A month ago TTV Dhinakaran, general secretary of Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam (AMMK) and RK Nagar MLA, was looking to disrupt the election scene in Tamil Nadu. His aunt VK Sasikala was to be released from a Bengaluru prison after serving her four-year term. On her return, the aunt-nephew duo were expected recapture the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) from the hands of “traitors”, as they referred to Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami and Deputy Chief Minister O Panneerselvam.
On February 8, Sasikala left Bengaluru for Chennai, and what was to be a six-hour journey took 23 hours with thousands of AMMK supporters greeting her convoy en route. It seemed that the script for her political entry was starting to play out — except that it didn't.
On her return Sasikala, who was recovering from COVID-19, announced a seven-day home quarantine. Two weeks later she was yet to emerge. On February 24, she garlanded Jayalalithaa's photo on the late Chief Minister's birth anniversary and met a few leaders from small parties.
Again there was a silence, which was followed by a bombshell of an announcement on March 3 that she decided to step aside from active politics. Though the wording was meant to suggest this was a temporary layoff, the implications of this announcement so close to an assembly election was profound.
Dhinakaran himself seemed surprised by Sasikala's sudden decision. He termed it unfortunate, and even said she had spoken to him a few hours prior to her announcement; implying that he had not been taken into confidence.
This has left the future of the AMMK uncertain. More so as Sasikala in her statement called for ‘the Government of Amma’ to continue — implying an AIADMK victory. Sasikala claims to still be the General Secretary of the AIADMK, a matter yet to be settled by the court. She is not a member of the AMMK. Dhinakaran has been carrying on the political fight on her behalf while she was in jail, but now it is unclear if all is well between the aunt and the nephew.
High And Dry
After the initial shock, Dhinakaran pulled himself together and announced that the AMMK would contest the elections in alliance with other parties. Asaduddin Owaisi's All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) has tied up with the AMMK, and more small parties could follow. While they are hardly likely to win any seats, the AMMK could still scuttle the AIADMK in at least a few seats in south Tamil Nadu. It is also unclear what clout Dhinakaran without Sasikala would have, especially in his attempt to claim to be the ‘real’ AIADMK.
Dhinakaran was expelled from the AIADMK by Jayalalithaa, and was not readmitted into the party during her time. So, in the absence of his aunt (Sasikala) who was close to Jayalalithaa until her final moments, Dhinakaran's claim to represent the AIADMK is tenuous at best.
Why did Sasikala make a decision to stay away from politics? Why now, with elections weeks away?
There are conspiracy theories, but the plausible explanation is that she was under pressure from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the AIADMK's alliance partner, not to rock the boat before the polls. Over the last two months the BJP made several suggestions to the AIADMK that they consider taking her back but Palaniswami ruled this out.
As the next best option this could have been considered. It is possible that with several of her cases still hanging fire, and with over Rs 1,800 crore-worth assets attached, Sasikala may have decided against taking on the ruling party at the Centre.
However, it seems clear that her break may only be temporary. If the AIADMK loses big or performs badly in the polls, she will sense an opportunity to make a comeback. Whether she would be able to capture the party is uncertain .If the AIADMK wins or even puts up a decent performance, then it is going to be difficult to dethrone Palaniswami in the near future. So her political future hinges upon the result of the polls.
The only party to sign up with the AMMK so far is the AIMIM. After having tried for an alliance with the MK Stalin-led Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), Owaisi was told that the local Muslim parties in the DMK alliance were against him joining.
When the DMK declined, the AIMIM announced that it would contest 20 seats on its own or in alliance with other parties. Why it signed up for just three seats in an alliance with the AMMK is not clear at the moment, but there is already talk that Owaisi was building his bridges with the DMK by not splitting their vote in this election. (The minority vote of around 15 percent of the total is expected to go almost entirely to the DMK alliance; and that is one big reason why the DMK front is ahead in all opinion polls.)
In the long term, Owaisi's plan of cosying up to the DMK — if indeed that is the plan — may not be a bad idea. The AIMIM has negligible presence in Tamil Nadu but appeals to a segment of the Urdu-speaking Muslims in the northern part of the state.
For the AMMK, the road ahead looks uncertain. With a five percent vote share it cannot win seats. Growing that vote base looks tough with the AIADMK seeming united for now. It also cannot be seen to be doing anything that could help arch-rival DMK as this could erode its vote-bank completely.
Right now Dhinakaran is caught between a rock and a hard place. The stress is now visible on the face of the unruffled ever-smiling man. The only hope now is that the AIADMK will lose so badly that the AMMK leaders can claw their way back in. At the moment the AMMK seems to be clutching at straws.