by Nandini Krishnan
In most photographs and videos of Jayalalithaa, a dour-faced woman wearing an expression not unlike that of an anxious grandmother watching a toddler bumble about the garden, can be spotted somewhere in the frame. She is Sasikala Natarajan, the close aide and best friend of the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. Some believe she’s also the CM’s puppet master.
Often seen whispering furtively to Jayalalithaa, occasionally caught smiling, and never interviewed, the wary-looking Sasikala was her most – perhaps her only – trusted lieutenant.
On 19 December, 2011, a terse statement was issued from the office of Jayalalithaa. She had expelled Sasikala and 11 of her relatives from the AIADMK party “with immediate effect”. Within hours a second statement was issued, saying two more people had been asked to go. No explanation was given.
There had, however, been reports of friction between Jayalalithaa and Sasikala during the previous week. The expulsions followed a spate of resignations, sackings, and transfers of key officials who were believed to have been appointed at Sasikala’s instance.
The people who have been dumped from the AIADMK, aside from Sasikala and her husband Natarajan, include several of her nephews, in-laws and distant relatives. Sasikala’s brother Ramachandran, who helped to organise coalition agreements with political allies, and her brother V K Diwakar, who had earlier fallen foul of Jayalalithaa, have also been dismissed.
The sons of two of Sasikala’s sisters and one of her brothers have been asked to leave too.
TTV Dinakaran: Former AIADMK treasurer, Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha MP; also the husband of Anuradha, who headed Jaya TV.
V Bhaskaran: Headed Jaya TV’s previous avatar JJ TV; alleged to be involved in cases of fraud, including the import of a Lexus.
V N Sudhakaran (Jaya’s foster son): Adopted in 1995, later disowned by Jayalalithaa. His lavish wedding, sponsored by her, is believed to have been a key factor in her being voted out of power in 1996. He is accused in an infamous disproportionate assets case.
T V Mahadevan and T V Thangamani: Sons of Sasikala’s brother Vinothakan.
Dr S Venkatesh: Son of Sasikala’s brother Sundaravadanam.
Kulothungan: Son of Sasikala’s sister.
Raavanan: Distant relative who oversaw party affairs in Coimbatore.
Mohan: Distant relative who heads a Chennai-based distillery called ‘Midas’; he is sometimes referred to as ‘Midas Mohan’.
Rajarajan: Actively involved in Jayalalithaa’s election campaign.
Party cadres obligingly burst firecrackers and distributed sweets at the AIADMK headquarters. As newspaper editors rushed to fill their front and edit pages, the media resorted to conjecture about the reasons for the breakup and estimates of how long it might last. In the absence of an official explanation, or verifiable information, the vernacular news organisations – which are run by sundry political parties – attributed reasons to the split that suited their own interests, while journalists latched on to every conspiracy theory offered by any (usually anonymous) source.
Popular among the theories were:
* Jayalalithaa had unearthed a plot by Sasikala’s family to stage a coup, and usurp power
* Jayalalithaa was staging a show to reassert her position as the boss
* Sasikala was likely to be convicted in a corruption case, and Jayalalithaa found it prudent to sever ties with her
* The ‘Mannargudi Mafia’ – as Sasikala’s family is dubbed in the media – had been secretly drugging Jayalalithaa; Jayalalithaa had apparently begun to suspect this after coming across documents she had no recollection of signing, and the Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, with whom she is on good terms, had sent his doctor to investigate
* Political analyst Cho Ramaswamy had advised Jayalalithaa to dispense with her influential aide, if she intended to play a larger role in national politics
As newspapers indulged in speculation about the moles planted by the Mannargudi clan, the Sasikala loyalists who had been carrying out instructions behind Jayalalithaa’s back, the heads that were likely to roll, and whether the friendship was finally over, both sides refused to talk.
On December 30, addressing a meeting of the party’s decision-making bodies – the General Council and the Executive – Jayalalithaa said firmly that Sasikala and her coterie had been dismissed for ever. Making a direct reference to threats issued by them to party cadres (that they would eventually patch up and there would be hell to pay for those who went against them now) Jayalalithaa asked her party men not to worry, and promised that no olive branch would be extended, or accepted.
But people who are familiar with Jayalalithaa’s curious relationship with the family from Mannargudi remain sceptical.
Through Thick and Thin
Jayalalithaa was introduced to Sasikala in 1982, when the former was Propaganda Secretary in the AIADMK headed by actor-turned-politician M G Ramachandran (MGR). Jayalalithaa had travelled to Cuddalore, where Sasikala’s husband Natarajan was the party’s Public Relations Officer. Sasikala ran a video rental store in Madras. The women struck up an intense friendship, which would last for decades.
When MGR passed away, the party split into two factions, one headed by his wife Janaki and the other by Jayalalithaa. Sasikala supported Jayalalithaa, and even moved into her home in the posh Poes Garden area of Chennai. Janaki passed away soon after, and the party reunited. Jayalalithaa was elected Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu for the first time in 1991. Sasikala became something of a deputy (she was called ‘Chinna Amma’ and ‘CM 2’ within the party), holding fast even as Jayalalithaa had tiffs with Natarajan and Sasikala’s brother Diwakar.
