The return of VK Sasikala, former close aide and confidante of J Jayalalitha after completing four-year jail term in the disproportionate assets case in Bengaluru, to Chennai has put the ruling AIADMK, Chief Minister Edappady Palaniswamy, and Deputy Chief Minister O Panneerselvam in a dilemma: whether to accept her leadership of the party and face the coming Assembly election unitedly or ignore her existence and continue leading the truncated party and the government.
Neither Palaniswamy nor Panneerselvam is a charismatic leader or has any mass following. Though Palaniswamy was hand-picked by Sasikala as Chief Minister, he and Panneerselvam have been propped up in position of power by the BJP and they in turn have been faithfully carrying out the dictates of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Amiit Shah.
The BJP is all set to take a piggy-back ride on the AIADMK to the Tamil Nadu Assembly in the coming election. The return of Sasikala has upset the apple cart. The way in which the AIADMK cadres and supporters lined up the 350-km highway from Bengaluru to Chennai and waited for hours to greet Sasikala indicates she still has complete hold on them.
These people see in Sasikala, popularly called Chinnamma, a splitting image of Jayalalitha, Amma to them. After the death of Jayalalitha in December 2016, the general council of the AIADMK unanimously elected Sasikala its general secretary, the position held by Jayalalitha.
At the time of 2016 Assembly election, Jayalalitha was in indifferent health and was preoccupied with the disproportionate wealth case which was in its final stages in the Supreme Court. Much of the selection of candidates was left to Sasikala and her control of the party was complete. But she cannot contest election for the next six years.
Though Sasikala has been keeping a studied silence since her return to Tamil Nadu on 8 February except for a call of unity to party workers, TTV Dhinakaran, her nephew and leader of the Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam, said she would play an important role in the formation of the next government in Tamil Nadu.
The present rulers claimed to have removed Sasikala from the post of general secretary and primary membership of the AIADMK which its legally convened general council alone is competent to do. Only the general secretary is authorised to convene a general council of the party. Panneerselvam and Palaniswamy have been managing the affairs of the AIADMK as convenor and co-convenor respectively.
Return of Sasikala has put them in an embarrassing situation. The government is on a spree confiscating the ill-gotten landed properties of Sasikala. It closed down the newly opened Jayalalitha memorial on the Marina beach for fear of Sasikala visiting the monument to pay her respects which would inevitably draw huge crowds and demonstrate her popularity.
With unlimited resources and power on their side and the backing of the BJP, Palaniswamy and Panneerselvam may succeed in keeping Sasikala bottled up for the time being. But that is no answer to take on the formidable DMK, aided by allies like the congress and the Indian Union Muslim League, poised to occupy Fort St George.