In the absence of ‘Amma’, what impact will ‘Chinna Amma’ Sasikala Natarajan have on Tamil Nadu politics after her release from Bengaluru’s Parappana Agrahara jail?
Convicted and sentenced to a four-year prison term and a fine of Rs 10 crore in a disproportionate assets case, Sasikala will finish serving her time in February 2021, if she pays the financial penalty.
She had embarked on her journey to jail in 2017, after a designed-for-the-cameras, dramatic act of swearing on the tomb of J Jayalalithaa that she will return to take charge of the AIADMK. She was ousted from the party by the very leader she had helped prop up, chief minister Edappadi K Palaniswami, and the ruling dispensation under him hasn’t supported her since.
In 2021, the future of Sasikala Natarajan may depend as much on the Bharatiya Janata Party, which is scheming for a foothold in the Dravidian state, as it does on her ability to claw her way back into Tamil Nadu politics.
There is speculation that she could get an early release on account of remission, and if she does get that, it would be the first concrete suggestion that she has the blessings of the BJP, which is in power at the Centre and holds significant sway in the state despite not having a single MLA.
In fact, a Tamil Nadu BJP leader, Dr Aseervatham Achary, had tweeted that she is likely to be released before August 15, but there is no such official indication or confirmation.
Role in Tamil Nadu 2021
Elections in Tamil Nadu will have to be held before May 2021 and at the moment there are no indications of early polls. These will also be the first assembly elections in the state after the demise of Jayalalithaa and M Karunanidhi.
If an assumption is made that Sasikala will be released in or by February 2021 and elections are held as per schedule, then she is certain to play an active part in the final leg of the polls.
As per section 8(3) of The Representation of the People Act 1951, Sasikala, even after her release, will be barred from contesting an election for six more years. This means she can only campaign or be actively involved in decisions and cannot be a candidate herself.
The ruling AIADMK dispensation, under chief minister Palaniswami, will resist her entry into the party, but it cannot wish her away.
The Sasikala edge
Firstly, having spent time in jail, there would be a certain sympathy factor with the electorate that Sasikala could use. A whisper campaign among AIADMK loyalists is that she was the only one who was punished after Jayalalithaa’s death and the ruling dispensation only reaped the benefits.
Her nephew TTV Dhinakaran split from the AIADMK and launched the Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam (AMMK) with Sasikala as its president. While the splinter group has had a patchy electoral track record, Sasikala, being at the forefront of a campaign could make it more powerful.
Secondly, Sasikala belongs to the Thevar caste which is a compelling force within the AIADMK and has loyalists within the party who will campaign for her aggressively. She, along with the rest of the AMMK, is bound to make an attempt to take control of the AIADMK.
Once the assembly term comes to an end, there is little motivation for MLAs and leaders in the party to stay with the chief minister and the leadership of the AIADMK does not seem to have the ability to face a difficult challenge.
Setting aside the important factor that a post-Covid election will also have a very different dynamic in terms of mass mobilisation, there is bound to be a certain churning in the AIADMK during and after the assembly elections.
The BJP strategy
It is in this churning that the Bharatiya Janata Party could force the AIADMK into a strategy of its convenience and, hence, could be pivotal in determining Sasikala’s future.
Firstly, it is not clear what role superstar Rajinikanth will play in the coming elections. Secondly, it is a disintegrating AIADMK space that the BJP would like to build itself on as an opponent to the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam.
What works for the BJP would depend on how multiple factors, including how Rajinikanth approaches the polls.
If he remains non-committal, then the BJP would prefer an AIADMK leadership that could be a front and aid its growth. If he does make a full-fledged entry into electoral politics, then the BJP would ideally like an AIADMK that plays the role of a B-team to the superstar.
In the first scenario, the BJP would prefer an AIADMK under a strong leader as an opponent to the DMK but one that will be controlled by the national party and openly aid its growth in the state. In the second scenario, it may prefer a disintegrating AIADMK which leaves a popular vote that would shift to Rajinikanth.
Further, the BJP has already made systematic and strong inroads into Tamil media and social media and given the increased importance of these vehicles in a post-pandemic election, it may well have the decisive edge and determine the winners in the land of melodramatic Dravidian soap opera.
(The author is a senior journalist. Views expressed are personal.)