Garden State

Röhan Abraham

For 28 years, J.Jayalalithaa and V.K Sasikala cohabited in the personal Eden that was the former’s Poes Garden residence till death and judicial intervention would respectively intervene to abort the duo from the sprawling crenellated bungalow which was the seat of power in the state for the better part of two decades.

While convicting the aspirant to the late Chief Minister’s legacy, the Supreme Court cited circumstantial evidence which pointed to their collusion in cases of misappropriating funds, amounting to criminal conspiracy.

Sasikala, who is fondly known as Chinnamma by the party cadre, moved into the Poes Garden bungalow in 1989. The court had observed that the arrangement was not out of humanitarian concern.

Chinnamma has been sentenced to four years imprisonment and is banned from contesting elections for 10 years. The court verdict said that Sasikala was not accommodated at Poes Garden out of some “philanthropic urge”, but with the intention of using her as a front to park ill-gotten wealth from dubious dealings during her tenure as Chief Minister.

“It feels as if all of Tamil Nadu has been living here since Amma’s hospitalization,” said Liaqat Ali, a tea seller who camps outside one of the most prominent addresses in the land, sometimes from four in the morning. He added that his daily earnings depend on the political capital of the day’s happenings, and usually range between Rs.500 to Rs.1000.

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Liaqat Ali. Not all chai-wallahs aspire to become politicians.

He lives in Royapettah and commutes on a moped, with steel canisters of sweet, syrupy tea strung up on the back seat. Serving a hot drink to political personages is an inherited trade, and he reveals with pride that his father used to cater to the crowds outside Poes in the days of the party founder, M.G Ramachandran, right up to the penultimate term of J.Jayalalithaa, when he passed away after a brief illness.

When asked about the present stalemate which has seen Sasikala, who was the aide and confidante of Amma spar with her bête noire, O. Panneerselvam in a bitter war of succession, Ali, became visibly guarded, but eventually revealed that from what he had observed, public sentiment was that OPS ought to be given a chance.

"Cycle" Vettrivel, a party veteran.
“Cycle” Vettrivel, a party veteran.

There are others who beg to differ. “Cycle” Vettrivel”, who was clad in fluorescent green overalls, with the colours of the party flag for pinstripes, believes that without Chinnamma’s leadership, the party will fall apart. “Panneer is a traitor,” he said.

“Panneer is a traitor”

Despite entering the political arena only after the demise of her mentor, Sasikala seems to have inherited a place in the hearts of the cadre who are infamous for their contagious levels of idolatry. In the elaborate headgear which is fashioned on the party symbol, cut-outs of Jayalalithaa and Sasikala are embellished as two leaves from the same stalk. “Cycle” Vettrivel” has a fertile imagination.

Meanwhile, Natrajan, who has been a member of the party for the past 30 years, believes that the incriminating verdict is a mistake, and that Chinnamma will clear the hurdles erected by the SC in her bumpy ride to power.

Chinamma has sought legal counsel. They will together decide on the future course of action and who to appoint as the interim Chief Minister till Chinnamma proves her innocence. She will definitely appeal and be back. This is a conspiracy hatched by the DMK,” added Satish (24), a party worker who joined the fold three years ago.

A wave of collective suspiration arose from the milling crowd as Edappadi Palanisamy was appointed the party’s legislative leader by Sasikala, leaving her acolytes to firefight the legally wrought crisis.

V.K Sasikala seemed to have organized a bloodless coup to usurp power from O. Panneerselvam, till the SC delivered its verdict which has debarred her from contesting elections for the next 10 years. OPS has previously deputized as the regent to the throne on multiple occasions when Amma was incapacitated due to illness or laid low by adversarial court rulings.

The growing factionalism within the party has thrown into disarray, the legacy of the unipolar power structure that has been the norm since Jayalalithaa cemented her place as the tallest leader in the party.

Many people from other parts of the state have made the long journey to the capital to witness first-hand, the political intrigues that threaten the disintegration of the party.

Ammadaikalam, who hails from Thanjavur, has been staying in the city for the last nine days. In spite of the fact that he had been in an accident last month, he made the tortuous journey, and claims to have pitched camp outside Amma’s Poes Garden residence, hobbling about on crutches to gather information on the fate of the two leaves symbol, and the party for whose cause he has worked since 1972.

Ammadaikalam: Eight crore Tamil makkal are looking to Chinnamma to provide leadership in this difficult time.
Ammadaikalam: Eight crore Tamil makkal are looking to Chinnamma to provide leadership in this difficult time.

“My first leader was Puratchi Thalaivar MGR, then Puratchi Thalaivi Amma, and now General Secretary, Chinnamma. Eight crore Tamil makkal are looking to Chinnamma to provide leadership in this difficult time,” Ammadaikalam said.

He also chose to draw on the fact that attempts were being made to sabotage her Sasikala’s bid to power since she was a woman and the odds were stacked against her.

Amma gave scooties and laptops to college-going-girls. She was all for women’s empowerment. See how much the state has progressed. Only Chinnamma can take forward her good work,” he added.

The party has been eager to ward off bad press and has made efforts to maintain a good rapport with the bevy of reporters who wait outside the residence of the party chief for tidings on which way the political headwinds will blow in Tamil Nadu.

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Baba Jaidev is among the volunteers who distribute food packets to those encamped on the streets. “The food is meant for only media persons and the cops, but if we have extra packets, we give to all and sundry. The food isn’t the regular fare you get at Amma canteens, but it sourced from Hotel Sangeetha,” he said. This has been the practice ever since Jayalalithaa was first hospitalized in September.

