Mamata Banerjee and V K Sasikala may not have anything in common except that they have enjoyed immense influence in contemporary politics. One has been the main player in Bengal politics and the other has a sidekick who almost overshadowed Tamil Nadu’s prominent leader J Jayalalithaa.
Mamata rose from the grassroots of the Congress in West Bengal to displace the leftists from their three decades of power. Sasikala, on the other hand, was an aide of the powerful Jayalalithaa, spending three decades in her mentor’s shadows but wielding no less power— till she was sent to jail for amassing wealth beyond known sources of income.
But where both these women tread the same ground is that they have allowed their nephews — 'bhaipo' as in Bangla and 'maruman' in Tamil — gain a larger-than-life profile, investing them with the resources and the authority to determine their destiny in politics.
Abhishek Banerjee factor
When Abhishek Banerjee, son of Mamata’s elder brother, came into the Trinamool Congress in 2011, his rise to the top was a foregone conclusion.
Unlike Mamata, who began as a student leader in the 1970s, organising Chhatra Congress (students’ union) politics and then moving to the Mahila Congress before being picked by Rajiv Gandhi in 1984 to contest the parliamentary elections, Abhishek entered politics by joining after Mamata became chief minister, crushing the Left.
By the time he entered the Lok Sabha in 2014, Abhishek had emerged as the power behind Mamata, wielding enormous clout in the state government and the party. No wonder that Abhishek is the focus of the BJP's attack on Mamata. He is the punching bag for the accusations of rampant, high-level corruption -- 'tolabaaj' or 'cut money' collections by the Trinamool Congress.
Abhishek is Mamata Banerjee's soft spot. She has been on the defensive about his role and often on the backfoot because a majority of her once close aides have turned against her, resenting his role. In all, 23 sitting MLAs and former legislators have left the Trinamool Congress, citing his dominance and joined the BJP since 2019.
They include at least two former ministers leaders, Suvendu Adhikari and Rajib Banerjee. Ahead of the Bengal Assembly elections, Abhishek has dared anyone to describe him as 'bhaipo', declaring, “call me by that name and I will take you to court". He has already filed a slew of defamation cases against the BJP leaders in this connection.
If Mamata were to lose the Bengal elections in April-May this year, Abhishek could be squarely blamed as the single largest factor that caused the downfall of Mamata and the Trinamool Congress after 10 years of power. Unlike Abhishek, the story of T T V Dhinakaran, nephew of Sasikala, in Tamil Nadu is one of a roller-coaster ride.
The Dhinakaran factor
A man with a smiling disposition and an unruffled appearance, Dhinakaran is back in the spotlight because Sasikala is back in Tamil Nadu to a grand reception, after completing her four-year jail term in Bengaluru in a Rs 66.65-crore disproportionate assets case.
Her return to Tamil Nadu politics is being orchestrated by Dhinakaran, the general secretary of Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam (AMMK), a fledgling breakaway unit of the AIADMK, giving sleepless nights to Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami (EPS).
Dhinakaran became a member of the Lok Sabha, representing Periyakulam from 1999 to 2004. Upset by Sasikala’s family members' domination in her affairs, Jayalalitha had both him and Sasikala, banished from her set-up. (Sasikala returned to Jayalalithaa’s home after a few months, in a subdued role.)
After Jayalalithaa died, taking ill under mysterious circumstances in 2016 and Sasikala was sent to Bengaluru prison upon her conviction by the Supreme Court, Dhinakaran won the R K Nagar seat held by Jayalalithaa — in the by-election held in 2017 — to fill the vacancy caused by her death. He defeated the official AIADMK nominee to proclaim that his outfit was the real party.
Sasikala wanted to become chief minister before the Supreme Court delivered a verdict against her. But there was a lot of resistance. However, hours before she left to surrender in the Bengaluru court to serve the jail term, Sasikala re-inducted Dhinakaran into the AIADMK and appointed him deputy general secretary. He was expelled from the party in August 2017, which forced him to launch his own party, Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam (AMMK) in March 2018.
Now, Dhinakaran is counting on his aunt 'Chinnamma', as she is fondly addressed by her followers, to reclaim the parental party, the AIADMK, from EPS and O Paneerselvam (OPS), who revolted against her and buried their hatchet to run the AIADMK government for the last three years.
Over the last few days, the official AIADMK has shown anxiety and nervousness over the arrival of Sasikala. It closed the Jayalalithaa memorial in Chennai for alleged repair works, to prevent Sasikala from visiting it and filed a complaint against her usage of the AIADMK flag.
The poll factor
What is worrying for the ruling government is that many AIADMK ministers (who owed their positions to Sasikala earlier) have suddenly adopted silence over her return. Even though Palaniswami has ruled out readmitting Sasikala into the AIADMK, Dhinakaran is bound to use Sasikala to encourage unrest in the AIADMK in the run-up to the elections.
The BJP, on its part, has sought to forge a common front against the DMK-led alliance, urging the AIADMK leadership to allow Dhinakaran’s outfit contest some seats under a NDA alliance.
It hurts Sasikala to realise that a lot of water has flown down the Cauvery since she went to prison. Rebel leader OPS, who was removed by Sasikala from the CM’s post before going to prison, is back in the AIADMK. EPS, handpicked by her, joined hands with the ‘betrayer’ Panneerselvam and ousted her from the party’s top post, leaving her no room to return.
It is true that Dhinakaran’s support base has dwindled considerably and he has not been able to make an impact despite his victory in the RK Nagar by-election in 2017.
In the event of the DMK wresting power after the Tamil Nadu Assembly elections, EPS may have to bid goodbye and Sasikala may return to the centre stage. But she cannot contest elections for the next six years because of her conviction although she has served the prison sentence.
Dhinakaran is biding time till the assembly results and hoping to gain full control of the party.
Many remember the image of Sasikala thumping her fist on Jayalalithaa's grave on Chennai’s Marina Beach before leaving for prison in Bengaluru. But behind Sasikala is her 'maruman', waiting for her to handle the controls of the parent party.
So is Abhishek Banerjee, who is hoping to succeed his aunt, Mamata, if she can win this year’s election in Bengal.
The writer is former Senior Associate Editor, Hindustan Times, and Political Editor, Deccan Herald, New Delhi.