The suspense over who would replace J Jayalalithaa as AIADMK's party chief was finally put to rest. As expected, Sasikala Natarajan, the former chief minister's close confidante, will take over as the party's all-powerful general secretary. Sasikala, also known as Chinamma (little mother), currently holds no post and party rules will have to be amended to accommodate her.
Ever since Jayalalithaa passed away after suffering a massive cardiac arrest, AIADMK leader and cadres have been making a beeline outside the former CM's Poes Garden residence, urging Sasikala to take over the reigns of the party.
Several such photographs have been posted on Twitter by the party's official handle. Also, posters prominently displaying a grieving Sasikala have cropped up in public places across several cities in Tamil Nadu.
The post of general secretary fell vacant after former chief minister Jayalalithaa passed away on 5 November after suffering a massive cardiac arrest in Chennai's Apollo Hospital.
Jayalalithaa's funeral was done with full state honours in Chennai's Marina Beach on Tuesday. Interestingly, the last rites were performed by her alter ego and best friend Sasikala Natarajan putting to rest all doubts about who would be Jayalalithaa's political successor in her absence.
Even Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who visited the Rajaji Grounds in Chennai to pay his last respects to Jayalalithaa, went to console a grieving Sasikala and spoke to her for a while. Chennai's Police Commissioner and several party leaders were also seen taking orders from Sasikala despite the newly crowned chief minister O Panneerselvam standing right there. These instances are a clear indication of who has emerged as the real power center in AIADMK post Jayalalithaa.
Ever since Jayalalithaa had been hospitalised, Sasikala had been by her side taking care of the ailing leader. In fact, she had stood by her for more than three decades literally running the show at Jayalalithaa's Poes Garden in Chennai. Working behind the scenes, Sasikala has an iron grip on the party as well as the state administration which has been carefully handpicked by her.
A complex relationship
Jayalalithaa and Sasikala shared an enigmatic relationship and the latter was the AIADMK supremo's sounding board, soul mate, sister, political advisor, confidante, housekeeper and a friend all rolled into one. Widely considered to be a loner, who cherished her solitude, Jayalalithaa would often confine herself to a room reading one book after another.
In this hour of loneliness, Jayalalithaa would delegate all responsibilities to Sasikala who exploited her trust and began calling shots in the party and the government. Such was their relationship that the two would often wear similar colour sarees. For party cadres if Jayalalithaa was Amma (Mother), Sasikalaa was Chinnamma (Little Mother). Not much is known about the reclusive Sasikala who has never been interviewed and no one has a whiff of what goes on in her mind.
From Mannargudi to Chennai, Sasikala's life has been a roller-coaster ride. Her secrets, desires, likes and dislikes are as enigmatic as her. And it is best left to her to answer how she looks at this long journey that has seen her rise, fall and rise again.
A small town in Tiruvarur district of Tamil Nadu, Mannargudi was famous only for its temples before Sasikala acquired prominence both politically and financially. Now, it is better known as the home turf of the chief minister's aide. But this wasn't her birth place.
Born in 1957 in Thiruthuraipoondi to Vivekanandan and Krishnaveni, Sasikala belonged to the Kallar caste and her family members were DMK sympathisers. The couple had six children and Sasi, as she was lovingly called, was the fifth.
The family moved to Mannargudi in the 1950s and Sasi soon acquired a name for herself in this discreet town for her good looks. During this time R Natarajan, a DMK sympathiser, who worked as a PRO with the district administration, developed a strong liking for her and approached her parents with a marriage proposal. The two finally tied the knot and the event was graced by none other than DMK patriarch M Karunanidhi himself.
If 1982 Cuddalore rally was a turning point for Jayalalithaa, it was also the moment of reckoning for Natarajan. While the district collector of Cuddalore, Chandralekha, handpicked by MGR, took most of the credit, it was Natarajan, whose media management skills helped the rally get such an adulatory response.
He had earlier lost his job as the PRO during the Emergency because he was appointed by the DMK. Natarajan then went to court and in 1980 he was reinstated as the PRO and began to work with Chandralekha.
Meanwhile, Chandralekha shifted to Chennai and Natarajan accompanied her and took care of her official affairs while his wife, Sasikala, was looking after the IAS officer's house and her son.
She also owned a video rental store in Chennai where Jayalalithaa's servant would often drop in to collect video tapes. Thereafter, she bought herself a camera and began shooting events for whatever little money. Since, Natarajan was working as a PRO, he needed photographers and videographers and that is where she filled in.
Rise and rise of Sasikala
A diehard movie fan, Sasikala was captivated by film stars and their luxurious lifestyle which Natarajan couldn't afford. Well aware that her husband would not be able to provide the kind of lifestyle she dreamt of, she approached Chandralekha to put in a word with the glamorous AIADMK propaganda secretary to let her shoot her rallies. Chandralekha did so and Jayalalithaa too agreed. And later Sasikala became the official videographer of her political and non-political events.
