Firecrackers, dancing and singing on the streets, sweets being distributed across the city, strangers hugging each other. No, Chennai has not come up with an unprecedented Valentine’s Day celebration but the city, today, echoes the jubilant sentiments of Tamil Nadu. The Supreme Court of India upheld the trial court’s verdict convicting CM aspirant Sasikala Natarajan in a 21-year-old disproportionate assets case. Sasikala has been ordered by the Supreme Court to surrender immediately. It is likely that the AIADMK General Secretary will surrender to the Karnataka police within the next 24 hours.
Sasikala had been sentenced to a four-year prison term and fined Rs 10 crore by the nation’s apex court. The verdict also bars Sasikala from contesting elections and holding a public office for the next 10 years. The verdict of the Supreme Court comes as a major setback to Sasikala who was the close aide and friend of former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa. This also strengthens the hand of O Panneerselvam (OPS), the caretaker Chief Minister who had put in his resignation amidst accusations of arm-twisting by Sasikala.
The AIADMK has now decided to appeal against the verdict of the Supreme Court and support Sasikala.
No End To OPS Woes
While the Supreme Court’s verdict comes as a breather for O Panneerselvam, it is far from the end of his struggle to get back with grace and dignity to the CM’s office. According to news reports, over 120 AIADMK MLAs are still in support of Sasikala’s leadership. In a final act of vengeance, Sasikala and the MLAs cooped up at the Golden Bay Resort have decided to expel OPS from the party and revoke his AIADMK primary membership. E Palanisamy has now been appointed the party leader in the legislative assembly. Palanisamy is a sitting MLA from Edappadi in Salem district and is seen as a very strong CM contender.
Palanisamy may now challenge OPS at the Tamil Nadu legislative assembly and if indeed he has the backing of a great number of MLAs – enough to prove a majority – may stake claim to the Chief Minister’s chair.
OPS, on the other hand, has called out all AIADMK MLAs to join his camp and keep the integrity of the party intact. Calling for unity in the party, in his speech, OPS committed that he would continue J Jayalalithaa’s legacy of good governance in the interest of the people of Tamil Nadu.
The other person that OPS will need to contend with is Deepak Jayakumar, Jayalalithaa’s nephew. Deepak is the son of the former CM’s brother, Jayakumar. While Deepak has hitherto chosen to stay away from the limelight, he did join the Sasikala recently. If Jayakumar enters the political fray it will be very difficult for OPS to contend with the “blood relation” sentiment that have been known to dominate Indian politics. Jayalalithaa’s niece, Deepa, who was all set to launch her own party, now seems to support OPS, though.
For now, Palanisamy seems to be in the lead. Gobichettipalayam MLA, K. A. Sengottaiyan, another leading member of the Sasikala camp has sought an appointment with the Governor with the intention of producing a list of members supporting Palanisamy.
Governor’s Stand Vindicated
What many had expected was that if the Supreme Court convicts Sasikala there would be a mass exodus of MLAs from her camp. This, however, has not come to pass as “Chinnamma” still retains an iron hold over the AIADMK MLAs and support for OPS is only trickling in in ones and twos. If a major chunk of the party’s MLAs continue to stand by her decision to nominate Palanisamy as her successor, the Governor will not have any option but to invite him to form the government. Currently, most of the MLAs seem to be united in their stand and are refusing to leave the Chennai resort that they are staying in until the Governor meets them.
The Governor has already been accused of delaying the swearing in of Sasikala and will now be under pressure to take a call. According to political analysts, the Governor may call for a composite vote in the assembly floor. Last night, the Attorney General of India, Mukul Rohatgi advised the Governor of Tamil Nadu to call for a composite floor test to determine who has the support. A similar floor test was ordered by the Supreme Court in 1998 in Uttar Pradesh when Jagdambika Pal and Kalyan Singh both staked claim to the CM’s post. The question of a floor test will not come up if the majority of the AIADMK MLAs continue their united stand for Palanisamy.
Meanwhile the AIADMK has accused the BJP, the ruling party at the centre, of prompting a delay in the governor’s decision making, allowing for horse trading in the state. The BJP retorted by saying that the Governor’s call was a circumspect one as has been vindicated by the SC verdict.
All Eyes On Chennai
Even as both the OPS and Sasikala camps are trying to woo the MLAs, apprehensions are that there could be a law and order situation in the capital of Tamil Nadu. What is clear is that the public sentiment in the state is overwhelmingly in favour of OPS, and the majority of the MLAs in favour of Palanisamy. This is an unprecedented situation and the Governor, too, is consulting legal experts about his course of action.
This is far from the end of the power struggle in Tamil Nadu. Will Sasikala appeal for a curate action at the Supreme Court? How and when will Sasikala and her co-accused (Jayalalithaa’s foster son) Sudhakaran and (Sasikala’s sister-in-law) Elavarasi, be taken into custody? What will the Governor do? Were the MLAs at Golden Bay resort held under duress against their will? Will Palanisamy be able to keep the party together? Will Panneerselvam launch a new party? Is this struggle the end of AIADMK as we know it? These are all questions that will require answers in the days to come.