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The challenges facing Sasikala

Kalyani Shankar |

Chinnamma Sasikala has become Amma in Tamil Nadu and she took charge of the AIADMK on Thursday. Sasikala’s story is like a movie script as she had come to Jayalalitha as a video library owner to supply videos and had become her close companion three decades ago. But with Dame Luck smiling on her  she will be now controlling lakhs of party workers and also the Tamil Nadu government.

The million dollar question is whether she will be able to steer the party and fill the vaccuum left by  Jayalalitha. It is too big a vaccum for any one to fill as Jayalalitha was a towering personality, a charismatic leader, good orator and a shrewed politician who fought her battles – both legal and political – from the front. 

The first thing Sasikala did was to change her name from Sasikala Natarajan to V.K.Sasikala, disasociating from her husband Natarajan. Still she cannot simply wish away her family which is known as the “Mannargudi mafia”. She is perceived as corrupt, manipulative and power hungry, and a factional leader. So she has to change this image and rise above all these characteristics to become a good leader. After all politics is perception and the perception in her case is not positive.

Sasikala’s challenges are many. She is a novice in politics and the first thing is to consolidate her position within the party. Right now, it is an emotional transition and except for some murmurs here and there she has managed to become the powerful General Secretary, a post held by Jayalalitha since 1990. The first test will be the local bodies elections, due early next year. But whether she can exercise the kind of control Jayalalitha had over the  1.5 crore party members, is  a big question. She is not a mass leader nor an impressive orator. Four big caste blocs play an influential role within the party – Thevars, Kongu Vellalar Gounders, Vanniyars and Dalits. Jayalalitha was adept at balancing the interests of these groups, especially Thevars and Gounders but Sasikala is known to favour only her caste group – the Thevars.

The second challenge will be to win a possible power struggle if chief Minister O. Panneerselvam decides to emerge as his own man. OPS, as he is known,  has few friends among his colleagues but he is liked by party and officials. He is playing his cards well. Though keeping a low profile Pannerselvam had been the chief minister nominated by Jayalalitha herself twice while Sasikala had not been given any post in the party or the government. His first meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi this month is said to have gone off well and the BJP too would like to rule Tamil Nadu through him as he has political legitimacy.

During his meeting with Modi he  sought  Central assistance of about Rs 22,500 crore to meet the losses caused by the recent cyclonic storm Vardah which hit three districts in the state, including Chennai, on December 12. The Inter-Ministerial team, deputed by the Centre to assess the damage has already visited the state. He has also taken up the fishermen issue,  retrieval of Katchateevu and Cauvery water sharing already. He can implement things because Tamil Nadu has a good set of officers.  

He has already got a chief secretary of his choice by appointing Girija Vaidyanathan. The controversial chief secretary Rammohan Rao whom tax authorities had raided and seized crores of money and properties last week was Chinnamma’s choice. So OPS has already begun choosing his team. The next step may be a reshuffle as he has been carrying on with Jayalalitha’s team so far.

Thirdly, the DMK patriarch M. Karunanidhi has named his younger son Stalin as his political heir and successor and he is taking over as working president on January 4. Stalin has been in politics for decades and has remained in the shadow of his father. He had worked hard during the 2016 Assembly polls and the DMK had won 98 seats to emerge as a tough opposiiton. If the DMK manages to get the support of 20 AIADMK MLAs, the Panneerselvam Government would be in trouble. The opposition is keeping a close watch on what is happening in the Tamil Nadu government as well as in the AIADMK. The DMK is not in a hurry to break up the AIADMK which won 135 seats in the 2016 polls but Sasikala may have a tough time guarding her MLAs who could be lured. The fact that it needs two-thirds to break the party may be to her advantge.

Sasikala also has her legal battles to fight on her  Disproportionate Assets case. Hearing a petiion by an AIADMK worker Joseph, a Madras High Court judge has raised doubts over the death of Jayalalitha while asking why her body can't be exhumed to understand the circumstances in which she died and the kind of treatment she was administered. Sasikala controlled access to Jaya in her last days.

It is too early to predict whether Sasikala will emerge as a successful leader as she is untested but she will certainly try her best to do so.