The former filmstar became so fond of Sasikala that she began accompanying Jayalalithaa everywhere. The bond kept growing stronger and Sasikala graduated from a videographer to a housekeeper at 36, Poes Garden.
A smooth operator, Sasikala was known for her knack of striking friendships and making herself indispensable to whosoever she interacted with. She never had a difference of opinion and always agreed to whatever one had to say. It was this quality that is said to have worked in her favour with Jayalalithaa.
In 1988, she moved in with Jayalalithaa and though there are conflicting theories on events that led to Sasikala's entry, but their proximity reached another high after MGR's death in 1987.
Sasikala and Natarajan helped Jayalalithaa overcome the grief of MGR's death and instilled confidence in her to lead the party. From here on, Sasikala would follow Jayalalithaa everywhere including temples, state Assembly, election campaigns and would often be seen passing notes to her during her speeches.
When Sasikala moved in with Jayalalithaaa, she brought along 40 people from Mannargudi to work in the actress-turned-politician's household in different capacities. All these men and women were Sasikala loyalists.
The husband-wife duo ensured that most of her relatives, well-wishers and party cadres were kept away from Jayalalithaa making her completely dependent on Sasikala. In the run-up to the 1991 elections, the AIADMK supremo even handed the charge of campaigning and fund collection to the Natarajans.
Even Jayalalithaa directed party colleagues to approach Sasikala if they needed her intervention in any matter. In turn, Sasikala and her relatives began managing party affairs and were accused of auctioning tickets during the 1991 assembly elections.
Sasikala was the proxy chief minister who played a major role in appointing officers in key positions. She even adopted Sasikala's nephew as her foster son and his marriage to Tamil actor Sivaji Ganeshan's daughter saw the chief minister splurging crores on a wedding that holds the Guinness World Record for most guests at a wedding and of the largest banquet.
In 1991, Sasikala and her nephews came up with a strategy to launch a TV channel to counter DMK's Sun TV. In 1996, a new channel named after the chief minister-JJ TV-was launched. Sasikala's nephew V Bhasakaran was chosen as its MD. It later came to known as the 'Colour TV' scam wherein Jayalalithaa gave approval for buying 45,302 colour TVs which cost the state exchequer Rs 8.3 crore. Jayalalithaa was even jailed in connection with the scam.
The then Janata Party leader Subramanian Swamy went on to the extent of calling Jayalalithaa as Sasikala's 'performing monkey'. Swamy even called Sasikala's family as the "Mannargudi mafia" and he is said to have repeatedly warned Jayalalithaa about Sasikalaa's exponential financial growth. Even her other close friends like legendary editor and playwright, Cho Ramaswamy, warned the chief minister about the family's notoriety.
Queen of comebacks
Jaya remained unfazed by such criticism and continued to back the family till the results of 1996 elections came out. The entire party was up in arms against Sasikala's family and blamed them for party's dismal performance in the state elections.
In order to restore order, Jayalalithaa was forced to oust Sasikala from her residence, party and life. Sasikala then played the emotional card to ensure her return to the chief minister's residence. Soon after she was banished, Sasikala was admitted to a hospital from where she wrote four letters to Jayalalithaa pleading her innocence. An emotional Jaylalithaa forgot about the corruption charges and welcomed her with open arms.
However, Jayalalithaa invited Sasikala back, but kept Natarajan out. She was asked to choose between her husband and the chief minister and for obvious reasons Sasikala chose the latter.
In 2000, Sasikala was formally inducted into the party's general council. The testimony of their special friendship was for all to see when Jayalalithaa on her 60th birthday exchanged garlands with Sasikalaa. By now the Mannargudi mafia, as Sasikala's family came to be known, is said to have amassed huge wealth and that their empire was reportedly worth thousands of crores.
The honeymoon lasted till 2011 when Jayalalithaa cracked the whip on the Mannargudi mafia. She had received intelligence that this gang was conspiring to install Sasikala as the next chief minister if the chief minister is jailed on charges of corruption. There were also charges of corruption on the family. However, the family's devious plans were soon exposed and this time Jayalalithaa was in no mood to exonerate her aide.
The cadres rejoiced her decision and believed that their party and leader were now out of the clutches of the Mannargudi mafia. It seemed that the days of Sasikala's clan had come to an end, but known for playing the emotional card so well, Sasikala made yet another dramatic comeback.
On 30 March, 2012, leading news channels stopped their regular broadcast to announce breaking news about Jayalalithaa's decision about revoking Sasikala's suspension and accepting her apology. Earlier on 28 March, Sasikala had released a statement saying that she has snapped all ties with her relatives who have been accused of impropriety.
She had also taken the blame on herself for the disproportionate assets case, in which Jayalalithaa is also an accused. This sacrificial act by Sasikala is said to have mellowed down the chief minister who was now waiting for her "sister" to return home. In 2012, while welcoming her back, Jayalalithaa stood at the doors with an aarti thaali starting yet another chapter in the intriguing Jaya-Sasi saga which has become part of Tamil folklore.