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Business News/ Mint-lounge / Mint-on-sunday/  The roller coaster ride of Tamil Nadu politics

The roller coaster ride of Tamil Nadu politics

It is as much spectacle as it is spectacular, but for those confused about who might or might not be running a government in the state, here is a detailed account

(From left) Former Tamil Nadu chief minister O. Panneerselvam, former AIADMK general secretary Sasikala Natarajan and current chief minister Edappadi Palaniswami. Photo: PTIPremium
(From left) Former Tamil Nadu chief minister O. Panneerselvam, former AIADMK general secretary Sasikala Natarajan and current chief minister Edappadi Palaniswami. Photo: PTI

The state of Tamil Nadu at the end of last year saw the hospitalization and eventual death of a powerful, regional leader, followed by a tearful farewell and funeral attended by millions. There was suspense (Is she dead? Isn’t she?), intrigue (Who is the heir apparent?) and mystery (A murder and two accidents that killed the men accused of the murder). 

Multiple factions now claiming to be the real All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhakam (AIADMK) have been added to ones already competing in the state. Each claims to have had the blessings of late chief minister J. Jayalalithaa. 

What was a political dispute over who could claim the goodwill and the political capital earned by "Amma", as she was popularly known, turned into an ugly family squabble when the departed leader's niece appeared at the gates of her residence, claiming she was being obstructed by her brother alleged that he had conspired with Jayalaithaa's confidante Sasikala to kill the AIADMK chief.

In between, like the obligatory comedy track inserted in most Tamil commercial cinema, a state minister (Sellur K. Raja) sought to fill a big, local dam with thermocol in a bid to prevent loss of water by evaporation. Another sent four truckloads of letters to the Election Commission in Delhi, to show that he had the support of the party rank-and-file, and hence should be given the political party’s election symbol. 

All this has been followed by further dissent in among the ranks of the ruling faction and political maneouvring by the principal opposition party, with every move analysed and examined for the minutest of details.

All this was happening when the state was going through the worst drought in 140 years, broken briefly by a cyclone (Vardah) of unimaginable fury. Over 100,000 local administrative jobs have stayed unfilled since October last year. The state saw three chief ministers over the course of several months.

The folks at Balaji Telefilms may not have far to look for the script of their next soap. 

Beginning of the end 

Photographs of Jayalalithaa circulated frequently have shown the grand lady receiving her party MLAs, who were usually prostrated full length in front of her in abject supplication. 

When she was admitted to Apollo Hospital, complaining of “fever and dehydration", nobody could have guessed what was to come. That was in September last year. 

A few days later, the hospital said she was “responding well" to treatment. Then, a team of doctors from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences flew down from Delhi to check on her. After their check, it was decided that she might have to stay longer at the hospital. 

Apollo Hospital, where Jayalalithaa was recovering. Photo: Mint
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Apollo Hospital, where Jayalalithaa was recovering. Photo: Mint

Jayalalithaa’s portfolios were reassigned to future caretaker chief minister O. Panneerselvam (commonly OPS) and one other. The chief minister’s post, however, remained with her. 

All this while, she continued to receive distinguished well-wishers. Union finance minister Arun Jaitley and Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah were some of the worthies to visit her. Meanwhile, the chief minister had recovered enough for the hospital to say she had recovered. 

The mood outside the hospital was celebratory. Then, on 4 December, Jayalalithaa suffered a massive heart attack. 

There were already grumblings and concerns among journalists who could guess at the turmoil and and the sleepless nights that would ensue if something were to happen to her. 

Nothing they could have guessed would be as bad as what was to follow. 

The sombre mood at her hospitalization was punctuated by moments of high drama, like when the party flag was flown at half-mast hours before she was actually pronounced dead. But then, her partymen realized that she hadn’t died yet and hoisted the flag up again. 

The pronouncement came around midnight of 5 December. Amma had just died. Colleagues, assorted relatives and friends began sharpening their knives. 

The circus was over. The circus was just beginning. 

Sasikala did her bit by thumping on Jayalalithaa's grave (leading a colleague to later remark that he fully expected Jayalalithaa to spring out). After all, hadn’t Sasikala muttered something and then banged the grave thrice, which was surely some sort of message? 

