OPS vs. VKS; The Fight for Amma’s Place
When the Tamil Nadu people exercised their franchise in May 2016 giving a resounding victory to their “Amma” Selvi J.Jayalalitha, they would have never thought or imagined that the state would sink in political turmoil within a few months. Many untoward things have happened consecutively in the ruling party, leading to uncertainty.
Jayalalitha, who formed the government in May 2016, fell sick and was hospitalized on September 22, 2016. After 75 days of hospitalization, she succumbed to a cardiac arrest on December 5, 2016. Finance Minister O.Panneerselvam, who had earned the name of “Stopgap Chief Minister” for taking that role twice earlier, was again sworn in as Chief Minister on the same night.
V.K.Sasikala, who was Jayalalitha’s friend and personal aid for over three decades baring a short period of six months in 2012, performed the funeral rituals along with Jaya’s nephew (brother’s son). Jayalalitha’s hospitalization and subsequent death had brought the entire family of Sasikala including her husband Natarajan, who were kept at a distance out of the party and government by Jaya, out in the open. The family’s presence and audacious acts after Jaya’s death and during her funeral were clear signs of things to come, not only for the party but also for the general public.
V.K.Sasikala continued to reside in Jaya’s Poes Garden Bungalow and the party leaders and functionaries started addressing her as ‘Chinnamma’, treating her as younger sister to their beloved ‘Amma’. Within a month she took over the mantle of the party as its General Secretary by making the Party’s General Council to pass a resolution appointing her as General Secretary until she is formally elected to the post. The resolution also said that she would have all the powers vested with the general secretary.
After Sasikala became the general secretary political circles were abuzz that she would soon make an attempt to become the Chief Minister. The people in general and party cadres in particular feared that she might soon replace OPS. The Sasikala camp, which was also deeply worried about the fate of disproportionate assets case, wanted to achieve the twin objectives of taking control of the party and becoming head of the government. Having achieved the first one without any trouble, it was slightly relaxed under the assumption that the second one could also be achieved smoothly. But for their dismay, OPS seemed to have different ideas, focusing more on governance and gaining a good name from the people.
Although OPS didn’t raise any objections to VKS becoming the general secretary, he knew quite well that she would soon try to replace him as Chief Minister too. However, this time he seemed to have determined to have his own way, as evidenced by his obvious inclination towards the center. He has been maintaining a smooth and cozy relationship with the union government, and his performance has also been better, as evidenced by his agreeing with the center on joining the UDAY scheme and to implement the Food Security Act. The way he had dealt with Vardha cyclone, apart from focusing on other departments of governance has also been appreciated by the people.
This caused heartburns to VKS and her camp and they wanted to capture power at the earliest. As they waited for the right time to strike, Jallikattu issue came as a blessing, which they thought could be utilized fully to dislodge OPS and usurp his chair. Sasikala’s husband Natarajan, who is known to be close to Tamil separatist and Tamil Eelam forces, swung into action reportedly with the support of mineral baron Vaikundarajan. Political observers are of the opinion that he was behind the hijacking of the jallikattu protests by anti-national forces intending to cause immense problems for OPS, so that he could be brought down from the thrown thereby making the way easy for VKS to usurp it.
However, making matters worse for them, OPS handled the issue deftly with the support and guidance of the center and ultimately earned the accolades and appreciations of the people for bringing an Ordinance and passing it as a Law in the state assembly on 21st January. As the state government was focusing on organizing the jalikattu events at various places, another issue erupted demanding the immediate attention of the government. The oil spill caused by the two ships which met with an accident near the Chennai shoreline on 28 January had to be attended to on a war footing. Once again the OPS government, rising to the occasion, coordinated with the center and took necessary action.
Fearing that OPS would seal his position as Chief Minister firmly and permanently for the entire term, VKS camp called for a meeting of the MLAs on 5th February, without even intimating him. Although OPS was at the meeting later, he was informed of the meet only after he was summoned to the Poes Garden residence, where he was coerced and forced to resign. The MLAs “unanimously” elected VKS as the AIADMK Legislature Party Leader, paving her way to become the Chief Minister. In a sudden development, Sasikala’s husband Natarajan got admitted at the Apollo hospitals on the same night for unknown reasons. It must be noted that only a few days back he had stated that there was no need to replace OPS as he was doing a ‘good’ job.
As VKS was jubilantly waiting to meet the Governor for staking claim to form the government, Governor Vidyasagar Rao left for Delhi directly from Coimbatore cancelling his short sojourn in Ooty. When he was expected to return from Delhi on 6th February, he proceeded to Mumbai. Expecting the governor to return to Chennai on 7th, VKS camp was gearing up for the swearing-in ceremony on the 9th of February.
