It has been a meteoric rise for Sasikala, who once ran a video-casette business. She is now on the verge of being anointed successor to late Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa
Shivani Chaturvedi | December 29, 2016 | Chennai
As J Jayalalithaa lay in state at the imposing Rajaji Hall in Chennai, a black sari-clad woman with puffy eyes quietly stood at her side. She was Sasikala Natarajan, who barring a brief period, had steadfastly been with Jayalalithaa through the ups and downs of Tamil Nadu’s caste-riven politics.
After spending over three decades living in the shadow of a larger-than-life Jayalalithaa, Sasikala, 60, is the woman to watch out for as she is not only expected to lead the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), but also perhaps take over the reins of the state by becoming the chief minister.
Jayalalithaa’s sprawling Poes Garden mansion continues to be the hub of activity as ministers as well as bureaucrats make a beeline to meet Sasikala, who is addressed as Chinnamma.
Since Jayalalithaa’s death on December 5, the frizzy-haired Sasikala has been aggressively projected as the next leader of the ruling AIADMK. Sasikala was, after all, udanpiravaa sagodhari (sister not related through blood).
So, who is Sasikala?
“She is the woman who knows too much about Jayalalithaa,” says Vaasanthi, a popular Tamil writer and journalist. She is more enigmatic than Jayalalithaa, Vaasanthi tells Governance Now.
Sasikala, who hails from Mannargudi in Tiruvarur district of Tamil Nadu, had humble beginnings. In 1975, she married Chennai-based M Natarajan, who was working as assistant public relations officer with the government. His first posting was in Cuddalore district, where VS Chandralekha was the district magistrate. Later, as head of TIDCO, Chandralekha had opposed the AIADMK government’s disinvestment plan for the state PSU. She was attacked with acid, and later, an AIADMK minister was arrested in connection with it. She then turned to politics and shared a love-hate relationship with Jayalalithaa.
When Natarajan, at that time a DMK worker, lost his job, Sasikala launched a video-cassette business in Chennai and stayed with her brother Dhivakaran. Chandralekha introduced Sasikala to Jayalalithaa in 1982 as Sasikala wanted to expand her business. They met when Jayalalithaa addressed a rally in Cuddalore that was videographed by Sasikala. A senior journalist in Chennai recalls how Sasikala would videograph almost all events at Poes Garden.
Jayalalithaa was the AIADMK propaganda secretary in 1983. When her mentor MG Ramachandran (MGR) died in 1987, Jayalalithaa was sidelined and very few people stood by her. Sasikala and Natarajan were among those few. In 1988, Sasikala and her husband Natarajan, who are childless, moved into Poes Garden. She started taking care of Jayalalithaa and became her best friend and well-wisher.
The Mannargudi mafia
Gradually, Sasikala brought relatives and associates from her Mannargudi town to assist Jayalalithaa. Sasikala belongs to the powerful Thevar community, deemed a backward class. This community had always been a supporter of MGR. And Sasikala helped cement ties between Jayalalithaa and her community. Over time, the friendship between Jayalalithaa and Sasikala grew stronger. Jayalalithaa adopted Sasikala’s nephew Sudhakaran as her foster son and ended up spending a lot of money to have a lavish wedding for him in 1995. This drew much criticism. Sasikala’s relatives who have been drawn into the circle around Jayalalithaa are known as the ‘Mannargudi mafia’. It is said that the Mannargudi clan literally runs Tamil Nadu when the AIADMK is in power. They have a very well entrenched political network.
A Mannargudi resident, not wishing to be quoted, says over phone that these people helped Jayalalithaa when she faced crisis. He says now they are “enjoying”, an euphemism for having a field day thanks to proximity to authority.
“They are openly doing all illegal business and people don’t dare to open their mouth,” he adds. Police have registered cases of land-grabbing against those who are known to be a part of the Mannargudi mafia.
Over 30-odd companies are linked to Sasikala and her kin, including those dealing in architecture, housing, mining, export-import of granite, printing and publishing, transport services, liquor manufacturing, and even an entertainment firm called Jazz Cinemas, which runs a 11-screen multiplex theatre in Chennai, says The Indian Express.
It was in 2011 that Jayalalithaa threw out Sasikala and 17 members of her family from her home and the party, accusing them of misusing her name. But in 2012, Sasikala returned to Poes Garden on the condition that she would sever ties with her relatives. Later, Sasikala’s sister-in-law Ilavarasi and nephew Vivek followed her to Poes Garden.
Vaasanthi, in her book Amma: Jayalalithaa’s Journey from Movie Star to Political Queen [Juggernaut, 2016], writes: “What was it about Sasikala that made the aloof and reserved Jayalalithaa trust her so completely? Jayalalithaa had longed for a normal life of marriage and children, which she was not destined to have. Now at least there was a friend who heard her woes with sympathy. Who did not question her actions. Who did not argue with her. Who took on the responsibility of running her house and who did not advise her on matters of state. It was annoying, therefore, when people said that Sasikala was behind her many political decisions. It was not only an insult to her as the chief minister but also utter rubbish.”
Those in the party who initially opposed Sasikala seem to have accepted her as their leader. The AIADMK practice of obsequiousness is now directed at her. Led by party presidium chairman E Madhusudhanan, a group of senior AIADMK leaders, cajoled Sasikala to take over the post of general secretary. A media report says that Madhusudhanan was seen holding Sasikala’s hands and pleading with her with tears in his eyes to take over the leadership and guide the party at this hour of crisis.
Vijaya Bhaskar, a minister in the O Panneerselvam cabinet, told a TV channel that the undivided feeling in the party was that Chinnamma should become the party’s general secretary.
Chief minister Panneerselvam and his council of ministers, who were sworn in barely hours after Jayalalithaa’s death, have already started visiting Chinnamma.
There are other signs too. When political satirist Cho Ramaswamy passed away a day after Jayalalithaa’s death, Sasikala visited his residence at MRC Nagar locality in a silver-coloured Toyota Prado, which was previously used only by Jayalalithaa. That’s not all. On another day, when Sasikala and her close relatives visited the spot where Jayalalithaa had been interred, Panneerselvam and his colleagues patiently waited outside and entered the area only after Sasikala left.
Big shoes to fill
Sasikala’s political capabilities are yet to be tested. “Jayalalithaa never gave her any post. She kept Sasikala only as her personal assistant,” says S Murari, a senior journalist. She has a disproportionate assets case against her. “If the supreme court gives its verdict [against her], the party won’t back her, unlike when Jayalalithaa’s name came up in the case,” adds Murari.
Sasikala may like to remain in the wait-and-watch mode. “If she accepts the proposal of becoming party general secretary, it might be temporary,” says Vaasanthi. Moreover, Sasikala knows that she would not be accepted by the cadre, she adds.
As of now, the AIADMK would like to complete its term, so it becomes necessary for them to stay together. If Sasikala doesn’t accept the crucial post, the party might urge Panneerselvam to take up the responsibility, says Vaasanthi. But, even if Sasikala says no, she will still wield considerable clout.
(The story was filed before the announcement was made to appoint Sasikala as the AIADMK general secretary. It appears in the January 1-15, 2017 issue)
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