Sasikala scatters flowers on Jayalalithaa’s grave. Photo: PTI
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Sasikala scatters flowers on Jayalalithaa’s grave. Photo: PTI

But the funeral had been conducted safely without the sort of untoward incidents that plagued the state when Jayalalithaa’s mentor M.G. Ramachandran—who was also chief minister at the time of his demise—died. But the farce was not too far behind. 

Coming back to the politics, following Amma's death, OPS, ever the faithful deputy to Jayalalithaa, had been sworn in as chief minister. However, his reign did not last too long. 

Sasikala, the departed leader's long-time friend, aide and confidante, was appointed the party's general secretary by the end of the year. And in February, Panneerselvam stepped down, while Sasikala went on to stake her claim to form a government. But in the meantime, OPS did an about face. Now the state’s caretaker chief minister, in a surprise late night rebellion, Panneerselvam meditated for over 40 minutes at Jayalalithaa’s memorial, but not before informing the television cameras, which recorded the event. 

Then, he made a 50-minute speech, an assault on Sasikala and (some of) his AIADMK colleagues. “Amma’s aatma (soul) urged me reveal the truth," he said, while declaring that he had been forced to resign to make way for Sasikala. 

A Scene at Jayalalithaa’s funeral. Photo: HT
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A Scene at Jayalalithaa’s funeral. Photo: HT

On 8 February, Sasikala averred that she was the whole party's preferred chief ministerial candidate. Separately, over a 100 MLAs were packed off to a resort near Chennai, presumably to prevent any from changing allegiance. 

Tamil Nadu did not have a permanent governor. The Maharashtra governor, who was also acting as the Tamil Nadu governor, came to Chennai on 10 February. Sasikala staked her claim to form the government on that day. 

But the governor preferred to wait till after the verdict of the Supreme Court on the two-decade-old disproportionate assets case on 14 February. One incarcerated MLA sneaked out of the resort on 13 February and went to OPS’s house. Later that day, he was reportedly caught on tape saying that money was promised for his vote by both factions. 

As it so happened, Sasikala was convicted by the Supreme Court, and naturally could no longer contest the elections. On 15 February, she was sent to Bengaluru to serve a four-year jail term, but before she went, she made T.T.V. Dhinakaran, her nephew, deputy general secretary of the party. He was now the ranking big wheel and a possible chief ministerial candidate. 

On 16 February, a day after Sasikala was jailed, Edappadi K. Palaniswami (or EPS) was sworn in as chief minister. The governor, Rao, gave him 15 days to prove his majority. 

But EPS did not need that long, and arranged the trust vote to be on 18 February. When the day dawned, the MLAs came forth from the resort—but not before one of them managed to hoodwink his captors and make his way home to Coimbatore—and headed to the assembly for the trust vote. 

At the assembly, all hell broke loose. The rival party, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), raised a commotion about the way the trust vote ought to be conducted. The assembly security forcibly evicted the rival party members, during which time, DMK’s leader of the opposition M.K. Stalin alleged that his shirt was torn. 

EPS won the trust vote after all, as 122 AIADMK MLAs voted for his faction (he needed 117). Eleven voted against him. So, EPS continued to be chief minister. 

The DMK, which had been evicted, filed a lawsuit at the Madras high court. 

Fresh face and confusion 

On 24 February, a new character came to the fore. Deepa Jayakumar, the daughter of Jayalalithaa's brother, launched what she called a new political forum, MGR Amma Deepa Peravai, with the acronym MAD Peravai. 

Till this point, there was no difference between the two big factions of the AIADMK, except an argument about which was the real AIADMK. Then, an election to the RK Nagar constituency, which had fallen vacant because of Jayalalithaa's death, was called. On 23 March, the Election Commission froze the party's symbol and name and the two factions were forbidden to use either their website or the party's social media account. 

The two factions chose the names AIADMK (Amma) for the EPS faction and AIADMK (Puratchi Thalaivi Amma) for the O. Pannerselvam faction. The election symbols chosen were a hat and a lamp post, respectively. 

