By Sandhya Ravishankar
Tamil Nadu finally has a new chief minister. After close to two weeks of gripping political drama, the governor, C Vidyasagar Rao, swore in Edappadi Palaniswamy and his cabinet of ministers. And the chief minister won a trust vote after acrimonious scenes in the assembly.
Palaniswamy is a close aide of VK Sasikala, confidante and friend of the late chief minister J Jayalalithaa. Having been elected by MLAs on February 5 as the chief ministerial candidate of the party, Sasikala aka Chinnamma was all set to be sworn in. But the Supreme Court put paid to her ambitions — a guilty verdict and a four-year sentence saw her surrendering at the Parappana Agrahara jail in Bengaluru. She is disqualified from contesting elections for 10 years.
Sasikala, however, did not go down without a fight. Immediately after the verdict, Palaniswamy was announced as the CM candidate, with the support of over 120 MLAs in a 234-strong state assembly. Her nephew TTV Dhinakaran and another relative Dr J Venkatesh — who had been expelled from the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) by Jayalalithaa in 2011 — were reinducted by her. Dhinakaran, a former MP from Periyakulam constituency, was made the deputy general secretary of the party, propping him up possibly to call the shots within the party, and perhaps even the government, on Sasikala’s behalf.
This move has heightened concerns that the “Mannargudi family” — as Sasikala’s family is referred to, since they hail from a village called Mannargudi near Thanjavur — would wield undue power in the state.
“The chief minister must not seek consultations from Bengaluru prison or from power centres here,” said MK Stalin, leader of the opposition and rival Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) working president, in a veiled reference to Sasikala and Dhinakaran. “I urge him (Palaniswamy) to run the government for the welfare of the people.”
The Mannargudi Family
In December 2011, some months after Jayalalithaa swept to power in the state, she expelled Sasikala and 12 of her relatives from her Poes Garden residence and the party. Subsequently a series of cases were filed against members of the Mannargudi family, except Sasikala.
A statement was issued to the AIADMK cadre that they should “have no truck” with any of these members. Sasikala eventually returned to Poes Garden after making public an emotional letter in which she disowned her family.
The extended family of Sasikala was persona non grata as far as Jayalalithaa was concerned. Along with Sasikala, her nephew VN Sudhakaran and her sisterin-law Elavarasi were also convicted by the Supreme Court in the disproportionate assets case and are in prison, serving four-year jail terms.
Dhinakaran was ordered by the Madras High Court in January this year to pay a fine of `28 crore for violating the FERA — Foreign Exchange Regulation Act — in a 16-year-old case probed by the Enforcement Directorate.
According to political analysts, the main concern of the Tamil electorate is whether power was abused for the commercial gains of the Mannargudi family, whose business interests range from liquor to real estate to film production.
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“That family has been calling the shots for quite some time now,” said political commentator Aazhi Senthilnathan. “It does not matter whether they (Mannargudi family) were in the party or not.
Palaniswamy too has got the chief minister’s post only because he is a loyalist of Sasikala and her family. It is crucial for the AIADMK to make this government work. It is a do-or-die battle.”
“The Mannargudi family should not interfere in the day-to-day functioning of state government,” reiterated DMK leader KS Radhakrishnan. “People fear that the Mannargudi family will rule the state. They voted for Jayalalithaa’s leadership, not the Mannargudi leadership.”
Age of Instability
O Panneerselvam, who opposed Sasikala’s bid to become chief minister, is still trying to woo MLAs to his side in an effort to unseat Sasikala’s camp.
Earlier, Sasikala had alleged that “forces outside the state” were behind Panneerselvam’s mutiny. She was hinting at the BJP-led NDA government at the Centre.
The BJP has consistently refuted these allegations. “Had it been there (BJP’s hand behind Panneerselvam), the governor would not have invited Palaniswamy to form a government,” said H Raja, general secretary, BJP.
The BJP’s ire is turned against Sasikala and her family. “What did Natarajan (Sasikala’s husband) say in Thanjavur?” asked Raja. On January 16, he had said that there was nothing wrong if his family was in politics. “What he said is happening now. Palaniswamy is a proxy of Sasikala. The AIADMK has become a party of the Mannargudi family — it is neither Anna DMK, nor Amma DMK,” Raja said.
An end to the political turmoil appears nowhere in sight. “We have to watch what the DMK does — it has a lot to gain from fresh polls or from breaking the AIADMK,” said Senthilnathan. “I don’t think this is a stable government. It is unlikely to complete its term. It has a slim majority now. Even a small crisis can shake things up.” Meanwhile, rebels in the AIADMK and the DMK are gearing up for mid-term polls.
The writer is a Chennai-based freelance journalist with The Lede