Meanwhile, voices started erupting from various quarters against VKS becoming Chief Minister. The party cadres and the party’s traditional voters started vociferously expressing their sentiments against her through the mainstream and social media. In course of time the displeasure on Sasikala becoming CM was quite obvious from almost all sections of the society. As a related development, Richard Beale, a London-based medical specialist who supervised Jaya’s treatment, P Balaji of Madras Medical College and K Babu of Apollo Hospitals addressed the media detailing the treatment given to Jayalalitha. While the timing of the press meet created suspicions in the minds of media persons as well as general public, there were lots of contradictions too in what the doctors told as against the earlier statements and press releases made out when Jayalalitha was under treatment. Notwithstanding the press meet by doctors, the old questions surrounding the death of Jayalalitha still remain unanswered.
The governor was not returning on 7th February too and this was viewed with suspicion by Sasikala camp. While the political turmoil continued, OPS played a master stroke on 7th night. He took the state by surprise by suddenly going straight to Jaya’s Samadhi (memorial) at the Marina beach by 9 pm. He sat there in meditation for almost 40 minutes. Then after circumambulating it and prostrating before it, he addressed the media firing from all cylinders. He made shocking revelations that he was forced to quit and the resignation letter was collected under pressure and that he was not aware of the MLAs meet at the time of resignation. He explained in detail, how he was being insulted and treated badly every now and then by his own colleagues at the behest of VKS. He made it clear that he would even withdraw his resignation if needed.
Only in the morning, former assembly speaker and AIADMK veteran P.H.Pandian addressed the media lashing out at Sasikala and questioning her election as general secretary and the leader of the legislature party. The same day, Shantha Sheela Nair quit as the Officer on Special duty at the office of the Chief Minister following CM’s Advisor Sheela Balakrishnan and CM’s Secretary K.N.Venkataraman, who had resigned a day earlier.
Taken aback by OPS’s master stroke, VKS immediately convened a press meet at Poes Garden and addressed the media. She said that all the MLAs were with her and she was removing OPS from the post of Treasurer. She also said that she would stake claim to form the government when the governor returns to Chennai.
The revelations made by Chief Minister Panneerselvam brought him overwhelming support from cadres, general public and even from celebrities. The whole of 8th, he addressed the media and gave interviews to TV channels and newspaper/magazines as much as possible. He was confidence personified and visibly elated at the overwhelming support pouring from all sections of the society. Although he had the support of only a couple of MLAs, he expressed his confidence that at the floor of the assembly, all MLAs would vote as per their conscience, which he hoped would be against VKS.
The Election Commission, which had earlier sought an explanation from the party on complaints against Sasikala’s election as general secretary, stated that there is no provision for the post of ‘Interim General Secretary’ and that the interim general secretary cannot sack OPS from his party post.
Sasikala camp made arrangements to bring all the MLAs to the headquarters and by late evening on 8th, they were all bundled into buses and taken to Golden Bay Resort situated beyond Mahabalipuram. Their idea of meeting President of India at Delhi got changed as there was confirmation of governor’s return by 9th afternoon.
In the meantime, OPS got support from Rajya Sabha MP Maithreyan. AIADMK’s Presidium Chairman E. Madhusudhanan left VKS camp and joined OPS, which is seen as a shot in the arm for OPS. Some former MLAs have also extended support and a huge section of cadres are believed to be with him. Shanmuganathan, MLA of Sri Vaikundam constituency, who escaped from Sasikala’s detention, had lodged a complaint with the Police Commissioner that MLAs were detained without their consent and that their signatures were obtained forcibly. Kin and kith of a few other MLAs have also given complaints to the police requesting to release those MLAs from Sasikala’s detention. In certain constituencies voters themselves have lodged complaints. People have been using the social media outlets like Facebook and WhatsApp to appeal to the MLAs to support OPS.
Mandusudhanan, while addressing the press at CM’s residence, reiterated Election Commission’s statement that interim general secretary cannot sack a person holding party post. Later OPS, as treasurer of the party, sent letters to two banks, citing party’s bylaws, requesting them not to allow anybody else to operate the party accounts. He also said that the government would issue orders soon to convert Jayalalitha’s Poes Garden residence as a Memorial and he would also constitute a Commission of Enquiry headed by a sitting Supreme Court Judge to probe Jayalalitha’s death.
As scheduled, Governor Vidyasagar Rao landed in Chennai on 9th afternoon. OPS, with his handpicked colleagues met the governor by 5 pm and briefed him everything. He had reportedly told that the election of Sasikala is a violation of party’s bylaws and that she had detained the MLAs without their consent. He had also reportedly conveyed his intention to withdraw his resignation and staked claim to form the government again. When he came out after a twenty minute meet, he had reportedly told that, ‘Only good will happen and Dharma will prevail’. Later by 7.30 pm Sasikala met the governor with the letters of support from hundred and odd MLAs. The meeting reportedly lasted for about half an hour and she is believed to have staked her claim to form the government.
