Tamil Nadu gripped by political turmoil

Left: Mr Panneerselvam (far left), seen here in a meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi, served as interim chief minister and has said he is ready to continue as state chief, but was sacked as party treasurer and faces expulsion from
Mr Panneerselvam (left), seen here in a meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi, served as interim chief minister and has said he is ready to continue as state chief, but was sacked as party treasurer and faces expulsion from the party.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Left: Mr Panneerselvam (far left), seen here in a meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi, served as interim chief minister and has said he is ready to continue as state chief, but was sacked as party treasurer and faces expulsion from
Ms Sasikala, a political novice whose proximity to Tamil Nadu's late leader J. Jayalalithaa propelled her to the top, was named by the AIADMK party on Sunday as chief minister.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Interim leader says he was forced to quit by newly named state chief minister

The southern state of Tamil Nadu plunged into political uncertainty after a succession battle broke out within the ruling party, just two months after the death of its revered leader J. Jayalalithaa.

In a surprise announcement outside Ms Jayalalithaa's beachside memorial on Tuesday night, caretaker chief minister O. Panneerselvam, 66, said he had been forced to resign by interim general secretary V.K. Sasikala, 60, a political novice whose proximity to the popular leader has propelled her to the top.

The two leaders of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) yesterday traded charges and countercharges, but Ms Sasikala, who was named by the party on Sunday as chief minister, appears to have the support of as many as 130 out of 134 party legislators.

"When Jayalalithaa died, people were waiting for chaos. But we showed them we were better... No one can split us," Ms Sasikala said yesterday. "I will protect the party our 'mother' sheltered. We will beat our enemies, this I swear, on Jaya. Long live Amma."

The politics of Tamil Nadu has been personality-driven, dominated by the likes of Ms Jayalalithaa - better known as Amma - and Mr M. Karunanidhi of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) party.

After Ms Jayalalithaa's death at the age of 68 from a cardiac arrest on Dec 5, Mr Panneerselvam, a Cabinet minister, was picked to be interim chief minister. He has said he is ready to continue as state chief, but was sacked yesterday as party treasurer and faces expulsion from the party.

Analysts noted that prolonged infighting would lead to political instability in the state, which has a population of 78 million. The AIADMK has served nearly one year of its five-year term.

Still, neither side seemed to be in a conciliatory mood yesterday, with Mr Panneerselvam maintaining that he would prove his majority in the assembly while promising a probe into Ms Jayalalithaa's death. There have been unsubstantiated rumours that sinister factors contributed to her death.

"There should have been a second in command and a mechanism for succession when Jayalalithaa was in power. But it was a one-leader-centric party, so it has to face this kind of crisis. We don't know where this is heading," said Dr C. Lakshmanan, an associate professor at Madras Institute of Development Studies.

The state especially needs political leadership now to deal with an agrarian crisis brought on by a water shortage, he said.

Ms Sasikala's challenges do not end with the succession battle. She is facing a corruption case, with judgment expected in the Supreme Court as early as next week. A guilty verdict in the case, involving around 660 million rupees (S$13.9 million) of wealth unaccounted for, would mean that the former video store owner would not be able to hold any official posts.

Adding to the drama surrounding the succession, the governor of the state, Mr Vidyasagar Rao - who has to administer the oath of office - has not returned to Tamil Nadu, upturning the AIADMK's earlier plan to swear Ms Sasikala in on Tuesday.

There is also speculation that the AIADMK's political rivals like the DMK or Bharatiya Janata Party - both of which have denied any interference - have a hand in the ongoing succession battle and have been supporting Mr Panneerselvam.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 09, 2017, with the headline 'Tamil Nadu gripped by political turmoil'. Print Edition | Subscribe