The election was scheduled for 12 April. Between 23 March and 12 April, a number of allegations of cash for votes were made, culminating in a raid on a state minister P. Vijayabhaskar on 7 April. The raids revealed that some Rs89 crore was routed for distribution

The Election Commission cancelled the RK Nagar polls at midnight, 9 April. On 17 April, the Delhi police filed a case against Dhinakaran for allegedly offering to pay a bribe of Rs50 crore to some un-named Election Commission official for unfreezing and awarding Jayalalithaa's election symbol to him. 

A day later, the ruling faction announced that Dhinakaran, Sasikala and others who were disparagingly referred to as the “Mannargudi mafia" (Sasikala's home town in Tiruvarur district) were being sidelined. This effectively led to a rapprochement between the two warring factions. Dhinakaran agreed to step down as party deputy general secretary then, but recanted later. 

He was formally arrested at midnight on 25 April. 

Twelve days later, on 21 April, Deepa Jayakumar's husband came to the fore, announcing that he was starting a new political party, the MGR Jayalalitha DMK. That made it the fourth political party vying to be called the real AIADMK. 

In between, the two factions appointed committees to hold merger talks. The talks failed, primarily because both factions wanted the post of chief minister. That was when Dhinakaran returned. The crowds at the airport and near his house were testament to the fact that some sections of the party, at least, had forgiven him. 

Dhinakaran went to visit his aunt in jail, and then announced that the time he had spent away from Chennai (40 days) was enough for the two warring factions to affect a rapprochement. He said he would give the parties 60 days to merge, failing which he would decide the future course of action for the party. 

On the morning of 11 June, Deepa Jayakumar raised a hue and cry that she was barred from entering her aunt’s house in Poes Garden. That same evening, OPS disbanded the merger committee, ending any hopes of a rapprochement. 

The ball was now in EPS’s court. Or Dhinakaran’s. It was hard to tell. 

Zooming in to the present day, EPS three days ago announced the sacking of Dhinakaran as AIADMK deputy general secretary. There is growing talk of a merger, with the EPS faction's move seen by some as clearing the path for peace. (Though Dhinakaran may not be out of the picture yet.) 

The plot thickens 

That was the main show. Over the course of the past several months, several side shows also emerged. 

Along with the sometimes macabre, sometimes ridiculous events unfolding in the battle for the Tamil Nadu throne, Sellur Raja stood out. The minister decided he would cover the water surface in Madurai’s Vaigai dam with polystyrene sheets, known in India as thermacol, only to see the thin sheets being tossed about by strong winds. But the failure of his experiment did not deter Raju. Ministers are made of sterner stuff. 

“I will use thicker sheets," he was quoted as saying. 

Another was DMK leader Stalin's complaints about his torn shirt. After the ruckus in the assembly during the trust vote that saw Palaniswami cemented as chief minister, Stalin and his followers trooped to governor Vidyasagar Rao’s house, the leader still wearing the torn shirt, presumably complained and then turned to the Marina beach, where he sat in protest, all the while watched by the television cameras. 

On top of this, the Bharatiya Janata Party, which had earlier struggled to gain any ground in Tamil Nadu, moved to make inroads into the state amid the political turmoil. BJP president Amit Shah is scheduled to visit the state on 22 August.

So amid all these developments, who is administering the state? Though the government has made announcements on various projects and schemes during the 24-day budget discussion session that concluded on 19 July, writer-translator Aazhi Senthilnathan says it was “basically an extension of existing policies. And, the effective implementation of these announcements is a much larger question". 

Earlier, a senior official in the public works department, which is under the chief minister Palaniswami, had told Mint that in the last few months, there has been a “complete paralysis of the state administration"

“Earlier this year, the AIADMK was facing a deep internal crisis. There were serious questions raised on the survival of the government. Now, along with the political crisis, the administrative crisis has come to the forefront. The government under Edappadi K. Palaniswami is also becoming more unpopular," said Senthilnathan. 

Tamil Nadu’s love for drama on screen, perhaps, has translated well into real life.

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Published: 12 Aug 2017, 11:30 PM IST
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