Sasikala, a close aide, and companion of the former Tamil Nadu chief minister J. Jayalalithaa will be released soon. Post-Jayalalitha’s demise in 2016 there was massive political turmoil within the ruling AIADNK until she was sent to jail in February 2017 for four years. Her jail term ends next month. Will she become a factor in the Tamil Nadu politics ahead of the Assembly elections in April-May? Some believe that she can play a role and others that she might bide her time but she has an interest in politics.
It was a proverbial slip between the cup and the lip in 2017 when she was about to become the chief minister of Tamil Nadu after Jayalalithaa’s death, but destiny took her to jail. However, people close to her say that her ambition remains intact though politics has changed in these four years. Since she cannot contest for the next six years according to the law she could only remain as a power behind the throne.
In the absence of ‘Amma’, what impact will ‘Chinna Amma’ have in politics? Though Sasikala’s evolution into a politician after emerging from the shadows of Jayalalithaa was cut short abruptly and she should realize that the power she had as Jaya’s shadows was entirely on Jayalalithaa’s terms.
But the options for her are not many. Much has happened in the state during her jail term. Chief Minister E.Palaniswamy has not only consolidated his power both in the government and the party but also on friendly terms with the BJP. His biggest achievement is keeping the party united so far.
The first is that she might try to grab back the AIADMK as she still has many loyalists in the party. But her possible re-entry would further complicate the political environment in the state. Her one- time loyalists – the current chief minister E. Palaniswamy and his deputy O. Pannerselvam- will resist this. Notwithstanding the Ministers reiterating the party line, some second-rung party leaders would like striking a “working relationship” with the Sasikala-Dhinakaran camp would only be beneficial for the AIADMK.
The ongoing Coronavirus crisis has helped AIADMK to improve its stature in the state initially. However, the growing numbers in the state have led to a decrease in his popularity of Palaniswamy. The AIADMK is now run from Delhi. Above all, the party has also announced an alliance with the BJP for the upcoming assembly polls. The BJP seems to be promoting the concept of a coalition government in the State, an idea that the AIADMK has rejected flatly. The party has never shared power.
The sudden raid on Sasikala’s property in Chennai’s posh Poes Garden and the Income Tax Department’s attachment recently of a new palatial bungalow under construction opposite Jayalalithaa’s house indicate this.
The next best is to head her nephew T.T.V Dinakaran’s Amma Makkal Kazhagam. Even this can pose a serious challenge to the incumbent AIADMK in Tamil Nadu polls. TTV won his seat in R.K. Nagar bye-elections but his party did not do well in the 2019 polls. He had floated the party with Sasikala’s approval in 2017. Though she cannot contest in elections for the next six years she could certainly play backroom maneuverings. AMMK has already taken away five percent of AIADMK’s votes.
Sasikala has plenty of money and also political insight with her insider experience with Jayalalithaa. It is said that she and her nephew have some influence in the South of Tamil Nadu. This might cut into the AIADMK votes. The silence of Dhinakaran,
is an indication that there could be some deal in the works? There is also talk of a merger of the AIADMK and the AMMK, but it is unclear what role Sasikala will play in this set-up.
The third is to take a back seat and silently support the AIADMK and wait for 2026, which might be her last option. An ambitious woman like Sasikala might not opt for this.
It must be remembered that Tamil Nadu has chosen either the DMK or the AIADMK since 1967. It is the turn of the DMK now.
“There will be no change in the party stand on matters concerning Sasikala,” the Chief Minister Palaniswamy said recently. The statement assumes significance, as it’s the first time that Palaniswami has made a public statement on Sasikala’s release and her future in the AIADMK.
The AMMK, meanwhile, claimed her release would have an impact on State politics. “We are eagerly awaiting Chinna Amma’s release,” said AMMK spokesperson CR Saraswathi.
But for the jail term, Sasikala might have played a much bigger role in AIADMK and Tamil Nadu politics. She is keeping her cards close to her chest but 2021 is not 2017. She will play her role directly or indirectly, however small it might be.
Kalyani Shankar is a senior journalist and analyst based in New Delhi.