AIADMK after Jayalalithaa: All decks cleared for Sasikala, but will Panneerselvam play ball?

The story goes that sometime early this year, O Panneerselvam, usually an unflappable kind, lost his cool with Sasikala over some issue. The showdown was so bitter that Panneerselvam was subsequently sidelined and not made a member of the electoral committee of the AIADMK that recommends candidates for every seat to Jayalalithaa. Another heavyweight, then Power minister 'Natham' R Vishwanathan who too does not share a great rapport with Sasikala, also was kept out.

Those in the know of things say that things are not hunky dory between Sasikala and Panneerselvam. The working relationship was so strained that most of the communication is relayed through Sheela Balakrishnan, advisor to the Tamil Nadu government.

But temporary truce seems to have been bought for now. For three days now, Panneerselvam has been visiting Poes Garden everyday where Sasikala also addresses the ministers. The AIADMK has been trying to portray these as party meetings to avoid the charge that Sasikala is interfering in government functioning or that Panneerselvam is running his office out of Poes Garden.

But the jury is out on how long this arrangement will function smoothly. On Thursday, district secretaries were reportedly asked to endorse Sasikala as the next general secretary. The General Council meeting is due to take place next week which means Sasikala could even step into Jayalalithaa's shoes soon after the mourning period is over. The other option is to have Jayalalithaa as permanent general secretary and Sasikala as working general secretary. This is what the AIADMK leaders meant when they said, "decision will be taken in the name of Amma."

 AIADMK after Jayalalithaa: All decks cleared for Sasikala, but will Panneerselvam play ball?

File photo of former Chief Minister Jayalalithaa with Sasikala. PTI

The only hitch is that both Panneerselvam and Sasikala belong to the same dominant OBC Thevar community. The top two posts to the same community could spark resentment among the Gounders and the Nadars, something the DMK could tap to fuel trouble. But the counter-view was articulated by an AIADMK leader who asked if there is any trouble in the BJP because both the Prime Minister and party president come from the same state.

Is contesting as the AIADMK candidate from RK Nagar constituency in Chennai, the seat Jayalalithaa represented, next for Sasikala? And once elected, make a pitch for the chief minister's chair?

Given the opacity with which AIADMK functions, what happens next is anyone's guess. The rank and file is restless, disturbed, anxious. Many of them are still upset that Amma was not buried as chief minister. They ask what was the hurry to get Panneerselvam sworn in as the chief minister at 1:30 am on the intervening night of Monday-Tuesday.

The presence of Sasikala's family, and her husband M Natarajan is another disconcerting factor. Particularly since he was anathema to Jayalalithaa and she had got him thrown out of Poes Garden, issuing specific instructions to everyone in the AIADMK not to interact with him. Who is calling the shots now in the AIADMK, is anyone's guess.

A lot is being made about Narendra Modi's pat on Sasikala's head at Rajaji Hall in Chennai on Tuesday. But history does not point to any friendship between the two. When Sasikala and family were banished from Poes Garden in December 2011, Modi had reportedly sent across a senior bureaucrat from Gandhinagar to Chennai to oversee alternate arrangements. Cooks and domestic help from Gujarat handled Veda Nilayam, Jayalalithaa's residence for over three months. Modi needs no tutoring on the internal equations within the AIADMK. He knows more than a lot of other people.

The question that arises is whether everyone will back Sasikala for the top job. Having been Jayalalithaa's shadow remains her trump card and that also gives her some kind of a pan-AIADMK acceptance in a party ruled by district-level leaders. Given that she had a role to play in who fought the elections in 2016, Sasikala has a lot of support in the AIADMK legislature party. For them, now is payback time.

But some second rung leaders in the districts, evading a direct reply, cryptically say "we have to listen to the cadre also.'' The worry is that it should not become a case of 'Elect Sasikala, Get Natarajan Free' kind of arrangement. Allowing Natarajan backdoor entry into the party, a district functionary from Dindigul told me, will be the worst tribute to Amma.

Of particular interest is also whether Panneerselvam would give up his seat for Sasikala should she want to be CM. Given that OPS has his backers in a powerful non-AIADMK party, it looks unlikely. It would be politically foolhardy to underestimate OPS.

Updated Date: Dec 10, 2016 13:19:40 IST