IT’S 7 AM at the Marina, and there is already a long line snaking around J Jayalalithaa’s grave nearly a week after her death, the numbers increasing every minute. The former chief minister and leader of the All-India Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) was laid to rest a couple of hundred metres from the waters of the Bay of Bengal, in the same marble-and-granite complex where party founder and her mentor M G Ramachandran was buried. “Move on, move on,” says a policeman, as people stop to take pictures of the site under a white canopy. A man is laying out a bed of fresh roses under a big, framed photograph of Jayalalithaa, as if the departed leader is looking over her grave.
“Amma is irreplaceable,” says Selvi, an AIADMK women’s wing worker from Erode, her head covered in a white scarf with the red-white-black AIADMK border as she rests on a grassy patch at the memorial. She and her friend Sulochana, also a party worker, reached Chennai a couple of hours earlier to pay their respects to “Amma”. Selvi’s son, a party councillor in a local body, is awaiting his turn with scores of other men to have his head tonsured, as a mark of grief.
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As Selvi talks about Jayalalithaa, her voice grows loud and agitated. “For 75 days, we were not allowed even a glimpse of our Amma. When they could show photos of MGR in hospital, why could they not show her,” says Selvi, asking, “Who was responsible for that?” As if answering her own question, she says, “We can never accept that person as the leader of the party.” As V K Sasikala moves to take control of the AIADMK, appearing to have overcome an early challenge from within and lining up leaders to back her for the post of general secretary, the next challenge would be to earn the respect of the party rank-and-file.
Since Jayalalithaa’s passing on Monday night, huge resentment has been building up against Sasikala among the footsoldiers who form the massive cadre-based backbone of the AIADMK. The main theme is that party cadres were not allowed to meet their leader in her last days in hospital, with the perception that Sasikala was responsible. A group of women from Jayalalithaa’s R K Nagar constituency in Chennai walk in with a banner proclaiming their loyalty to her. “No way, Sasikala is not my Amma. She will never be my leader,” says Vasantha, getting emotional as she talks about how they were not allowed to meet Jayalalithaa in those final days.
Referring to talk that Sasikala might contest the by-election in the constituency that fell vacant after Jayalalithaa’s death, Vasantha says, “Take down my name, and ward number, 107. She won’t get my support if she comes to R K Nagar seeking votes”. Over the last few days, a number of AIADMK heavyweights have come out in Sasikala’s support. On Friday, when Sasikala went to Jayalalithaa’s grave for a few minutes, ministers and party seniors lined up to meet her, and many touched her feet immediately after paying their respects to their late leader.
On Saturday, many leaders issued statements of support, following the example set by O Panneerselvam. The biggest of them was K A Sengottayan from the powerful Gounder community whose leaders within the AIADMK were initially resentful of Sasikala. Sengottayan was a minister in Jayalalithaa’s cabinet, is said to have the support of several MLAs. The other influential leader who has accepted Sasikala’s leadership is E Madhusudanan, who Jayalalithaa elevated to the “dummy post” of chairman of the AIADMK presidium in 2007. He draws his power from the World MGR Fans’ Association that he has headed for years, and was a minister in MGR’s cabinet as well as during Jayalalithaa’s first term.
Others like the Mayor of Chennai, Saidai Doraisawamy; Lok Sabha MP Thambidurai and Rajya Sabha MP R Vaithialingam; and, even the PWD & Highways Minister Edappadi K Palanisamy, who was seen as a challenger to Sasikala’s authority, have extended support. “With more than four years to go for our government, it is useless to talk about rebellion,” says an AIADMK MLA. On the main Cathedral Road outside Poes Garden, a big hoarding has come up with images of Jayalalithaa and Sasikala, hailing the latter as “Beloved Sister”. Advertisements inserted in newspapers by MLAs and middle-rung leaders in remembrance of Amma also have Sasikala’s photographs displayed prominently.
But for the morning mourners at Jayalalithaa’s burial site, this is betrayal. “Sasikala must not be given any post in the party. Our party office-bearers must hear our cries of anguish. We form the backbone of the party, and we will not be able to tolerate Sasikala becoming general secretary or chief minister,” says Sulochana. According to Rajendran, from Erode, if leaders consult workers like himself, they will be able to understand the sentiment. “But I don’t think they will ask us, we’ll have to do as we are told by our seniors,” he says. Declaring that she will not hold back, Selvi says, “We elect our MLAs, and our office-bearers depend on us to rally voters. This is how it is in a democracy, and we are saying ‘no’ to Sasikala. If they don’t listen to us, they will have to pay for it.”
At the tent where the men are getting their heads tonsured, Kandasamy from Salem says he got this done when MGR died, too. “Now, I’ve done it for Jayalalithaa. If that lady takes over,” he says, referring to Sasikala and shaking his freshly shaved head, “it’s going to be a problem for the party.” The other recurring undercurrent is that Sasikala and her family members gave Amma a “bad name”. “Amma sent all out of her house twice because they were misusing her name to amass wealth. Now they are coming back, and ministers are falling at Sasikala’s feet,” says a worker from Melmarvathur in Kanchipuram.
Lakshmi, an AIADMK supporter from Lupalangkattai in Erode, shows an album with photographs of her with cheeks pierced with a spear, in the Tamil tradition of religious devotion. “That was for Amma when she was in jail. She had to suffer for mistakes committed by others,” she says. As tears well up, she wails, “They killed her, they killed her”. Others join in to say that Sasikala “has no right” to stay in Poes Garden. “We demand that Amma’s house in Poes Garden be converted to a temple. No one should be allowed to live there,” says Munnuswamy, a village-level AIADMK office-bearer from Bargur in Krishnagiri, which was once Jayalalithaa’s constituency.
S Thirunavakkarasu, president of the Tamil Nadu Congress Committee, once a high-profile member of the AIADMK and a close associate of Jayalalithaa before falling out with her, recalls that when MGR died, she had to convince party cadres to accept her even though she was popular as a film star, and had joined the party through the former chief minister himself. “It is only after being accepted by party cadres, followed by election victories, that Jayalalithaa became such a strong leader,” says Thirunavukkarasu.
There was no leader in the AIADMK today, he says. “It is an open secret that the party has no leader of the kind it needs. It is not just Jayalalithaa who suffered a cardiac arrest, the party has also had a heart attack. Unlike her, it can survive this blow but it will depend on who the party chooses to continue the legacy of MGR and Jayalalithaa,” says Thirunavukkarasu. At the Marina, meanwhile, the only thing going for Sasikala is the extreme loyalty of workers — to the party. Says Munnusamy, from Bargur, “We will never leave AIADMK. We cannot betray Amma. We even believe that she may come back and save us.”