Chinnamma: Will Sasikala’s family be AIADMK’s biggest hurdle?

For over three decades, Sasikala lived in the shadows of the late Jayalalithaa. As she now looks to step out and gain control over the AIADMK, her family, once loathed by Jayalalithaa and viewed with suspicion by others in the party, could prove the biggest hurdle.

Written by Nirupama Subramanian , Arun Janardhanan | Updated: December 11, 2016 9:53 am
Jayalalithaa, Jayalalitha, Jaya, amma, J Jayalalithaa, Sasikala, Aiadmk, Sasikala news, AIADMK Sasikala, Sasikala general secretary, V K Sasikala, Sasikala AIADMK (Illustration by Manali Ghosh)

At Rajaji Hall on Tuesday evening, as Sasikala stood beside Jayalalithaa’s casket, with other members of her extended clan at vantage positions around the body, there were few AIADMK seniors in the frame. Elsewhere, Sasikala’s husband Natarajan, whom Jayalalithaa apparently loathed, escorted out VIPs. The message, amplified when Sasikala performed the last rites for her friend, was this: that Chinnamma, as Sasikala V K is often referred to, aide and confidante to Jayalalithaa for over three decades, was all set to take over the party. And that she wouldn’t be alone — with her would return Natarajan and other family members.

But there is no certainty that Sasikala, whose friendship with Jayalalithaa began in the early ’80s and who was a constant presence outside the glass cabin of Apollo Hospital’s ICU, where Jayalalithaa lay for 73 days, has been accepted as the new power centre by all in the party.

At stake now is the post of general secretary of the AIADMK, the party’s most powerful, which Jayalalithaa held from the time she took over the reunified AIADMK in 1990 until her death last week. Sasikala has to become general secretary in order to become party supremo. But whether she can exercise the kind of control Jayalalithaa had over the AIADMK, a party that claims to have 1.5 crore members, is now a big question mark.

Little is known about Sasikala’s early life except that she is from Mannargudi in Tamil Nadu’s Tiruvarur district and is from the Thevar community, a powerful backward caste. In 1975, she married Chennai-based M Natarajan, a DMK worker and a mover and shaker in political circles — DMK leader M Karunanidhi is said to have attended their wedding. Natarajan was then an assistant public relations officer, a post usually filled by political appointees. His first posting was in Cuddalore, where V S Chandralekha was the district collector.

Sasikala stayed mostly in Chennai with her brother Dhivakaran, recalls a friend of Natarjan. She launched a video-cassette business through which she made her first contact with Jayalalithaa.

“The business was initially meant for Dhivakaran. But as she found customers in upscale Poes Garden and Adyar, she took charge of it,” says a retired government doctor, who used to stay near Poes Garden and was a customer at Sasikala’s video store.

 Express photo/Nirmal Harindran Little is known about Sasikala’s early life except that she is from Mannargudi in Tamil Nadu’s Tiruvarur district and is from the Thevar community, a powerful backward caste. Express photo/Nirmal Harindran

Hoping to expand her business, Sasikala approached IAS officer Chandralekha through her husband and sought to be introduced to the young and upcoming Jayalalithaa, who had joined the AIADMK at its Cuddalore rally on June 4, 1982. The massive public response to Jayalalithaa’s meetings for the Periyakulam by-election in 1982 and the Tiruchendur by-election in 1983 had marked her out as a promising star in the AIADMK. Party leaders began videographing her speeches to replay them at other places. That’s where Sasikala filled in.

Once Chandralekha introduced her to Jayalalithaa, says a retired police officer privy to happenings in MGR’s government and Poes Garden, Sasikala grabbed the opportunity. “She would videograph almost every event in Poes Garden. Jayalalithaa too enjoyed watching all those videos,” he says.

Natarajan was not around as the relationship grew, but in 1986, he played the role of an intermediary between Jayalalithaa and MGR after the two leaders had a fallout, when he felt she was promoting herself in Delhi’s power circles without his knowledge.

After MGR’s death in 1987, when Jayalalithaa was politically sidelined and had few friends, Sasikala stood by her. She shifted to Poes Garden in 1988 along with Natarajan, by now a known face in the Capital’s political circles for his influence among both the DMK and AIADMK camps.