The governor for his part has not given them any assurances and is likely to consult legal and constitutional experts to decide on the issue. He is also expected to send a report to the President. On 10 February, amidst rumours that OPS was going to shift Chennai Police Commissioner George, Director General of Police Rajendran and Chief Secretary Girija Vaidyanathan met him at his residence. Later, they also met the Governor and discussed the current situation prevailing in the state. Chennai CoP George also met the governor.
The governor has got various options before him. Legal and Constitutional experts are of the opinion that he also has his own discretionary powers. He can review Pannerselvam’s resignation and allow him to withdraw it and later ask him to prove his majority in the assembly on a fixed date. Secondly, he can also ask Sasikala to prove her majority as she had been supposedly elected as the legislature party leader of AIADMK. If both of them fail to prove their strength, then he can dissolve the assembly and enforce President’s rule paving the way for the next election within 6 months. If the main opposition party (DMK) leader stakes claim, that can also be considered.
As of now, the governor had met both OPS and VKS. While VKS had staked claim to form government, OPS had briefed him about the party’s bylaws and how the election of Sasikala was in violation of it. Apart from staking his claim, he had also alleged that the MLAs have been detained without their consent, as reported earlier. While VKS had claimed support of 121 MLAs, OPS had said that 64 out of them have actually extended their support to him. The governor must also be aware of the action taken by the Election Commission and the statement made by it. He must also be in the know of Sasikala’s predicament in the disproportionate assets case, for which the SC is going to deliver the verdict anytime from now, mostly by Monday the 13th of February.
All the MLAs (and MPs) have only one objective now, that is to last for the entire term. As things unfolded after Jaya’s death, they rightly preferred to be with VKS, treating her as their ‘Chinnamma’. But, the master stroke played by OPS on 7th night would have definitely made an impact on many of them. They must also be aware of the fact that the party cadres and the general public are dead against Sasikala. In spite of that they have yielded to VKS mainly because of (i) motivation by fear, (ii) motivation by money and (iii) the main objective to last their full term of office.
On the other hand, OPS has the advantage of maximum support from the party cadres and other functionaries, other than ministers, MPs and MLAs. Every day he is gaining people and his support is only increasing, and the more time he gets, the more support he would gain.
In the event of Sasikala getting convicted in the disproportionate assets case, she might make her own choice of a person from her supporters and order the others to support him. However, there is every chance of the MLAs shifting their loyalties immediately to OPS given the prevailing situation in the state and the mindset of party cadres and general public. Only hardcore loyalists of VKS will remain with the person chosen by her. In such a scenario, OPS may find things easier.
Sasikala is very much aware of the fact that the party cadres and the general public hate her. She knew that she doesn’t have any reputation to lose. Her only aim is to capture power and become the Chief Minister, because, at a corner of her mind she fears a negative verdict in the disproportionate assets case. If she captures power before that, she may have a few options like delaying her arrest, getting herself admitted in a hospital, etc., because of holding a constitutional post. That is why she is vehemently trying to become the Chief Minister. If the verdict is in favour of her, then she and her family would become autocratic and try to make as much as possible within the remaining four years, given the fact that they can never win the people’s verdict at the electoral arena.
One thing is certain. The verdict given by the lower court could be reversed in the high court only because of the presence of the powerful personality called Jayalalitha. Now, without that power, Sasikala is a non-entity and a favourable verdict is only a remote possibility.
As far as the center is concerned, getting the support of OPS-led AIADMK, particularly in the Rajya Sabha, is any day more credible and better than VKS-led AIADMK. AIADMK sans VKS family is certainly a better option for the central government, especially during the general elections in 2019.
Also, a verdict in favour of Sasikala will be a very bad news not only for BJP and central government, but also for Tamil Nadu and country as well. In the event of a favourable verdict for Sasikala, four years of Tamil Nadu under VKS, will be a testing time, for the “Mannargudi Mafia” would run amuck and the state is bound to witness a reign of destruction. Media reports have cited state intelligence reports that riots and violence may occur anytime due to the presence of rowdies and rogue elements brought to Chennai city by VKS camp.
However, the center has been closely watching the state right from the day Jayalalitha was admitted in Apollo hospitals. The center has been coordinating with the state government and the governor has also been sending his reports regularly. The arrests of Sasikala’s benami Sekar Reddy and the former Chief Secretary Rama Mohana Rao and their subsequent interrogation would have given lots of information to the cente,r and the central intelligence agencies would have also continued their surveillance. So, the center can be expected to strike at the right time, after all, BJP also needs to make a mark in TN politics.
Whatever said and done, whether the party is led by OPS or VKS, AIADMK has undoubtedly lost its sheen and become weakened to a large extent and the weakening will further continue in the coming days. In the next elections, the party headed by charismatic leaders like MGR and Jayalalitha may end up like an ‘also-ran’.