Sasikala vs O Panneerselvam: Why it is only MPs and not MLAs who are joining OPS' cause

Editor's note: This piece was originally published on Monday. It is being republished in light of the fact that the Supreme Court verdict on the disproportionate assets case is due on Tuesday.

At the end of five days, O Panneerselvam has only seven legislators — himself included — to show for this rebellion. It is almost as if the caretaker chief minister, is following in the footsteps of the original Chennai Super King MS Dhoni by leaving unfinished business to the last over, which in this case is the Supreme Court verdict in the disproportionate assets case. The Panneerselvam camp believes if Sasikala is run out by the SC, the chief minister can indulge in pinch-hitting to reap a rich harvest of legislators.

Team Sasikala pooh-poohs Panneerselvam's day dreaming and refers to the initial 'O' in his name to label him 'Zero' Panneerselvam. The camp takes confidence in the fact that the legislators have not deserted Sasikala, even if it is because their right to freedom allegedly stands seriously curtailed. Panneerselvam has accused Sasikala of setting four 'goondas' after every MLA, using both money and muscle power to retain her flock.

But what is the real situation on the ground? Of the 135 AIADMK legislators (plus Jayalalithaa) who were elected in 2016, sources say at least 90-odd are firm Sasikala loyalists, having got their ticket thanks to the woman from Mannargudi. That is why they say, they are staying put in her camp. Anyone underestimating the hold of the Sasikala family over the MLAs, is making a grave mistake.

The DNA of the AIADMK also is different.

There is a strong emotional connect to the Amma figure, which is why both Sasikala and Panneerselvam are going out of their way to reinforce their Amma connect. Many of those who have no love lost for Sasikala, feel betraying Poes Garden at this juncture would be to annoy Jaya's spirit. The portrait of Jayalalithaa is prominently placed at the media interactions that both address, almost as if it is their Aadhaar card to establish their political identity.

So while Sasikala talks of her three-decade-long association with Jayalalithaa, Panneerselvam presents himself as Amma's choice, every single time. What has also helped the chief minister get public support is Sasikala's decision to prefer the shade offered by her family tree, which stands discredited thanks to the numerous cases of economic offences in which some members are embroiled and also because Jayalalithaa in 2011 had banished them from Poes Garden.

Fie image of O Panneerselvam. PTI

Fie image of O Panneerselvam. PTI

But the SC verdict could turn everything topsy-turvy, even for many in this loyal group of 90. No lawmaker obviously wants to face another state Assembly election within a year and would back whoever looks to be in a better situation to form the government. At the end of the day, factors of loyalty to Sasikala, interest of Tamil Nadu and public opinion are subservient to individual political interest. Period. That will determine which way the Sasikala camp will swing.

But at the same time, do not count on the entire lot switching sides. Even among this 90, a sub-group of 30-40 MLAs is unlikely to budge. That is because the Sasikala family has a better hold over them due to caste and other factors. That will be enough to ensure Panneerselvam cannot form a government on his own.

Sasikala though harping on the gender factor for the manner in which she is being targeted, is also taking the fight to the Opposition's den. She talks of her MLAs as lions and in Singam season (Actor Suriya's hugely successful franchise Singam 3 released this Friday), it is a metaphor that fired them up. Except that Rajinikanth told us in Sivaji a decade ago that "Singham single aa dhaan varum (a lion always attacks alone)".

Also Panneerselvam, notwithstanding the 'paavum' (innocent) image his social media team is trying to build up for him, is not the most popular person in the AIADMK. There is huge professional jealousy against him because of how Lady Luck and Amma favoured him time and again. He was elected to the Tamil Nadu Assembly for the first time in May 2001 and straightaway bagged the plum revenue portfolio. Four months later, he struck gold when Jayalalithaa had to step aside as chief minister in September and she rewarded Panneerselvam's over-the-top servility by nominating him in her stead. It is a double promotion that many old-timers in the party have not been able to digest.

He was the chosen one again in September 2014 and Panneerselvam entered the record books as a chief minister who took the oath of office, sobbing and wiping his tears. On both occasions, he endeared himself to Jayalalithaa by being a mere nightwatchman. He was happy to occupy the crease but dared not occupy Jayalalithaa's chamber at the Secretariat or her chair. In Jayalalithaa's book, such acts are worth their weight in gold. None of this made him popular with his colleagues who saw him as a teashop owner from Periyakulam who had perfected sycophancy to the T.

Eleven MPs have crossed over to the Panneerselvam camp, that is being used to drive home the point that if the legislators are set free, they too would head to Greenways Road, where the caretaker chief minister lives.

But then the reasoning for the MPs is different. They are looking at 2019 and trying to cut their losses. They realise the public sentiment is against Sasikala and want to ensure a re-election two years from now.

But unless Panneerselvam gets the MLAs on his side, there is little he can do to dislodge Sasikala as the leader of the AIADMK legislature party. Time is running out despite the long rope Raj Bhavan has given Panneerselvam.

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Updated Date: Feb 14, 2017 08:44:28 IST

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