Chennai, 9 December 2016. AIADMK MLAs, who were clueless about Jayalalithaa’s health condition, were asked by the leadership to unanimously endorse his candidature.
As anxious AIADMK MLAs gathered at the Apollo Hospitals on December 5, the day after Jayalalithaa suffered a cardiac arrest, they had no clue about her condition or who would succeed her in the event there was bad news.
Only five senior Ministers, O Panneerselvam, Edappadi K Palaniswami, Dindigul C Srinivasan, P Thangamani and S P Velumani, and party presidium chairman E Mathusoothanan were aware of her grave health condition.
As Jayalalithaa lay strapped to an ECMO device, which was used as a last resort to keep her alive, her close aide Sasikala Natarajan was holding parleys to sort out differences among the claimants for the top post. Apart from Mr Panneerselvam, the name of Deputy Speaker of the Lok Sabha M Thambidurai was floated as a candidate.
The push for Mr Thambidurai was a reflection of a caste fault line in the party. Mr Thambidurai is a Gounder, a community that, along with the Thevars, forms the most influential caste grouping within the party.
It was Ms Sasikala who deflected any talk of need for a change and insisted on going ahead with the existing arrangement, which in effect meant making Mr Panneerselvam, who was the de facto Chief Minister during Jayalalithaa’s illness, the Chief Minister.
Another decision of hers was not to make any changes in the existing Cabinet. “Sasikala and a section of the party leadership wanted to avoid any dissent. There are a lot of ex-Ministers desperate to get a berth in the new Cabinet. But it was decided to maintain the status quo,” said a senior AIADMK MLA.
At 5 pm, the MLAs gathered at the hospital were asked to go to the party headquarters on Lloyds Road and wait there. A little later, a few Tamil television channels, as well some newspaper websites, jumped the gun by announcing Jayalalithaa’s death.
This led to distraught scenes at the party headquarters, until the hospital issued a clarification stating that she was alive. “This was reassuring even though we knew she was on life support,” said a Minister.
At the party headquarters, there was a nervous premonition of what lay in store. Three luxury buses pulled up outside, leading some of the MLAs to wonder what was going on. “Could this be for transporting us to Raj Bhavan?
Why was this being done if Amma’s condition was improving? These were the questions we asked,” said an MLA. However, the buses left in a while, calming nerves. The MLAs were still asked to wait. “It was really irritating. But we felt there must be a reason for this,” said a Minister.
It was only after 11 pm that Mr Panneerselvam and the five senior AIADMK leaders arrived at the party headquarters. The meeting was brief and the MLAs were told that Amma is no more. Also, that it was decided to elect Mr Panneerselvam as the leader of the AIADMK legislature party.
Each MLA was given four pieces of paper to sign. One, supporting the resolution to unanimously elect Mr. Panneerselvam as the legislature party leader. Two, an intimation to the Governor about this election. Three and four, almost identical letters to the Tamil Nadu Assembly Secretary and to “the Centre”.
They denied they were made to sign blank papers as reported in a section of the media. The buses returned and the MLAs were transported to Raj Bhavan, where the swearing-in of the new Cabinet took place after 1.30 am. Before that Governor Vidyasagar Rao read out a condolence message.
The manner in which the exercise was conducted has left some MLAs unhappy, particularly some in the Gounder community. How this would impact the election of the AIADMK general secretary and the smooth functioning of the government remains to be seen.