold his own. Some of his campaign speeches from the past are peppered with inspired oratory. He dazzled the media with his vicious wit when he responded to Sasikala’s late night recrimination about an exchange of smiles between him and DMK leader Stalin in the Assembly. “A smile is what separates us from animals. It is what makes us human,” he said—with a smile. Senior DMK leader Durai Murugan says Panneerselvam is a rare Tamil politician who is respectful and civil. “It was during his chief ministership that members of the ruling and the opposition parties started behaving respectfully towards one another on the Assembly floor. There was no personal animosity,” he says. “I have smiled at Jayalalithaa on several occasions and when the media asks me why, I joke that she wanted to know if the sambar was tasty. Sasikala is being just as silly, harping on a smile, a mere courtesy.”
Qualifications, professional or aptitudinal, do not matter in politics. Sasikala, with most of the 134 MLAs supporting her, considered her future secured, even if, just to be sure, she had to call a press conference of Apollo doctors to allay suspicions of any funny business in the former Chief Minister’s death. Even opposition leaders are stunned at the Governor’s delaying tactics and allege the Centre had a hand in this impropriety. S Thirunavukkarasar, the TNCC president, says it is undemocratic to delay her oath after her election by the legislative party. “Even if the Supreme Court verdict goes against her, she must be sworn in, even if it is just for a day,” he says. A large contingent of AIADMK MLAs from the Sasikala camp is expected to travel to Delhi to argue their case even as legal experts have advised that the decision be put off until the verdict is out. Still, the morning after Panneerselvam pulled a Mark Antony on the sands of the Marina, Sasikala cut a sombre figure addressing the media at Poes Garden, her edge blunted by the ignominy of the slip between the cup and the lip. But there was no wiping the smile from Panneerselvam’s face as an even bigger crowd of reporters and supporters mobbed him outside his residence on Greenways Road in Chennai. He had nothing to lose and everything to gain from crossing swords with Sasikala, the most powerful woman in Tamil Nadu who was also the most reviled woman in the state.
Addressing a public meeting in Madurai in late 2015, Panneerselvam had reproved the opposition parties for lacking a singular, charismatic leader. “There is only one leader in our party and that is Amma. Look at the opposition parties. Ahead of the Assembly elections, they are fighting over who will be made CM,” he had said. “A chief minister is not someone you can pick up like country jaggery from a shop. The people’s goodwill must reside with the candidate.” Panneerselvam may have accrued some goodwill but he cannot yet muster the 117 MLAs he needs to stake a claim, or even the number required under the Anti Defection Act to split from the AIADMK. He has, however, struck Sasikala where it hurts by challenging her claims of a united AIADMK and wooing a handful of MLAs sympathetic to his cause, promising a judicial enquiry into the death of Jayalalithaa, and seeking out the late leader’s estranged niece Deepa Jayakumar.
Their uncanny kinship was exhaustingly tenacious, always surviving the worst. Now, in the face of strident opposition, Sasikala has once again shown she has the temerity to stake claim to Jayalalithaa’s political legacy
ON JANUARY 17TH, the day of MGR’s 100th birth anniversary celebrations, It was Deepa’s turn to cast Sasikala as the villain in the morality tale of succession in Tamil Nadu. Hundreds gathered at the MGR memorial on the Marina, hailing a politically-untested Deepa as the ‘leader of the future’, the ‘only heir’ and a ‘diamond lady’, not only because she was related to their Amma, but because they needed to believe there was an alternative to Sasikala. Women proclaimed her a murderer and men berated her as a ‘maidservant’, encysting her in tiresome clichés. The song Yematradhe yemaradhe (Do not cheat, do not get cheated) from the MGR-Jayalalithaa starrer Adimaippen (1969) blared from loudspeakers as busloads of people, many of them dressed to the nines, continued to crowd the memorial, feeling, I was sure, like they were about to make history. If Deepa could fan the spark of her newfound celebrity with the bellows of public opinion against Sasikala, Panneerselvam, an AIADMK veteran, certainly picked the right time to speak up.
Sasikala may have suspected a revolt was in the works. The signs were there: the BJP’s tacit support of Panneerselvam, the run-ins at public events, the removal of three top bureaucrats—Sheela Balakrishnan, adviser to the Tamil Nadu government, A Ramalingam, the Chief Minister’s secretary, and KN Venkataramanan, principal secretary— by the Chief Minister ostensibly on Sasikala’s advice. Panneerselvam has claimed in his mutinous speech that Sasikala did not like the spotlight being on him, whether it was the gratitude pouring in for his facilitation of the emergency ordinance allowing Jallikattu, or his handling of relief work after cyclone Vardah.
Sasikala was indeed vindictive towards people who stood between her and Jayalalithaa, says a former AIADMK MLA who is now a DMK functionary. He came under her line of fire in 1996 for suggesting that the party give a ticket to a senior leader from southern Tamil Nadu who had not been fielded in the last election. He holds Sasikala responsible for systematically sidelining senior leaders in the AIADMK, including MGR proteges like Thirunavukkarasar, who was expelled thrice. In the political turmoil that followed MGR’s death in 1987, Thirunavukkarasar, who had backed Jayalalithaa against the short-lived RM Veerappan-Janaki faction, was concerned for her security, especially after spying a van full of men parked not far from her residence. So he arranged for a security contingent from a karate academy to be deployed outside. Sasikala and members of her family, who were by then firmly entrenched in Veda Nilayam, did not appreciate this, and installed their own men instead. A clash ensued and it made headlines in the local papers. Thirunavukkarasar would later allege that she forced him out of the party sensing a threat to her power. He would dub the family ‘Mannargudi mafia’ for their flagrant abuse of power, a term that has stuck even if there is just one key relative—V Divaharan—who now operates from the temple town of Mannargudi in Tiruvarur district.
