End to political drama in SC hands

TAMIL NADU NEWSLETTER

Ramaswami Sampath

Ramaswami Sampath

CHENNAI: The political stalemate in Tamil Nadu, created by the resignation of Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam ten days ago and his subsequent declaration that his resignation was taken under duress by the clique headed by AIADMK general secretary VK Sasikala, continues with acting Governor Ch. Vidyasagar Rao still weighing his options.

On February 5, when Panneerselvam was inspecting the operation of clearing the Chennai east coast of the oil slick caused by the collision of two ships off the Ennore port, he received a cryptic message to come to the Poes Garden residence of Sasikala. When he went there, he was told that the AIADMK Legislature Party had chosen her as the leader in his place and that he should formally propose her name as the next CM at the meeting, about which he was totally unaware.

A docile Panneerselvam did so and his resignation letter was faxed to the Governor who was at that time in New Delhi. The Governor accepted the resignation and asked the outgoing CM to continue until alternative arrangements were in place. So far, so good and everybody thought that the swearing-in of Sasikala was just a question of time. But that was not to be.

All of a sudden, on the night of February 7, Panneerselvam was seen at the ‘samadhi’ of Jayalalithaa on the Marina sitting in meditation in front of her photo for nearly 40 minutes. Word about the caretaker CM’s meditation spread like wildfire, and soon gathered a battery of media persons and videographers, besides curious onlookers. At the end of the meditation, Panneerselvam declared that the relatives of Sasikala – derisively described as ‘Mannargudi mafia’ – physically pressurized him to resign, yielding place to her. He revealed how Sasikala manipulated to become the party’s general secretary after the demise of Jayalalithaa and how she had been humiliating him all along, in spite of his good governance during the two months in office. He also said that if people supported him he would take back his resignation letter.

There has been a strident rise in his popularity since then, with party cadres, who are not happy with Sasikala’s elevation as general secretary, going all out in his support.  But she has managed to herd the 130-odd MLAs in luxury buses, after the meeting, to a seaside resort in Koovathur, near Mahabalipuram.

Governor Vidyasagar Rao reached Chennai on February 9 and immediately summoned Panneerselvam first and Sasikala later. Panneerselvam detailed the Governor about the political developments and how he was forced to resign the post. He requested that he be permitted to withdraw his resignation letter and allowed some time to prove his majority strength in the Legislature Party.  A couple of hours later, Sasikala came to Raj Bhavan and presented to the Governor the letters of support for her from about 130 MLAs. Staking claim for Chief Ministership, she requested that she be sworn-in immediately, whereupon she would prove her majority in the House. The Governor assured the two leaders that he would consult legal opinion from Constitutional experts and convey his decision.

The Governor is having his own consultations with eminent lawyers on the tricky situation. The Union Home Ministry has given Vidyasagar Rao a free hand to decide on this issue. His hesitation on inviting Sasikala to take over the reins is due to the fact of her facing a barrage of criminal cases. Particularly, if an adverse verdict is to be handed on the Karnataka Government’s appeal in the Supreme Court against that State High Court’s acquittal of Jaylalithaa, Sasikala and two others in the disproportionate assets case, she will be jailed and disqualified from contesting election. The apex court judgment on this appeal is expected in a couple of days. The Governor, according to Raj Bhavan sources, is holding in abeyance his decision on this score. 

 Meanwhile, the rival camps have begun a war of attrition against each other. While Panneerselvam claims that he was the natural choice of Jayalalithaa for the post as he had held it twice before in the past because of her trust in him, Sasikala says that as party general secretary she has the right to be the CM also with the support of MLAs. He says that she is holding the 130 MLAs, including ministers, hostage in the resort much against their will and that they are not allowed to contact their close relatives, let alone outside world. While she is holding a tight grip on the MLAs, Panneerselvam is getting more and more sympathy from party functionaries in the districts, besides general public. 

Messages on various social media platforms indicate the groundswell of sympathy for him. He has managed to attract six MLAs, including School Education Minister ‘Ma Foi’ Pandiyarajan, besides 11 MPs, six from the Lok Sabha and two from the Rajya Sabha. Incidentally Pandiyarajan had accompanied Sasikala to Raj Bhavan when she staked claim for the CM’s post. He had to change his mind because of the hostility of his constituents who had asked him to snap ties with Sasikala.

Another prize wicket taken by Panneerselvam is S. Madhusudhanan, chairman of the AIADMK presidium, a close confidant of Jayalalithaa. He openly stated that Sasikala family members were interfering in the affairs of the party and the government. Former Speaker of the Assembly PH Pandian, a staunch critic of Sasikala, has, along with his son Manoj Pandian, joined the CM’s camp.

Sasikala has so far made three trips to the Koovathur resort to boost the morale of the MLAs in her hold. She also paraded them before media persons on Sunday, stating that they were not captives but staying there at their own free will.

Meanwhile, a lot of complaints have been lodged in various police stations in the State seeking the whereabouts of the MLAs by their relatives and friends. Prominent among those complaints is the one pertaining to Fisheries Minister D. Jayakumar.

Panneerselvam on Monday attended the Secretariat to discuss routine issues with Chief Secretary Girija Vaidyanathan. This is his first visit to the Secretariat as caretaker CM. He also discussed law and order issues with the police higher-ups. The police have apprehended over 500 persons all over the State to keep law and order under control.

Would Panneerselvam be able to outwit Sasikala in the absence of the support of sufficient number of MLAs in her tight grip? This is the million dollar question. Observers note that he could muster the MLAs’ support if the Supreme Court pronounces a negative verdict against Sasikala. All eyes are on the apex court now.

The writer is a Senior Journalist and Prime Associate from Chennai

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