O Panneerselvam. Photo: India Today Group
O Panneerselvam. Photo: India Today Group

The AIADMK party ruling India’s Tamil Nadu state appears to be close to a split following Chief Minister O Panneerselvam’s dramatic revelation on Tuesday night that he was forced to step down by senior leaders to facilitate the elevation of VK Sasikala Natarajan.

Sasikala held a meeting with AIADMK leaders around 1am on Wednesday and hit back by sacking Panneerselvam as party treasurer. Blaming the rival DMK party for Panneerselvam’s remarks, she said AIADMK stood united, like a family.

Panneerselvam said no one had the right to sack him from a post given to him by the late J. Jayalalithaa, the former Chief Minister.

The drama leading to Panneerselvam’s open revolt against Sasikala began around 9.10pm at Jayalalithaa’s burial site in Marina Beach, where he had gone to pay homage to the late leader.

He sat there praying for about 40 minutes, then rose and addressed the media. A man of few words, he said some truths had to be told and that he was being guided by the spirit of “Amma” (mother) Jayalalithaa.

He accused Sasikala of staging a coup against him by asking him to step down as chief minister and said he did not want to continue in a party and government ruled by her. He expressed his willingness to stand again for the post of chief minister and party general secretary if the AIADMK wanted him.

“I was forced to resign by my own ministers, although I was Jayalalithaa’s choice. The people and cadre are losing faith in the party. I don’t want a split in the party,” he said.

Addressing media again on Wednesday, he said  Jayalalithaa’s death would be thoroughly investigated following so-far unsubstantiated rumors of foul play. A doctor close to Sasikala is said to have administered the wrong medicine to Jayalalithaa. Paneerselvam says he was not allowed to see Jayalaithaa in hospital.

“I was forced to resign by my own ministers, although I was Jayalalithaa’s choice. The people and cadre are losing faith in the party. I don’t want a split in the party”

He invited Jayalalithaa’s niece Deepa Jayakumar to join the fight against Sasikala who he said is “only a temporary” party secretary.

AIADMK leaders retaliated, however, that Panneerselvam is an opportunist and a liar who did not have the backing of lawmakers.

Party leader Thambidurai claimed Sasikala has the support of 134 out of 234 lawmakers.

At a meeting led by Sasikala on Wednesday, she said Panneerselvam could not divide the party.

The DMK’s working president, MK Stalin, said he supported Panneerselvam and said Governor C Vidyasagar Rao should ensure a stable government in the state by allowing him to continue as chief minister.

Meanwhile, Sasikala Pushpa, a rebel sacked by AIADMK for speaking against Sasikala Natarajan, welcomed the “bold step” taken by Panneerselvam. She said he should be allowed to prove he held a majority in the House.

It is rumored, however, that some 40 AIADMK lawmakers of unhappy about Sasikala’s elevation are planning to cross over to the DMK camp.

The Congress party accused the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of attempting to split the AIADMK to consolidate its position in a state where local Dravidian parties hold sway.

Federal minister M Venkaiah Naidu of the BJP rejected this charge. He told a news channel the state governor would study the legal and constitutional implications of the situation and act accordingly without input from the federal government.

Events are expected to come to a head on Friday or Monday when the Supreme Court delivers its verdict in the disproportionate assets case in which Sasikala is among the four accused. The court reserved its judgment on June 7 last year.

The Karnataka high court had acquitted all four individuals accused of conspiring to amass Rs530 million (US$7.89 million), disproportionate to their known sources of income, in May 2015. However, various petitioners, including the government of Karnataka, appealed to the Supreme Court against the acquittal.

AIADMK, the third-largest party in Parliament, was set up in 1972 by MG Ramachandran, an actor-turned-politician. The party faced a similar political crisis when he died in 1987, leading to a power struggle between his wife Janaki Ramachandran and Jayalalithaa.