Former AIADMK leader V Sasikala, a former Machiavellian force in Tamil Nadu politics, is all set to return to Chennai on February 7, after a short stay at a resort outside Bengaluru. Her return is, however, viewed with anxiety and trepidation by regional political parties, especially the ruling AIADMK.
In the latest “reaction” to her impending arrival, the AIADMK has temporarily shut the Jayalalithaa memorial that was opened in Chennai on January 27. This has been done to complete some pending construction work within the premises, however Sasikala’s supporters claim that it has been done to prevent her from visiting the memorial.
The last time, Sasikala visited Jayalalithaa’s grave, she had indulged in major theatrics by thumping on it and making three vows only known to her!
Sasikala, who was always one for optics, is expected to travel by road to her home state, accompanied by her supporters in a massive show of strength, said media reports. Her plans were revealed by her nephew and Amma Makkal Munnettra Kazagam (AMMK) leader TTV Dhinakaran, who is pulling out all the stops to welcome her back with a bang.
On January 27, Sasikala, who had been imprisoned in February 2017 in a ₹66 crore disproportionate assets case, was released after four years of imprisonment. She was recovering from COVID-19 at Victoria Hospital when the release orders were served to her.
On Monday (February 1) morning, Sasikala, also known as Chinnamma, walked free when she left the hospital amid a lot of cheering and slogan shouting by 300-odd supporters. Flower petals were showered on her, as she drove off in a Toyota Land Cruiser Prado, which was part of an eight-car convoy. The significance of her use of an SUV was not lost on anyone, since that was one of the vehicles used by the former Tamil Nadu chief minister, the late Jayalalithaa.
The AIADMK flag poised on the car, which took her to a farmhouse, caused consternation back in Chennai. Jittery AIADMK leaders immediately reacted to the flag, warning legal action would be taken against anyone not a member, misusing their flag. Minister D Jayakumar went on to say, “She is not associated with the party in anyway. She is not even a primary member of the AIADMK. How can she use the party flag?”
The release of Sasikala, who was the force behind the regime of former TN CM Jayalalithaa, could not have come at a worse time for the ruling party AIADMK. The faction-ridden party is nervous about Chinnamma, who had done all she could to don the mantle of Thalaivi soon after Jayalalithaa’s demise, and had all the party members grovelling at her feet. And, now she has emerged like a phoenix from jail at a critical juncture in TN politics with an assembly election around the corner in April-May.
Edappadi Palaniswami, the man Sasikala had anointed as chief minister when she had to go to jail, is uneasy. His behaviour since the news of her arrival indicates that he is not confident about his own party members. He has made it clear that the doors of the party are shut to Sasikala, and he has even hatched an elaborate plan to steal the thunder from Sasikala’s return by inaugurating Jayalalithaa’s memorial on Marina beach on January 27, the original date she was to be released on before COVID struck her.
Some party members will probably flock to her, a fact that a senior AIADMK member acknowledged in the media, when he said, “Any party will have dissidents and even if some unhappy members join her, it will not impact us.” A section of the AIADMK, however, does not want to rock the status quo of the dual leadership of Palaniswami-Paneeerselvam that is going on well. Meanwhile, the ruling party’s ally, the BJP, has not publicly commented on Sasikala’s release. At least three senior leaders have said that AIADMK will have to decide if she has to be inducted into the party.
Though there is a lot of speculation, Sasikala’s political intentions at this stage are unclear. However, she cannot contest either the assembly or the parliamentary elections till January 27, 2027, but she has no legal bar to lead a party.
A close associate of Sasikala, however, has said her top priority was to ensure she gains control of the AIADMK again.
“She took three vows on the tomb of Jayalalithaa amma before she left for jail. She will now want to make those come true,” the associate said.
Sasikala will however not be able to return to Jayalalithaa’s home, Veda Nilayam in Poes Garden, where she had stayed for close to three decades. Palaniswami upstaged her by turning it into a memorial. So, Sasikala’s motorcade from Bengaluru will weave its way to No 179, Habibullah Road, Thyagaraya Nagar, in the city.
The death of the all-powerful Jayalalithaa on December 5, 2016, was followed by an intense power struggle in the AIADMK. O Panneerselvam, who had stepped in to serve as chief minister when Jayalalithaa was jailed on corruption charges, became caretaker CM after her death.
Two months later, on February 7, 2017, Sasikala was chosen by the AIADMK governing council as the chief minister of Tamil Nadu, replacing OPS. The two entered into a power struggle but Sasikala’s past caught up with her.
Within hours of her conviction by the Supreme Court in the disproportionate assets case on February 14, 2017, Sasikala, who was general secretary of the AIADMK, handpicked EPS to replace OPS. And, she expelled OPS and 19 other leaders for anti-party activities. However, in a matter of months, OPS struck a compromise with EPS and returned to the AIADMK fold, becoming deputy CM and chairman of the party’s steering committee. And, one of the first things he did was expel Sasikala from the AIADMK.
Since then, Palaniswami and Panneerselvam have had a healthy working relationship, and the rebellions within the party have been quelled, with the focus shifting to governance. Now, their cosy twosome is going to be disrupted by a third force.