Ever since Sasikala took over as the party chief, several low-level office-bearers and cadres have broken the ranks, with protests being held in different parts of the state.
The headquarters of Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam at Royapettah in Chennai has been witnessing hectic parleys over the last few days with party veterans rushing off to make last-minute arrangements for the coronation of Sasikala Natarajan. The meticulously scripted drama started unfolding on February 5 when a meeting of party MLAs “unanimously” selected 'Chinnamma' as the legislative party leader, paving way for her elevation as the chief minister.
Sasikala, a close aide of late former chief minister Jayalalithaa for over three decades, is finally at the helm of both the party and the government. However, the road ahead for the 59-year-old, who hails from Mannargudi in Thiruvarur, seems to be rocky as she will have to overcome a number of hurdles during her days at Fort St George.
Sasikala has been, over the years, entangled in a number of court cases along with Jayalalithaa, with the disproportionate assets case being her immediate challenge. The Supreme Court is most likely to deliver its verdict on a petition filed by the Karnataka government challenging the Bangalore High Court order acquitting both of them. Earlier, a trial court had convicted Jayalalithaa, Sasikala, and her two relatives— V.N. Sudhakaran and Elavarasi—in the case and sentenced them to four years in prison. If the top court upholds the trial court verdict, it will leave Sasikala in dire straits as she will be unseated from the chief minister’s post with immediate effect.
Meanwhile, in another development which could spark further trouble for Sasikala, the Madras High Court, last week, refused to discharge her from three cases filed by the Enforcement Directorate in 1995 and 1996 on charges of violating the Foreign Exchange Regulation Act. The case relates to payments made to foreign firms for hiring transponders and uplink facilities for JJ TV, the predecessor of Jaya TV.
Sasikala, who has never contested an election in her life, will have to seek the people's mandate within six months after assuming the post of chief minister. Speculations are rife that she may opt for Jayalalithaa’s RK Nagar seat, which has been lying vacant after the death of the former chief minister. However, the constituency has recently witnessed protests against Sasikala's elevation to the top post in the party. With the tide turning hostile, it remains to be seen whether she will stick to the constituency or opt for another safe seat.
Ever since Sasikala took over as the party chief, several low-level office-bearers and cadres have broken the ranks, with protests being held in different parts of the state. They feel Sasikala is an unworthy successor of Jayalalithaa. Her posters and flex boards have been found vandalised in several towns. Several senior leaders are also said to be in two minds over supporting Sasikala.
The dissent came out in the open last week with senior party leader and former minister K.P. Munusamy accusing Sasikala’s brother V. Divakaran of attempting to wield influence in the party. On Tuesday, P.H. Pandian, one of the founding leaders of the AIADMK, launched a scathing attack on Sasikala saying she was unfit for the chief minister's post. P. Kannan, a party MP from Puducherry, tendered his resignation hours after Sasikala was elected legislative party leader, saying the political developments were going from bad to worse. He also raised suspicion over whether O. Panneerselvam was forced to resign as the chief minister.
The open threat put up by expelled party MP Sasikala Pushpa and Jayalalithaa’s niece Deepa Jayakumar may not be water off the duck’s back for Sasikala. Pushpa has already moved the Election Commission against Sasikala’s elevation while Deepa is rumoured to have decided to float a new party, which is likely to inflict considerable damage to the AIADMK.
Battle of perception
This will, perhaps, be the biggest challenge Sasikala will have to face as a major section of the public remains sceptic over her leadership and administrative skills. She has never contested an election nor has she ever actively campaigned for the party during her 33-year-long association with Jayalalithaa. Sasikala delivered her first public speech in December after taking charge of the party.
The voices of protest from the public have been mounting dribs and drabs, with the hashtag #RIPTN trending on social media. The opposition DMK and the Congress have strongly questioned Sasikala's credentials and her political experience. The sacking of several top officials days ahead of Sasikala's swearing-in has also added to the public scepticism.
Sasikala takes over as the chief minister at a time when the state is going through a rough patch especially due to the economic slump post demonetisation. The administrative crisis, which erupted during Jayalalithaa's two-and-a-half-month stay in Apollo Hospital, is yet to be overcome. The state is facing severe drought while Cauvery issue and other water-sharing pacts with the neighbouring states still remain on the boil.
Sasikala's political acumen and administrative sleight of hand will be tested in all these issues. If she is slow off the mark to prove her mettle, she will not be able to stop the rot.