Will Sasikala’s and Rajni’s entry change TN poll equations in 2021?

Kalyani Shankar

The ruling AIADMK in Tamil Nadu is quietly getting ready to face the state assembly polls scheduled for early next year.  With just a few months left, the party is sorting out its internal problems, first by declaring the incumbent Chief Minister E. Palaniswamy (EPS) as its chief ministerial candidate, thereby side-lining the other claimant and Deputy Chief Minister O.Pannerselvam  (OPS).

Significantly, the 2021 polls will also be the first one without two icons: M. Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa. It will also be an acid test for the AIADMK (All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) and DMK (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) leadership. In fact none of the parties have charismatic leadership.  Also, no party has also done a hat-trick in Tamil Nadu so far. 

Though the fight is between the two major Dravidian parties – there are two X factors. The first is Sasikala Natarajan, former companion and confidante of former AIADMK supremo and former CM Jayalalitha. Sentenced to four years of imprisonment in a disproportionate assets case, she will come out of prison in February 2021. She has enough money and political skills to either take over the AIADMK or join hands with her nephew T. T. V. Dinakaran, who has floated another outfit  (Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam) of which Sasikala is the chief.  

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Sasikala has also kept her cards close to her chest. ‘ Chinnamma’, as she is called, has many loyalists within the AIADMK and she was also a major force during Jayalalithaa’s time. Sasikala’s re -entry at this time might ruffle many feathers .The only consolation is that as per the law, she cannot contest elections for the next six years. The party backed Sasikala soon after the demise of Jayalalitha, but after her sentence, it united under E. Palaniswamy (EPS). 

The chief minister believes that his government has managed to deliver on several fronts, including the COVID-19 crisis.  He has strengthened himself within the party and the government as well. Secondly, it is not clear whether ‘Chinnamma’ will continue to have the same clout among the influential Thevar community, whom she empowered earlier. 

Third, Sasikala could also break the AIADMK and draw the disgruntled elements in the party to her side. Fourth, the party faces several other issues including anti-incumbency, internal instability, the absence of a charismatic leader, and also an onslaught by the DMK.  The DMK, led by M. K. Stalin, has been painting the EPS government as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “pawn”. 

The BJP has so far controlled the AIADMK government from Delhi and also worked for keeping it untied. Currently, TN Chief Minister EPS has a good equation with the Centre.

The BJP also has no interest in dealing with Sasikala or her nephew, TTV Dinakaran. The sudden raid on Sasikala’s property in Poes garden last month reveals the BJP’s strategy. Sasikala plans to move into the palatial mansion which she is currently constructing opposite Jaya”s house in the same area. About 64 of her properties have also been attached by the government’s agencies.

The second unknown factor is Tamil superstar Rajnikant.  Though he is depending on his fans, it is not known whether he has the skills to organize and run his proposed party. Though wooed by the Congress and the BJP, he had announced his intention to launch his party only in 2017.  In 2020, March he followed it up and announced that his party would contest all the 234 seats in the Assembly elections. The actor is now focused on strengthening Rajini Makkal Mandrams (a political variant of his fan clubs). 

Rajnikanth has also stated that issues such as power- sharing, in case of an alliance, with another superstar Kamal Hassan, who has floated his party called Makkal Needhi Maiam (MNM) last year, could be discussed only ahead of the polls. Together both superstars would certainly draw a huge crowd, but it is unknown about their vote-catching capacity.  Rajni may not interact with the public due to the ongoing Covid-19, given his age. Kamal’s party on the other hand also got just 2 percent of the vote share in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, failing to win any seat.

Rajni also wants to fill up a huge political vacuum after the exit of the two icons- Jayalalitha and the DMK patriarch M. Karunaidhi. “This is the opportune time to create a movement (to oust the Dravidian behemoths] If not now, it will be never,” he commented some time ago.   He once declared that he would not project himself as the Chief Minister candidate and would prefer to nominate someone young for the job in 2021.

This clearly shows that he wants to be a puppeteer. Still, many of his fans believe in his famous dialogue in his blockbuster movie Muththu – “Nobody knows when I will come, how I will come, but I will be there when the time come. “

The pace of the political momentum and regrouping of the political parties will pick up in the next few weeks. As of now, it will be a huge challenge for Rajni to fight the cadre- based Dravidian parties.  He might also have an alliance with the BJP, given his supposed right-wing sympathies. The up coming polls will show whether the arithmetic or the chemistry of the players wins.  The Sasikala and Rajni factors certainly will play out.

Kalyani Shankar is a senior journalist and analyst based in New Delhi. 

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