To Keep Heat On Sasikala, Panneerselvam Returns To How Jayalalithaa Died
Panneerselvam, a soft-spoken politician whose firm commitment to sticking to his own lane served him well, has suddenly shifted tone, insisting that he will fight for his job as Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, a position that he stressed was chosen for him by his predecessor and mentor, J Jayalalithaa. To do this, he says, he will take a trust vote – a move that will require the sanction of Governor C Vidyasagar Rao, who remains a no-show in Tamil Nadu.
In December, Ms Jayalalithaa, 68, died in hospital more than two months after she had been admitted there. Mr Panneerselvam, whose obsequious dedication to her was well-established and favoured – revealed last night that he was “not allowed to meet her even once.” For this, he blamed VK Sasikala, who was Ms Jayalalithaa’s closest aide and is meant to replace him as head of the Tamil Nadu government.
While Ms Jayalalithaa was in hospital, it was Ms Sasikala who was treated as the decision-making relative by doctors. Earlier this week, at a press conference that was organised by the government ahead of Ms Sasikala’s planned promotion, doctors said rumours of “slow poisoning” are absurd and that the politician died of “a witnessed cardiac arrest.” However, Mr Panneerselvam said today that he will ask for a Supreme Court inquiry to determine the facts of Ms Jayalalithaa’s death. The announcement is a signal of his intent to remain Chief Minister and keep the heat on Ms Sasikala. Online, he has launched a “people’s survey” to rally suppot; he also said today that he will tour the state to collect feedback from the public and cadre.
Till last night, Mr Panneerselvam had shared no objection to her being made Chief Minister as finalized by his party, the AIADMK, on Sunday. But last night, he visited Ms Jaylaalithaa’s grave, sat there with his eyes closed in a scrum of camera attention, wiped his tears, prostrated at the memorial, then rose to announce his change of plans.
The 66-year-old said that he had been informed at the last minute of the Sunday gathering, where he was coerced by Ms Sasikala and others to resign. He said he argued his case for two hours. Though he relented, he said his “conscience was pricking him” and he decided that a visit to his mentor and former boss’ memorial would serve as the occasion for a tell-all for matters that he believed “the cadre and the country should know”.
Mr Panneerselvam has become the rallying point online for lakhs of people who say Ms Sasikala, short on political experience and with authority derived only from her indisputable rank as Ms Jayalalithaa’s closest aide, cannot be allowed to run the state. He has also galvanized a small group of AIADMK leaders like V Maitreyan, who say his claims are correct. Supporters point out that twice while she was alive, Ms Jayalalithaa hand-picked Mr Panneerselvam to stand in for her when she was forced into hiatus as Chief Minister because of corruption cases. He was her natural deputy, they say.
But at a meeting this morning at Ms Jayalalithaa’s home, where she continues to live, Ms Sasikala was able to collect nearly all of the party’s 134 legislators, effectively establishing her hold on the party.
Since the crisis erupted, the Governor has been missing. He was in Delhi at first and then chose to fly on Monday not to Chennai, but to Mumbai – he also holds charge of Maharashtra. His absence meant that Ms Sasikala could not take oath and office as Chief Minister and has given Mr Panneerselvam a window to launch his revolt and seek support. “I am not operating at the BJP’s behest,” he declared this morning, amid reports that the BJP’s top leaders have signaled that they are willing to back his dissent and future moves.
Mr Panneerselvam has invited Ms Jayalalithaa’s niece, Deepa Jayakumar, who has also questioned Ms Sasikala’s ascension, to join his team.