Chennai: When the past threatens to speak through the present, it needs extra care to decipher its implications.
The ongoing political tussle between the AIADMK general secretary, Ms V.K. Sasikala, recently unanimously elected by her party MLAs’ as its legislature party leader as well, and the caretaker Chief Minister Mr. O. Pannerselvam, whose loyalty to the former Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa has by now become a mini-discourse, unfolds a mixed text.
Just rewind to Fort St. George three decades ago: Soon after the AIADMK’s founder-leader and former Chief Minister, M G Ramachandran had passed away on December 24, 1987 an interim cabinet headed by the senior-most in the MGR Ministry and then Finance minister, Dr V R Nedunchezhian was ushered in on the same day by then Tamil Nadu governor, Mr. S.L. Khurana. The unfolding high-drama in Chennai for a week now, shares striking similarities and contrasts with those hard-to-gloss-over tumultuous days.
The intra-party power struggle on both occasions predictably followed the demise of two very popular and successful Chief Ministers of Tamil Nadu in recent decades, MGR then and now his successor, J Jayalalithaa.
In the post-MGR scenario, as his one-time fund manager and long-time film industry friend and later Minister, RM. Veerappan, had emerged as a power centre, certain decisions by MGR had already catapulted Ms Jayalalithaa on a leadership climb.
While Mr. Veerappan backed MGR’s widow, Janaki Ramachandran to lead the party and the government, the split in the AIADMK then quickly surfaced, with the emergence of two distinct factions, centred on Mrs. Janaki and the charismatic Ms. Jayalalithaa.
Interestingly, the party positions in the State Assembly as on January 1, 1988 and now after Ms. Jayalalithaa’s demise in 2017, are similar at 131 and 134 MLAs’ respectively. But one key difference was the Congress then had 64 MLAs, while DMK’s strength was reduced to just 12 after ten of its MLAs’ led by Prof K Anbazhagan had been expelled in December 1986, for their ‘burn-a-part-of-constitution’ stir over the Hindi language row.
The then speaker, popularly known as ‘sky-high’ P.H. Pandian, who is now in the O. Pannerselvam (OPS) camp, had also declared those ten seats vacant. But now it is a sea change in the opposition’s composition, amid DMK’s strong showing with 89 MLAs’ and Congress reduced to one-eighth of its strength to eight MLAs’ in 2017.
Second, after MGR’s death, the then Governor had appointed Dr Nedunchezhiyan as acting Chief Minister, and on his advice appointed an interim council of Ministers with the latter entrusted with the subjects handled by MGR. Significantly, going by the Assembly records, Dr Nedunchezhiyan’s changed role was “till the election of a new leader by the party in majority in the Assembly.”
And once Mrs. Janaki Ramachandran was elected as leader of the AIADMK legislature party on January 7, 1988 the Dr Nedunchezhiyan-led interim cabinet resigned “on the forenoon” that day and Mr. Khurana lost no time in appointing a new Ministry with effect from the same day. It was an 8-member Cabinet headed by Mrs Janaki with Mr Veerappan being the ‘Number 2’, and also the leader of the House.
Here, one looming contrast in 2017 speaks out for itself. After Ms Jayalalithaa’s death was formally announced late evening of December 5, 2016 later that night Mr. O. Pannerselvam, senior-most in her Cabinet and already in-charge of her portfolios since ‘Amma’ fell ill, was ushered in by the present Governor Ch. Vidyasagar Rao as the next Chief Minister, while all the previous Cabinet ministers were retained.
Unlike two rival top-level meetings of the AIADMK convened in the post-MGR context when one of which elected Jayalalithaa as the general secretary in 1987, in the present situation, her long-time confidante Ms Sasikala was unanimously chosen as the party’s general secretary on December 29, 2016 by the AIADMK general council. And Ms Sasikala’s equations with OPS dramatically changed overnight, since her elevation as the leader of the AIADMK legislature party on February 5, 2017, and the open revolt by Mr. Pannerselvam two days later when he said he had to quit his post under ‘duress’.
Nonetheless, the automatic transition that was seen in Mrs Janaki Ramachandran’s case in January 1988 was not to be seen in February 2017 vis-à-vis Sasikala, amid mounting protests both in social media and by opposition parties to the latter becoming CM.
Now, the scenario looks far from shifting to the Assembly for a floor-test as some more MPs’, former MLAs’ and functionaries gravitate towards Mr. Pannerselvam, while several others in the AIADMK are ostensibly waiting for the Supreme Court verdict in the assets case against Jayalalithaa, Sasikala and few others, expected next week.
However, in 1988, a motion expressing confidence in the Janaki Ramachandran ministry, moved in the House on January 28 by Mr Veerappan then, was carried after unprecedented violence, leading to dissolution of the eighth Assembly and imposition of President’s rule in Tamil Nadu on January 30, 1988.
Significantly, the then Speaker P. H. Pandian, using the powers under the Anti-Defection law, had first disqualified six senior AIADMK ministers in the outgoing Ministry including Dr Nedunchezhiyan, Panruti S Ramachandran and Su. Thirunavukkarasar, all of whom had backed Ms Jayalalithaa for the party’s top post, based on a MLA’s petition that they had incurred disqualification on the ground of “voluntarily given up their membership of the AIADMK party.”
As many as 27 other AIADMK MLAs’, identififed with the pro-Jayalaithaa faction, were also subsequently disqualified for being “absent” in the House when the confidence motion was put to vote that day and thus violating the party whip. When the voting outcome showed ‘ayes’ – 99, ‘noes’ – 8 and ‘neutral’- 3, it reflected a vastly truncated House that day after the melee.
The Congress, till then a key ally of the AIADMK, had also backed out with the then party president, Mr Rajiv Gandhi making it clear the previous day that his party’s support was only for ‘MGR’s undivided legacy”. Though the key political players are now different, similar dilemmas could now pan out in the event of a floor test, particularly for MLAs backing Mr. Pannerselvam once the AIADMK legislature party issues a whip....