The distribution of meal packets is a boon for those who have borne great expenses in traveling to Chennai to witness the elevation of a new Chief Minister and a new dawn for the party. Vijaya, who is from Namakkal, near Erode, paid Rs.150 for her bus ticket to Chennai.

She has been staying at the MLA Hostel in the city since a local party functionary from Namakkal had organized the accommodation. It is a show of strength for local leaders to parade members from their constituency to curry favour with the party high command.

“Forget four years; Chinnamma will not be in jail for even four months. They cannot touch her. She will be back much sooner than that and will take up her rightful post as the CM of Tamil Nadu,” she said with conviction.

Poes Garden has historically been no stranger to the sudden outpouring of people onto the streets, but the police are not taking any chances. Riot control battalions were deemed unnecessary, but policing has been beefed up, keeping in mind the eventualities that could possibly arise.

Palani Guru, a police officer, who is in charge of monitoring the flow of traffic at the checkpoint that has been erected, revealed that around 50-75 men and women have been deployed in and around Poes.

For those who live in the vicinity of one of the most iconic addresses in the city, the steady stream of traffic is not something out of the ordinary. “Chinnamma is not here. Otherwise, the scenes would’ve been even more dramatic,” said Rangroop, who lives a stone’s throw away from where the situation unravels, every time an incident of regional import transpires.

Rangroop, who lives on Binny Road, Poes Garden, adjacent to where the action is taking place.
Rangroop, who lives on Binny Road, Poes Garden, adjacent to where the action is taking place.

When asked about Sasikala, his neighbour of 28 years, Rangroop did not mince words.

“The less said about her, the better. That lady (Jayalalithaa) had some grace. This one (Sasikala) does not have even one percent of her charm. She is unfit to run a state. A backseat driver with no prior experience, going behind the wheel will surely lead to an accident.”

He is of the opinion that it is of no consequence that Sasikala is to be imprisoned for four years. The state is in no way going to suffer. In fact, the people will be better off since under her reign, she and her corrupt family members would call the shots.

He reminisces of the time when Jayalilthaa’s convoy would go past his house. The entire area was cordoned off since Z Plus security was provided to Amma in her first term as Chief Minister, which coincided with the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi.

The threat to the Chief Minister was considered to be credible during the halcyon days of militancy in neighbouring Sri Lanka. The relaxation of the stringent security norms would only come to pass after Amma’s first term in office ended, when the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam (LTTE) was in decline, and the security threat to Tamil politicians waned in the aftermath of India withdrawing troops from the island nation.

“It was difficult to go out, especially for our staff and servants,” lamented Rangroop. There would be checkpoints every half-a-kilometre on the stretch till Stella Maris College, he said. In hallowed company, Rangroop’s life has come full circle. He is a working professional in the twilight years of his career who has taken a sabbatical out of personal reasons.

“My wife was taken ill, and hospitalized on September 22, the same day that Amma was admitted to Apollo. However, things were not to be, as she expired on November 6, a month before her idol Jayalalithaa would meet the same fate. She was a big fan of Amma. Everytime, the convoy would go past our house, she would run to the gate to catch a glimpse of her. On two occasions, both on her birthday, she has stopped the convoy and interacted personally with Amma,” he said.

Rangroop is from Jalore district in Rajasthan, and hails from the same village as the late Union Minister, Ram Niwas Mirdha. By his own admission, he has seen all the drama that the culture of sycophancy surrounding public figures in Tamil Nadu has to offer.

“When Amma was arrested for the first time, there was a man who brought kerosene, doused himself with it outside my house, and was asking onlookers for a matchbox. I told him that if you can bring kerosene from home, you should have remembered to bring matches also,” said Rangroop.

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He went on to observe that 90 percent of the people who disrupt public order in the name of devotion outside the Poes Garden residence of the AIADMK party chief are paid to do so.

“As far as DMK and the AIADMK are concerned, this culture will never die. The two parties share a relationship akin to that of a parent-child one. Both derive their roots from the film industry. The tendency to dramatize is a trait they inherit from their leaders,” he explained in the context of the histrionics of the cadre.

The pantheon of leaders in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, right from Annadurai, Karunanidhi, M.G Ramachandran, and J. Jayalalithaa, to the latest aspirant to the alleyways of power, Sasikala, have all been associated with the movies. Chinnamma used to run a CD rental shop before her tryst with the woman who would transform her fortune, for better or worse.

The SC verdict has thrown a spanner in the works of Chinnamma’s machinations to seize power by deposing the incumbent O. Panneerselvam. “If the party survives this episode in its history which is being written as we speak, then well and good. Otherwise it will disintegrate, and go to the dogs,” noted Rangroop. If OPS can muster the support of 18 MLAs, the tally of Sasikala’s camp would fall below the requisite majority needed to form the government.

Personal loss has compounded his grief and amplified a sense of nostalgia for the old days when their illustrious neighbour would drive past with a cavalcade of cars in her wake.

The loss of his wife remains a fresh wound. After the adverse verdict of the SC, reports suggest that Amma’s Poes Garden residence could go under the auctioneer’s hammer. A new chapter in Tamil politics remains a work in progress.

The din and commotion around Poes Garden is likely to die down in the following months, but reputations are transient in politics. Exiles have been known to return.

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