After she walked out of the Bengaluru prison this February, where she served four years as a convict in the disproportionate asset case in which late Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa was the prime accused, V K Sasikala stayed away from politics during the Assembly polls. There was no clarity on why she did that as her followers expected her to lead the AIADMK at the time.
Recently, however, she sent out messages that she was looking at staking a claim to the party and setting it in order, the latest signal being the unveiling of a plaque on October 17 that addressed her as ‘AIADMK general secretary’.
So, what would Sasikala’s return to AIADMK mean for Tamil Nadu politics? And what could be the possible deal among all stakeholders if her re-entry happens?
Known as the closest aide of Jayalalithaa, Sasikala was with the late leader almost everyday, from the late 1980s until her death on December 5, 2016, except maybe for the six months in 2011 when she was ousted over a tussle with Jayalalithaa.
Good or bad times, policies or political decisions, alliances or change in tactics, and even proven or alleged corruption charges, Sasikala’s presence was evident in anything and everything that Jayalalithaa did.
She played a direct role in election engineering, government appointments and even in crucial political, caste, community manoeuvring. Be it O Panneerselvam or Edappadi K Palaniswami, their elevation to the top party positions and cabinet posts did not happen without Sasikala. However, Sasikala was always behind the curtain, neither addressing a single rally nor any media interview.
Finally, when she emerged as a leader — acting general secretary — after Jayalalithaa’s death, she faced resistance from the same people she had groomed in state politics.
It was Panneerselvam, who was handpicked by Sasikala for his loyalty, who raised the first banner of revolt. However, she defeated him in a floor test, ousted him from the CM’s post and installed another staunch loyalist, Palaniswami, as the chief minister in early 2017. All this happened just before she went to the Bengaluru prison in the disproportionate assets case.
While in jail, Palaniswami did to her what Panneerselvam had done earlier. Months after she was incarcerated, she was ousted from AIADMK by a leadership led by Palaniswami, who had the support of majority MLAs, and joined hands with Panneerselvam, who was weaker but was backed by the powerful BJP ruling the Centre.
Now, about nine months after her release from prison, Sasikala has spoken about coming back to politics to lead the party to victory in the 2024 Lok Sabha polls.
Will the AIADMK leadership — the powerful Palaniswami and sidelined Panneerselvam — accept her?
Being a party that has seen many instances of revolts and reconciliations, it won’t be a surprise if Sasikala finds her way back to AIADMK sooner or later.
Reliable sources in the party as well as in Sasikala camp have told The Indian Express that she has already reconciled with Panneerselvam. “She knows that he was being forced to revolt against her by the BJP after Jayalalithaa’s death. They had a private meeting after her release,” said a close aide of Sasikala.
An endorsement of these claims came from Panneerselvam himself when he said Saskala’s re-induction into the party will be decided by party leadership and office-bearers.
This also reveals a conflict in AIADMK. When Panneerselvam refused to rule out chances of Sasikala’s return to the party, Palaniswami and his camp continued to oppose any such talks.
Multiple sources in AIADMK said anything could happen. Senior leaders said Palaniswami may be opposing her reentry, but that can change with a clarity on a “deal”.
“You may wait and see. Palaniswami will soon get a message in this regard from Delhi, he may agree too, provided his authority remains intact,” said a senior leader close to Palaniswami.
Half a dozen AIADMK leaders as well as a few close associates of Sasikala said her return to the party would be a pact that would not harm the authority of Palaniswami and Panneerselvam in the mainstream leadership . Sasikala will be reinducted and can function as a mentor; However, an immediate casualty in such a deal would be her nephew, TTV Dhinakaran, they said.
“While Sasikala will continue to operate behind the curtains and let Palaniswami continue as the face of the party, Dhinakaran may become a Kanimozhi of AIADMK. He could be sent to Delhi with a Rajya Sabha post. This is the most likely option before Palaniswami,” said a senior leader.
Even if Dhinakaran is termed as a dictator who did not protect those who stood with him, no one in the party denies the fact that he is a leader material, the only such person in Sasikala’s family. “Let him facilitate her reentry, he may himself stay away, go to Delhi or keep a low profile. Anyway he can trust his future as his age will favour him in the long term, he can be the top leader after Palaniswami,” the leader added.
Sasikala will be meeting party functionaries in Madurai and Ramanathapuram on Thursday and Friday. Her close aides said both events are going to be mere visits, mostly without speeches, with a gathering of around 1,000 people at each place.
As Panneerselvam has already made a statement in public about her reentry, the Sasikala camp expects that Palaniswami will also budge if he receives instructions from the BJP in this regard.
Until there is a clarity, Sasikala will not attend programmes organised by Dhinakaran’s Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam (AMMK) even as her last two events at Jayalalithaa memorial and late MGR’s residence in Chennai were organised by AMMK-bearers in Chennai. “She will make sure that she is using AIADMK flags and continue to project herself as the acting general secretary,” said a leader close to Sasikala.
Reminding Dhinakaran that he had failed to capture the AIADMK on his own in her absence, it is expected that she will ask him to step away for sometime, make sure of her space in the party to lead and mentor them without claiming or demanding any key posts in electoral politics.
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