In 1995, Jayalalithaa adopted Sasikala’s nephew V N Sudhakaran, and funded his extravagant wedding. Though she would disown him shortly after, the dizzying expenses remained a blot in her record. The event, and the coverage it received in the media – especially in the channels run by the opposition DMK, which even contrived to get hold of conversations between prospective guests and apologetic hotel staff who said all their rooms were booked – are believed to have been a crucial factor in Jayalalithaa’s electoral loss in 1996.
When the DMK headed by Karunanidhi came to power, Jayalalithaa was imprisoned. She refused bail, and remained locked up for 27 days. According to the website Whispers in Tamilnadu, a “well-wisher” warned Jayalalithaa that she was being blamed for Sasikala’s excesses. In May 1996, Jayalalithaa said she was “distancing herself from Sasikala”, citing “the sentiments of the general public and party men”. However, Sasikala was subsequently hospitalised, and four soppy letters later, had glued herself back to the former Chief Minister. The website goes on to claim that when Jayalalithaa returned to power in 2001, Sasikala had the “well-wisher” arrested and tortured.
Jayalalithaa’s second term saw Sasikala maintaining a lower profile. Jayalalithaa herself temporarily resigned, after being convicted in a corruption case. The party lost in 2006, and Jayalalithaa spent the next five years fighting cases, along with Sasikala. After securing her third term in office in 2011, Jayalalithaa had to make court appearances in Bangalore twice, in connection with a disproportionate assets case. Sasikala had to be present too.
While she stayed in the background during Jayalalithaa’s public appearances, Sasikala was never absent. It is believed important party positions, including ministerial berths, were given to her nominees. Party cadres seemed to be resigned to the fact that the “distancing” in 1996 had been a manoeuvre to mollify those who blamed Sasikala for the election debacle. Rumour had it that one of Sasikala’s nephews would be groomed to take over the leadership of the party. But in December of last year, reports began to filter out about Jayalalithaa upbraiding her Cabinet for briefing Sasikala, and not her, about administrative matters. A Deputy Secretary in Jayalalithaa’s office, Ramalingam, was asked to go on long leave, and then reinstated. Sasikala moved out of Poes Garden, and then moved back in. However, on December 19, she was sent packing , and Jayalalithaa insisted she wouldn’t be back.
While her oratory sounds convincing, Jayalalithaa does have a few chinks in her armour.
What Makes Jayalalithaa Vulnerable?
Jayalalithaa is often named among the iron ladies of India – Mamata Banerjee (Chief Minister of West Bengal), Mayawati (Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh), and Sonia Gandhi (Chairperson of the UPA and power behind the PM). While she’s as single as the others, she may well be lonelier – her road to politics was markedly different.
Unlike Mamata Banerjee, Jayalalithaa was not involved in student politics. Unlike Mayawati, she was not the product of an ideology, with a vote bank for support. Jayalalithaa had all the wrong labels – the Brahmin caste she belongs to is anathema to the Dravida parties, and the DMK continues to make capital of this. Unlike Sonia Gandhi, she didn’t marry into a family dotted with political luminaries. Jayalalithaa was once a beautiful, but reluctant, movie star. Her widowed mother Sandhya, also an actor, pushed her into the industry citing financial circumstances, when she was 16 and wanted to study further. Jayalalithaa found a mentor in MGR, and followed him into politics.
Propelled to the leadership of the party, Jayalalithaa fluctuated between asserting her independence and leaning on aides for support. Perhaps acting on MGR’s advice, she was wary of the media and, sometimes, of her own ministers, creating a milieu that was conducive for Sasikala and her family to consolidate their privileges.
How Much is Too Much?
During Jayalalithaa’s first term, she and Sasikala were frequently photographed wearing identical saris and accessories, not unlike the singing sibling duos who perform classical Indian music, such as Amaan and Ayaan Ali Bangash, the Gundecha Brothers, Malladi Brothers, Priya Sisters, and Bombay Sisters. Even as she slipped into more muted shades over the next two terms, Sasikala seems to have had as much, if not more, say in the running of the party.
An article posted on Whispers in Tamil Nadu says the inept legal team installed by Sasikala undermined the credibility of Jayalalithaa’s regime, while her puppets manipulated the administration. Jaya TV, run by Sasikala’s relatives, reported the same turnover for a decade.
What Jayalalithaa will do next is anybody’s guess. While she is a formidable administrator, she is known to be impulsive and headstrong – she caused the Indian government to collapse in May 1999, by withdrawing support for the National Democratic Alliance. She has indulged in petty tussles with the DMK during each of her terms in office, either by having her rival Karunanidhi arrested or trying to overthrow his pet projects, from the Samacheer Kalvi scheme to the location of the Secretariat.
By all indications, the Chief Minister doesn’t intend to let her former best friend sway her any longer. Natarajan is reportedly in talks to start a new outfit. But, the Mannargudi clan’s previous breakups with Jayalalithaa have worked like boomerang throws, and an emotional reunion between the two women somewhere down the line would surprise very few people.
Nandini Krishnan blogs at http://disbursedmeditations.blogspot.com