The two leaves of the AIADMK, symbolising sustenance and life, have split at the stem, exposing the pathologies of Tamil Nadu politics—a rot that has its roots in Jayalalithaa’s absolutism
The protagonist and the challenger in the ruthless game of thrones playing out in Tamil Nadu have much in common. They are both Thevars, an influential caste in Tamil politics, Sasikala, the daughter of a medical compounder from Thiruthiraipoondi, and Panneerselvam, born to a farmer in Periakulam. Importantly, they have both transcended their circumstances to become stakeholders in Tamil Nadu politics. Neither of them was considered particularly brilliant or worthy of an important role in the AIADMK, and perhaps that is why Jayalalithaa chose to keep them around. There was nothing remarkable about Sasikala, a bored housewife married to a government servant, R Natarajan, the Cuddalore district PRO who worked under the state’s first woman IAS officer, VS Chandralekha. Natarajan was good at his job, for he not only ensured his boss got positive coverage in the media, but also enlisted his wife Sasikala—they were childless—to babysit Chandralekha’s son. In the early 1980s, when MGR elevated Chandralekha to the post of urban development secretary, Natarajan and his wife followed her to Chennai. Chandralekha got along famously with Jayalalithaa, the then propaganda secretary of the AIADMK for whom she had organised a successful rally. Natarajan saw opportunity in the relationship— Jayalalithaa’s political star was on the rise, with MGR making her a Rajya Sabha member—and told Chandralekha that his wife would like to shoot a propaganda film about Jayalalithaa. A camera was bought and the IAS officer introduced Sasikala to the charismatic actor, a meeting that must have kindled a coup de foudre. Soon enough, the videographer who shot Jayalalithaa’s political rallies for Rs 5,000 a pop became a constant companion, eventually making not just domestic but political decisions for her.
Their uncanny kinship was exhaustingly tenacious, rising and falling with election-like cyclicality, but always surviving the worst. What hasn’t changed in Sasikala in all these years is her indifference to the norms of a silencing society. She preferred to remain by Jayalalithaa’s side rather than her husband’s. She defied Jayalalithaa, too, indulging her conniving family despite her soul sister’s disapproval and blatantly encouraging corruption on a scale that finally landed the both of them in the law’s net. Jayalalithaa forgave her many indiscretions, including, most notably, a betrayal by Natarajan that caused her much grief. In 1989, Jayalalithaa, impelled in a frantic moment to contemplate ending her political career, wrote a letter announcing her resignation as the leader of the opposition. She didn’t mean it, but the letter fell into Natarajan’s hands and the DMK discovered it in a raid of his Abiramapuram residence. Natarajan was expelled from Veda Nilayam but Sasikala stayed on. Now, in the face of strident public opposition, Sasikala has once again shown she has the temerity to stake claim to Jayalalithaa’s political legacy.
The palpable anger against Sasikala cannot, however, be wished away. At Nochikuppam, a fishermen’s settlement on the seafront in Chennai, 48-year-old R Sumati, who is selling prawns and pomfret under a blue umbrella, says she has always voted for the AIADMK, but it is time to try something else. “If that woman stands as the leader, I will forever lose my faith in the party. Stalin seems to be better, he talks like he is pro-people,” she says, tossing a descaled fish into an ice box behind her. “Tell me, if Amma wanted Sasikala to be CM, why didn’t she ever appoint her to a party post? We have only heard her voice twice and she wants to be our CM. Would MGR stand for this instant gratification?”
Panneerselvam, who has dubbed himself Jayalalithaa’s conscience keeper, has won Tamil Nadu’s trust over time. In 2008, Jayalalithaa spoke fondly of his slow and steady rise through the party ranks and said that “a political career was not like making instant coffee”. Born Pechimuthu in a farming and money lending family and later renamed Panneerselvam, he ran a dairy farm and a tea and snacks stall in Periakulam, a town in Theni district. In the 1980s, he found himself drawn to the politics of MGR, and plunged full time into party work. It was only in 1996 that he became chairman of the Periakulam municipality, but the following years put his career on a fast track, thanks to his friendship with TTV Dinakaran, Sasikala’s nephew who was the then Periakulam MP. It is widely believed that Dinakaran was the force behind Panneerselvam getting the Periakulam Assembly seat in 2001, and the reason he was installed as the puppet chief minister to stand in for Jayalalithaa, who had been barred from holding office, the same year. Six months later, upon her return, he readily gave up the seat, announcing himself as a loyalist and showing the first signs of the man who would break into hiccuping sobs upon Jayalalithaa’s conviction in the disproportionate assets case in 2014. When Sasikala realised she had groomed her match in Panneerselvam, we will never know. His speech on February 7th had an almost incantatory power over listeners, as he channelled his usual humility, speaking in a confiding rather than a heroic tone about how he will not allow Amma’s legacy to be desecrated.
The wheel of fortune is still turning and the fight may yet turn ugly—Panneerselvam has refused to accept his removal as party treasurer and written to banks, his co-conspirators have leaked contact details of MLAs on Sasikala’s side, and the war of words is getting darker by the hour— but the events of the past few days will be an endless source of narrative possibility when we sit down to write the story of modern-day Tamil Nadu. May this chapter of its history never repeat itself.