Impromptu protests broke out on 11 December at Poes Garden in Chennai, home to late Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa and her aide VK Sasikala, as party seniors, ministers and MLAs queued up outside. Leaders from Jayalalithaa's All India Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) were lining up to urge 'Chinnamma' (little mother, as Sasikala is referred to) to take over the leadership mantle of the party. In a well orchestrated event, chief minister O Panneerselvam, party MPs and deputy speaker of the Lok Sabha, Thambidurai, issued statements urging Sasikala to take a leadership role in the party.
All eyes were on one man until then — KA Sengottaiyan — a former minister in 1991 and 2011 and a strongman from the state's western belt. Sengottaiyan, belonging to the Kongu caste, a dominant backward community in the region, had a legendary feud with Sasikala, perhaps the reason why the anti-Sasikala faction looks to him for leadership. In 2011, when Sasikala was banished from Poes Garden by Jayalalithaa, Sengottaiyan celebrated publicly. When she returned a few months later, he was banished to political wilderness, although he was not refused a ticket in 2016 from Gobichettipalayam, his hometown.
But to the surprise of almost everyone in AIADMK, Sengottaiyan was one of the first to capitulate to the new leadership and even extol the virtues of Sasikala, much as he did with her predecessor Jayalalithaa, and before her, MG Ramachandran, the founder of the party.
"There is no rift in the party," he said angrily, speaking exclusively to Firstpost. "When the cadre is suffering from the death of Puratchi Thalaivi (Revolutionary Leader, as Jayalalithaa was called), when we are trying to come to terms with her loss, some elements want to use this period to sow seeds of doubt in the minds of the people."
Sengottaiyan was referring to speculation that he would lead the charge against Sasikala, in view of his historical rivalry with her. "These people are spreading canards that I am demanding new roles in the government, and they are spreading this through the media. Their machinations will not work. There is no doubt that the party will be run in the way that 'Amma' had envisioned," he added.
When questioned about what made him change his mind about Sasikala, despite a bitter feud with her in the past, he said, "In today's situation, the only eligible person to take the party forward is Chinnamma. So I have sent a request to her to take over the mantle of general secretary of the AIADMK," he explained.
"Not only me, but all top leaders are also of the same opinion. We hope that Chinnamma will accede to our request and don the mantle, as she has been with Jayalalithaa during her hardest period. Only she knows how Jayalalithaa functioned and knew her personally. This makes her the ideal person to become the general secretary of the party. No one else is eligible for the role," he said categorically.
When questioned about the protests against Sasikala’s leadership, Sengottaiyan chose to brush aside reports of frustration among the cadre. "The cadre will also accept the leadership of Chinnamma. She has been with Puratchi Thalaivi Amma for more than 30 years like a shadow and taken care of her, she has the same respect among the cadre as Jayalalithaa. So the party cadre and the people of Tamil Nadu will accept her," he claimed.
In 1987, when party founder MG Ramachandran died, Sengottaiyan transferred his loyalties to the Jayalalithaa faction, taking on MGR's wife Janaki. This time, he has chosen to go with Sasikala — perhaps without a choice, as there is no face for the alternative. However, he has not forgotten the lessons learnt three decades ago. "When MGR died, the same situation prevailed. The cadre chose Jayalalithaa and we were the ones who proposed her as the general secretary. The same situation is prevailing now again. In such a situation, the only person to lead the party forward is Chinnamma,” he said, careful to pepper every sentence with the moniker.
Sengottaiyan was one of the first leaders to meet with Sasikala at Poes Garden, on 7 December, the day after Jayalalithaa's funeral. Sources say that negotiations have been successful, with Sengottaiyan aiming for a minister's berth. However, what transpired between the two is not known. What's known is the sudden parroting of the term Chinnamma by a powerful politician who has held a grouse for at least five years now.
Sengottaiyan though subtly warned the BJP against trying to influence the party through other leaders. "Some people are dreaming that they can break the party and upset the government. This will never happen. In Parliament, AIADMK is the third biggest party. People who try to ruffle it will not succeed," he warned.
Updated Date: Dec 14, 2016 20:38:13 IST