VK Sasikala’s backstory could change people’s perception and trump O Panneerselvam's chances
VK Sasikala seems to have upped her ante in a decisive fashion.
Even as rebel AIADMK leader O Panneerselvam (OPS) failed to gain any additional momentum with no more show of strength from his senior party colleagues on the seventh day of his sensational Marina revolt, his bête noire VK Sasikala seems to have upped her ante in a decisive fashion.
From a practically unconvincing midnight-start a week ago, she has fast-tracked her political transformation with a backstory that now claims a legacy of three decades, not just a few days or years. And she also has begun to appear more confident about the support of the MLAs who are siding with her. It won’t be surprising if she allows them to go home soon from a suburban resort where they have been housed for the last few days.
She is certainly far from addressing even the periphery of the public sentiment against her, but strategically she has achieved quite a bit in at least establishing her claim as J Jayalalithaa’s legitimate heir by partially disputing her critics’ charges, and even the pubic perception that she was a caregiver-turned-political squatter. The biggest charge against her was that Jaya considered her only as a caregiver and housekeeper and never gave her any political job. The apparent proof was that whenever Jaya had to step down, it was OPS that she banked on.
In Sasikala’s address on Monday to the party workers as well as the media, her strategy was to debunk this perception and claim a legacy even while maintaining that she was never interested in any role of authority, but was jumping headlong because OPS had turned out to be quite a “traitor.” She said that she had been doing a lot nuts and bolts work for the party. Besides taking care of Jaya’s needs, that was what occupied her most of the time. It also included screening the petitions from local leaders and even handling alliance talks.
In fact, her claim about this office-work for Jaya is not entirely unfounded because it was an open secret that she was the first port of call for most of the leaders in the party and that she had a roll in handpicking the candidates for both assembly and parliament elections. Leaders of other parties who had negotiated poll-alliances with the AIADMK also have vouched for her role and had even found her reasonable.
However, what’s questionable is whether it was a role that she systematically appropriated and whether it was a ploy for keeping the party infrastructure away from Jaya so that she became a power centre. Her critics — whether it is the OPS camp, Jaya’s niece Deepa Jayakumar or even movie director Visu, who made programmes for Jaya TV — say that she had usurped this go-between job herself to be in command. OPS on Sunday said that the harassment she suffered at the hands of Sasikala for more than 15 years, ever since he was chosen by Jaya as her standby, had been terrible, while Deepa had alleged that Sasikala wilfully kept her away from her aunt. Deepa had said that she wasn’t allowed to visit Jaya when she was in Apollo Hospital even when the others were easily walking in.
Sasikala’s backstory was also aimed at the general public that have been visibly raged — going by the countless videos that are trending on social media, TV channels and YouTube — at her self-claimed role not only as Jaya’s heir, but also as the chief minister. She is seeking to establish is that she is not a novice or an opportunist, but a legitimate member of the AIADMK who handled high level affairs of the party with the approval of Jaya.
And this story is as old as Jaya’s political genesis itself. According to Sasikala, it was she who gave Jaya the moral courage when she was disheartened by the attack against her after MGR’s death and wanted to quit. So, her claim is far deeper than what OPS's because his apparent win of Jaya’s trust happened only in 2001 whereas she had been a part of Jaya’s political life right from the beginning.
Will it cut ice with the people of Tamil Nadu? Will they trust her? At the moment, it might not; but if she can surmount the present image and power crisis, she may.
Her situation is almost similar to what Janaki Ramachandran faced when Jaya was edged out of the party in 1987-88 after MGR’s death. Janaki had all the leaders and the majority of the MLAs with her, but she disappeared into insignificance in a year while Jaya rose like a star and continued to dominate Tamil Nadu politics for the rest of her life. However the difference is that Janaki was a just a prop for Jaya’s detractors and didn’t have the interest, ambition or training that Sasikala has. Janaki made no impact, had no image and easily gave way. Sasikala will not do that. Her makeup is visibly different and she is ruthlessly following the Jaya template. As somebody who has seen very closely how Jaya operated, Sasikala will be a tough opponent. She will not give up easily even if OPS wins the initial battle. The spread of her “Mannargudi” family has the muscle to support her.
Sasikala also appears to be relaxed with her MLAs. She has made her third trip in a row to their camp on Monday, that is nearly two hours from Chennai, and seemingly it looks like an indoctrination programme to completely win their trust and loyalty. She clearly wants to be a step ahead of his rivals and factor in the possible support that Raj Bhavan might offer OPS. If the Governor calls for a floor test first, without swearing her in, she wants the MLAs to still stick with her even if there are inducements from the rival camp, which can happen only if they embody loyalty. Possibly, the repeated visits, personal assurances and the bonding over the last three days have achieved that and now even in a free environment, many of them might not switch sides as OPS and his backers hope.
OPS’s biggest advantage is the public support, similar to what Jaya had when she was ousted after MGR’s death. He is by far the most democratic and affable leader in Tamil Nadu’s contemporary politics and has clearly found instant connect with the people across class barriers. The only way to ensure that that he’s not on a sticky wicket is unleashing a lethal counter attack and puncture Sasikala’s backstory because her credibility factor is still very low.
This is an opportunity he cannot miss. If he wants to stay in the race, he has to get at least the number that will not give Sasikala a majority in the assembly. It’s hard for OPS to win a vote of trust in the assembly, all that he can try for is to kill Sasikala’s chances because a poll in the near future will be good for him.
Meanwhile, the chances of the entire scenario going haywire are also high if Sasikala gets an adverse verdict from the Supreme Court on Tuesday. If that happens, the story will have to be rewritten.
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