In the early hours of Wednesday, a political drama unfolded in Tamil Nadu — the kind of spectacle, with twists and turns, that keeps you glued to your television screen.
O Panneerselvam, Tamil Nadu’s chief minister who resigned on Sunday, revolted against general secretary Sasikala, alleging that he was forced to quit. In response, Sasikala called an emergency party meeting at her Poes Garden residence, and unceremoniously booted out Panneerselvam from his post as treasurer.
The tussle between the two has propelled Tamil Nadu into an unprecedented constitutional crisis, a party imploding from within and a political power play with a touch of the Shakespearen.
Here are the main dramatis personae in the Tamil Nadu saga:
The Accidental Chief Minister: O Panneerselvam
Prior to his revolt, O Panneerselvam’s image was that of a leader content with his fate, never overreaching — a rare specimen in politics. OPS, as he is called, became the caretaker chief minister when Jayalalithaa was hospitalised, and continued after her death.
His revolt on Tuesday night signals a dramatic volteface — a leader who never made a grab for power is suddenly at the centre of the turmoil within the party. Some people have alleged that OPS is being manipulated by the BJP to stir trouble. But the party cadre and the state’s populace support him, giving him an edge over Sasikala.
The Aspiring Associate: Sasikala
Sasikala’s three-decade long association with Jayalalithaa gave her clout in the AIADMK’s decision making. This is one of the reasons the party rallied around Chinnamma, as Sasikala is known, naming her the general secretary. Her proximity to Jaya ensured that Sasikala had a hand in the party’s financial dealings, and was often credited with being the power behind the throne.
Panneerselvam’s unexpected revolt has come as a jolt to Sasikala’s aspirations, which were already on shaky ground. She has never contested an election — a fact that hangs like a question mark over her credibility as a leader of the party cadre and the people of the state. Added to this, Sasikala’s political aspirations are daunted by a 20-year-old corruption case and persistent allegations that she had a hand in Jaya’s death.
The Dead Leader: Jayalalithaa
Though Jaya passed away in December, her shadow looms over the state’s politics. Both Panneerselvam and Sasikala,the main opponents in this face-off, project themselves as the true political heirs of Jaya’s legacy. Right before OPS launched his attack on Sasikala, he prayed at Jaya’s memorial for 40 minutes, invoking her.
Three senior AIADMK leaders have alleged that Jayalalithaa may have been murdered, demanding a probe into her death — a probe backed by Panneerselvam.
The Connected Husband: M Natarajan
Sasikala’s estranged husband, M Natarajan, also has a part in the tale. During the time he resided in Poes Garden, Natarajan acquired two things: a reputation as a power broker and a penchant for running with important people. In 1996, he was banished from Poes Garden for misusing Jaya’s name, and Sasikala distanced herself from him. And yet, at Jaya’s funeral, Natarajan was beside the leader’s dead body, receiving condolences like a family member. Is Natarajan waiting for a breakout moment, keenly watching how his wife’s political career?
The Underdog: Deepa Jayakumar
Deepa Jayakumar, Jayalalithaa’s niece
In the bickering between OPS and Chinnamma, another contender for the throne has emerged. Deepa Jayakumar, the daughter of Jaya’s brother, was relatively unknown till she made headline last December for not being allowed to meet her aunt in the hospital.
On Tuesday, Deepa slammed Sasikala in a press conference, saying she was not fit to rule and raising concerns over Jaya’s hospitalisation. She also said that she will float her own political outfit on February 24, the birth anniversary of her aunt. While Deepa remains outside of the AIADMK, there is one thing that may favour her cause: a startling resemblance to Jayalalithaa.
The Missing Governor: C Vidyasagar Rao
C Vidyasagar Rao
As Tamil Nadu spirals into a crisis, all eyes have turned to Maharashtra governor C Vidyasagar Rao, who holds additional charge of Tamil Nadu. Can Rao dissolve the assembly? Will President’s rule be imposed in the state? If Panneerselvam can win a floor test, can he be reinstated despite his resignation?
While these are the questions being debated, the man who holds possible answers is missing in action. Reports say that Rao has sought legal opinion on the way forward, but he still remains in Mumbai.
The Watchers: The DMK and the BJP
M K Stalin
On the surface, Tamil Nadu’s main opposition party, the DMK, has remained distant, letting the AIADMK drama play out. But party president M K Stalin has stirred the state’s simmering cauldron from time to time. Stalin has asked for a probe into the “mysterious circumstances” surrounding Jaya’s death, supported Sasikala’s elevation, but then backtracked, saying the people of Tamil Nadu did not vote for either OPS or Jaya’s “household” to run the state.
Stalin makes another appearance in the drama: Sasikala accuses Panneerselvam of being the DMK’s puppet, as he smiled all along at Stalin in the Assembly.
Apart from the DMK, political pundits say that the BJP could take advantage of the situation to gain a foothold in the state.
The Other Players: PH Pandian, PS Ramachandran and Subramanian Swamy
Former assembly speaker PH Pandian threw a spanner in Sasikala’s rise to the top on February 7, questioning the legality of her election as party leader and calling her ‘unfit’ to lead the state. He added fuel to the fire of conspiracy theories and intrigue surrounding Jaya’s death, bu saying that she could have been slowly poisoned.
PS Ramachandran, AIADMK’S thespian leader, responded by dubbing Pandian’s allegations as “completely false” and a ploy to create “confusion” within the party. Pandian and Ramachandran’s bitter battle of words shows how the AIADMK is splitting down the middle, and party leaders are picking sides.
There is one more player in the game: BJP Rajya Sabha MP Subramanian Swamy. He is the original complainant in the 1996 disproportionate assets case against Jayalalithaa, as a consequence of which she was forced to step down as chief minister in 2014. The same case dogs the footsteps of Sasikala, who was also named in the original complaint, yet Swamy has come out in her support, asking the governor to swear Sasikala in. Which makes you wonder: what is Swamy’s endgame?