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Sasikala takes over as Tamil Nadu CM: How the 'bloodless coup' was carried out

S Murari | Updated on: 5 February 2017, 20:39 IST

All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) general secretary VK Sasikala is all set to take over as the 12th Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. O Panneerselvam has stepped down in her favour.

The smooth transition of power comes exactly two months after the passing away of five time Chief Minister and party general secretary J Jayalalithaa following a prolonged illness. She died on 5 December last year.

At a hurriedly called meeting of the AIADMK legislature party, Panneerselvam announced he was resigning and proposed the name of Sasikala as leader to enable her to stake claim to form the government when Governor Ch. Vidyasagar Rao returns to Chennai from Ootacamund tonight. She was unanimously elected by all the 134 MLAs of the party.

While Sasikala will provide the Governor with a copy of the legislature party's resolution electing her as leader, Panneerselvam will formally submit the resignation of his ministry.

The Sasikala ministry is likely to be sworn into office by the Governor on Sunday night or Monday.

In a show of unity, Panneerselvam may become Deputy Chief Minister, it is speculated. If not, he will surely be No. 2, as he has been chief minister before.

Sasikala told legislators that it was Panneerselvam who wanted her to take over immediately after Jayalalithaa's death, but she declined as she needed to come to terms with the new situation.

She said she later agreed to take over as party general secretary after enabling Panneerselvam assume the mantle of Chief Ministership.

Sasikala said that she had decided to head the government now as it was felt that the party general secretary should also be the Chief Minister as had been the practice during the time of party founder MGR and his successor Jayalalithaa, to avoid dual power centres.

The build-up

An immediate trigger for Sasikala's decision to strike was the resignation of Jayalalithaa's long-time adviser and senior IAS officer Sheila Balakrshnan and two other officials who were secretaries to the CM.

Reports suggest that Panneerselvam eased them out on suspicion that they were taking instructions from Sasikala.

Panneerselvam was getting popular because he was humble and accessible, listened to the Opposition DMK and enjoyed a good rapport with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

He showed dynamism when he visited the victims of the recent Vardah cyclone and got a state law to legalise Jallikattu with the Centre's help. He also took up with the Prime Minister vital issues like water rows with neighbouring states - over Cauvery with Karnataka and Siruvani with Kerala.

He deftly ignored threats from Lok Sabha Deputy Speaker M Thambidurai who led an MPs team and sought a meeting with the Prime Minister to demand a central law on Jallikattu. This after Panneerselvam had already met Modi and agreed to his suggestion to a state-level law. With Modi refusing to meet him, Thambidurai met the President and submitted a memorandum.

Thambidurai never accepted Panneerselvam's leadership and from the outset, he wanted Sasikala to take over as Chief Minister as well party general secretary.

Unmindful of the threat from within, Panneerselvam soldiered on even as Leader of the Opposition and DMK working president MK Stalin told him that he did not have to look over his shoulder or fear any coup but carry on with work.

The last straw was the sacking of Jayalalithaa appointees in the senior bureaucracy in what was seen as an assertion of authority by Panneerselvam.

When Sasikala decided to strike back, Panneerselvam in keeping with his character avoided a showdown as he did not want to destabilise the government which has a comfortable majority in the Assembly and has a mandate to rule for another four years.

It was for the same reason that all the MLAs chose to go along with Sasikala though not all of them were her loyalists.

When MGR died in 1987, the AIADMK split into two factions, one led by Jayalalithaa and the other by his wife Janaki. The split led the DMK to come to power in 1989. And Jayalalithaa could come to power only in 1991, that too after she reunited the two factions and got the party's two-leaves symbol.

The present crop of MLAs know that any split in the party will force an election and neither Panneerselvam nor Sasikala has the charisma to lead them to power again.

Sasikala's rise

Having operated as power behind the throne ever since she moved into Jayalalithaa's household in late 1980s as her personal aide, Sasikala systematically sidelined MGR loyalists from the party and is said to have used her proximity to Jayalalithaa to amass wealth, leading to the conviction of the two by a special Bengaluru court in the Rs 56 crore assets case in September 2014.

Though Jayalalithaa and Sasikala were acquitted by the Karnataka High Court in May 2015, the Supreme Court has reserved the order on an appeal by the Karnataka government .

An adverse verdict against her will lead to instant disqualification of Sasikala as had happened to Jayalalithaa.

Like Jayalalithaa, Sasikala has decided to brazen it out instead of waiting for a clean chit by the Apex court.

More recently the Enforcement Directorate has reopened a case relating to foreign exchange violations in the import of transponders by Sasikala and her clan when they floated the JJ TV, the present Jaya TV which is also controlled by her family.

While partymen holding posts are playing it safe, there is a strong undercurrent of resentment against Sasikala among the rank and file as she was responsible for the exit of several senior leaders by denying them access to Jayalalithaa over the years.

Long used to power without responsibility, for the first time Sasikala will be accountable to the party and to the people. And she will be accepted only so long as she is able to win elections for the party.

A test of the public mood will be the by-election she will have to face within six months of assuming office. Jaya's compact RK Nagar constituency in the city, a bastion of the AIADMK, is vacant.

If Sasikala does not want to risk her future in the city where the DMK is strong, she may go south of Madurai, a traditional belt of her Thevar community.

The most important test will be how long she handles her husband Natarajan, who started as a PRO in the government and later became a power broker when Sasikala moved in with Jayalalithaa.

Already, after Jayalalithaa's death, he said at a press conference that Sasikala's Mannargudi clan will call the shots from now on.

The family has vast estates and control liquor trade through Midas Distilleries and other firms.

It was on suspicion that Natarajan was planning capture the party in the event of her conviction in the wealth case, that Jayalalithaa expelled Sasikala from her house and from the party. It was only after Sasikala publicly declared that she was unaware of the plot and she had no personal political ambitions was she readmitted by Jayalalithaa.

Now her long-held ambition is going to be realised.

From now on it will be a challenging time for her as the DMK, strong in the Assembly, is waiting to take her to task.

First published: 5 February 2017, 20:39 IST