Jayalalithaa funeral: ‘Chinnamma’ Sasikala steps on to the stage, family comes out of the cold

Multiple sources in AIADMK said there were indications that Sasikala could be elected the powerful general secretary of the ruling party.

Written by Arun Janardhanan , Nirupama Subramanian | Chennai | Updated: December 7, 2016 4:52 pm
jayalalithaa, jayalalithaa death, jayalalithaa funeral, sasikala natarajan, sasikala AIADMK, sasikala jayalalithaa, jayalalithaa dies, jayalalithaa heart attack, jayalalithaa passes away, jayalalithaa cardiac arrest, india news, indian express Sasikala at Rajaji Hall, Chennai, Tuesday. Nirmal Harindran

As they thronged the Rajaji Hall for a final glimpse of their beloved Amma, the legions of fans couldn’t help notice the woman who stood next to the body of Jayalalithaa. Sasikala Natarajan, who stood by the late AIADMK leader through thick and thin, was also the one who performed the last rites before Jayalalithaa was laid to rest Tuesday evening. Watching her through the day, a party MP couldn’t help remark that “the spotlight will now move from Amma to Chinnamma (mother’s younger sister)”.

Multiple sources in AIADMK said there were indications that Sasikala could be elected the powerful general secretary of the ruling party. Whether that happens remains to be seen, but it is clear to all that she is back at the helm, wielding clout acquired over the years owing to her proximity to Jayalalithaa.

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It was a friendship that always remained a mystery to even partymen, one that survived bitter fallouts. There was an emotional connect between the two, an AIADMK leader said of the friendship.

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“She stood by Jayalalithaa in her most testing times. There were allegations that Sasikala misused power to grant her family favours but her sacrifice was no less. She stayed away from her family to be with Amma,” the leader said.

Some senior leaders of the AIADMK who had a direct line with Jayalalithaa — they refused to communicate with her via Sasikala — will now have to deal with her friend.

A video cassette seller who used to record weddings, Sasikala met Jayalalithaa sometime in the late 1980s. This was the period when Jayalalithaa too felt unwanted in the AIADMK before the death of her mentor M G Ramachandran.

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Sasikala’s husband M Natarajan, a government PRO and a DMK sympathiser, had joined MGR when he founded the party. “In a party with hardly any stalwarts, Natarajan became kingmaker, and was instrumental in the rise of Jayalalithaa,” one of the AIADMK leaders said.

Natarajan was arrested and invited the wrath of Jayalalithaa in 2012 which was followed by the ouster of Sasikala for allegedly plotting against the AIADMK leader. It is said that Sasikala kept her husband away to ensure her return to Poes Garden.

At Rajaji Hall Tuesday, Sasikala and her close relatives, who were thrown out of the party in 2012, stood next to her body. There was Ilavarasi, her sister-in-law; brother V Divakaran; Dr S Venkitesh, son of Sasikala’s brother; and, Natarajan.

Read | Jayalalithaa passes away: The burial of a believer

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“Amma threw out 18 of her family members and pardoned only Sasikala. All of them are now back in the party,” the leader said.

After Jayalalithaa was admitted to Apollo Hospitals on September 22, Sasikala took charge. An official said: “She was the decision-maker — be it Jayalalithaa’s treatment or the final draft of a medical bulletin. The CM’s advisor Sheela Balakrishnan and DGP R K Rajendran were taking decisions, but people close to Sasikala were being consulted.”

But the presence of Jayalalithaa’s late brother Jayakumar’s son Deepak at the funeral — he was seen behind Sasikala as she performed the last rites — has triggered speculation that she and her family have co-opted him. He has never been seen in public.

Read | Jayalalithaa passes away: From canteens to seeds to pharmacy, legacy of Brand Amma

A few days ago, police prevented Deepak’s sister Deepa from visiting her aunt in hospital. Their father died in 1995, and since then the family has led a low profile life in Chennai’s T Nagar, a middle-class locality.

One observer said Deepak’s emergence by the side of Sasikala is “extremely interesting”. As a blood relation of the late Jayalalithaa, he could provide Sasikala the legitimacy to assert her claim to the leadership of the AIADMK.

There are at least a dozen senior leaders who have never been close to Sasikala. For them, there’s big worry. On Tuesday, many including A Navaneethakrishnan, a Rajya Sabha MP who used to communicate directly with Jayalalithaa, had to walk over a kilometre to reach Rajaji Hall after police denied entry to their vehicles. People accompanying them said officers who used to salute them have suddenly changed their attitude.

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Dr V Maitreyan, P H Pandian, K P Munusamy are among leaders who never took the Sasikala route to their leader. “When Sasikala was thrown out of the party, Pandian delivered a speech criticising her in the presence of Jayalalithaa. Munusamy too had attacked Sasikala after her ouster,” a party leader said.

Many ministers and MLAs are loyal to Sasikala because she helped them secure party tickets in elections. But two trusted aides of Jayalalithaa, Chief Minister O Panneerselvam and Lok Sabha Deputy Speaker M Thambidurai, who were never in the Sasikala camp, will not be affected in the power shift. “Sasikala cannot afford to sideline them. She needs them to run the show,” a senior leader said.

“The party has four-and-half years more in power. No senior member in the AIADMK wants a rebellion right now, and I don’t foresee that happening even if Sasikala takes over, at least for the time being, because power is a strong glue,” a party insider said. “But yes, if that means that Sasikala’s entire clan, which Jayalalithaa had banished from her inner circle, is also going to make a comeback, there could be a problem.”