Tamil Nadu rivals dig in as crisis deepens

Ms V. K. Sasikala gesturing upon her arrival to take up office at the AIADMK headquarters in Chennai, on Dec 31, 2016.
Ms V. K. Sasikala gesturing upon her arrival to take up office at the AIADMK headquarters in Chennai, on Dec 31, 2016.PHOTO: AFP

Jayalalithaa aide denies isolating legislators as acting Chief Minister calls for their release

Tamil Nadu's political crisis continued to deepen with dramatic scenes of Ms V. K. Sasikala, who is vying to be the next chief minister, crying while claiming to have the support of 129 legislators on her side.

The former video-rental shop owner also dispelled talk that she had kidnapped the legislators of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), who nevertheless remained cloistered in a luxury resort on the outskirts of Chennai.

The death of Tamil Nadu chief minister J. Jayalalithaa on Dec 5 has left a power vacuum in the state's ruling party, with Ms Sasikala locked in a battle for succession against caretaker Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam.

Ms Sasikala, who yesterday met party workers and legislators, has been accused by rivals of isolating the legislators and cutting off their access to the outside world, including their families, to keep her support intact.

She needs the support of a majority of state legislators. She also needs to be cleared in a graft case. The Supreme Court will likely give its verdict today and a conviction would prevent her from becoming chief minister.

"Unlike the rumour that I have held the assembly members captive, you yourself can see how free and happy they are," she told the media on Sunday after an emotional address to legislators that was shown on television.

Dabbing her eye with a handkerchief, Ms Sasikala, who has been catapulted to the top of AIADMK because of her close friendship with Ms Jayalalithaa, told legislators she would not be cowed.

Tamil Nadu, among India's more prosperous states, is an auto manufacturing hub that has had stable governance under either Mr M. Karunanidhi of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam or Ms Jayalalithaa over the past three decades.

When Ms Jayalalithaa was alive, she ruled her party with an iron fist with not a murmur of rebellion. Early last year, she bucked predictions to come back to power with the AIADMK.

Now, chances of a split in the party seem to be increasing with Mr Panneerselvam in no mood to back down. The politician, who was handpicked by Ms Jayalalithaa to be chief minister on two occasions while she fought graft cases, has been gaining supporters every day even though he does not yet have the numbers. Either side needs the support of 117 legislators to be sworn in.

"There are many people who worked in Amma's house. Will all of them become Amma? The people of Tamil Nadu will never accept this," said Mr Panneerselvam. Ms Jayalalithaa was known as "Amma", with Ms Sasikala, who is known as "chinnamma" or mother's smaller sister, living with the party chief for over 30 years.

"With all this drama that is happening, it seems there is no government and no governance. Uncertainty right now is a reality in Tamil Nadu," said Professor Ramu Manivannan, head of the Department of Politics and Public Administration at University of Madras.

"I don't think either of them can establish a convincing government. But popular sentiment is against Sasikala."

For people in Tamil Nadu, Ms Sasikala has remained a shadowy figure who has never won an election or held any government post. She and her family have also become powerful through the association with Ms Jayalalithaa.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 14, 2017, with the headline 'Tamil Nadu rivals dig in as crisis deepens'. Print Edition | Subscribe