In 1989, however, soon after the DMK played up a purported resignation letter by Jayalalithaa, followed by a physical assault on her by DMK leaders in the Tamil Nadu Assembly, she ejected Natarajan, suspecting that he was trying to take over the party. Sasikala chose to stay back at Poes Garden.

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Around this time, Sasikala began to bring her relatives and associates from Mannargudi to “assist” Jayalalithaa and to look after the sprawling Vedanilayam residence in Poes Garden, spread over 24,000 square feet. “We used to say that Dhivakaran was the first security SP of Poes Garden. Many a time, the men he brought from his village to guard Vedanilayam provoked Jayalalithaa’s followers as they were all arrogant and rude. During the turmoil after MGR’s death, Dhivakaran would even take Jayalalithaa to Mannargudi to provide her a safe haven as there were threats to her life from the rival faction in the party,” says the police officer.

In Jayalalithaa’s first term as chief minister, between 1991 and 1996, Sasikala’s family, and Natarajan, never out of the loop despite his banishment, were blamed for the CM’s corrupt image.

During the hearing of the disproportionate assets case, still pending before the Supreme Court, the Bangalore special court noted that it was Sasikala’s family which had forced music director Gangai Amaran to sell his 22-acre farmhouse at Payyanur on the Old Mahabalipuram Road to Jayalalithaa for Rs 13.1 lakh, saying, “Amma likes your farmhouse.”

After the 1996 election debacle, Jayalalithaa distanced herself from Sasikala, but soon, Chinnamma was back at the “garden”, as party men call their leader’s home, with Jayalalithaa even welcoming her at the gate. Once again, in 2011, accusing them of misusing her name, Jayalalithaa banished Sasikala and 17 members of her family from her home and party, but clearly, the relationship was more important to Jayalalithaa than people thought. Sasikala returned after publicly disowning her family. Eventually, her sister Ilavarasi and nephew Vivek followed her to Poes Garden. Sasikala’s brother Dhivakaran and nephew Dr Venkitesh, were later allowed restricted access to Jayalalithaa’s residence.

Meanwhile, the family’s business interests grew. Over 30-odd companies are linked to Sasikala and her kin, including those dealing with 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.

Chennai: Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa and Finance Minister O Panneerselvam entering the state Assembly for the presentation of the interim budget for 2016-17 in Chennai on Tuesday. PTI Photo/DIPR(PTI2_16_2016_000245A) *** Local Caption *** In this file photo, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister O Panneerselvam is seen holding the budget briefcase with a picture of former Tamil Nadu CM J Jayalalithaa as he poses for a picture next to her at the Tamil Nadu assembly. PTI Photo/DIPR

Even as the Panneerselvam government has tried to maintain a semblance of normalcy by getting down to work at Fort St George, the East India Company-built compound that houses the secretariat, the transition in the AIADMK is more complicated.

Four big caste blocs play an influential role within the party — Thevars, Kongu Vellalar Gounders, Vanniyars and Dalits. Jayalalithaa was adept at balancing the interests of these groups, especially Thevars and Gounders. She kept the disgruntlement against the perceived dominance of Thevars — traced to Sasikala’s influence — in check by giving Gounders enough prominence in the government. In any case, no one would have dared to air complaints openly.

But all that has changed with Jayalalithaa’s passing. Even though there have been no big changes in the Cabinet, the unhappiness of the Gounder bloc began to be publicly aired even before the late AIADMK leader’s body was brought to Rajaji Hall, with whispers that Edappadi K Palanisamy, the PWD & Highways Minister and a Gounder, had staked a claim to the chief ministership but that Sasikala had weighed in favour of Panneerselvam, a Thevar. The full Sasikala family comeback added to the speculation that cracks had developed in the AIADMK along caste lines.

But a party legislator dismissed the possibility of an imminent breakup as lazy analysis. “Our party has four and a half years more in power. This is what will keep our members together. No one is going to upset the applecart even if they don’t like Sasikala,” he says.

Tamil Nadu CM, Jayalalitas corpse being taken as procession for burial at Marina Beach MGR samadhi on Tuesday evening. Express photo by Nirmal Harindran, 6th December 2016, Chennai. Jayalalithaa’s body being taken in a procession to Marina Beach. Express Photo/Nirmal Harindran

Any day after the customary 13-16 day ritual mourning for Jayalalithaa, the party is expected to call a General Council meeting, at which its office bearers will elect the general secretary. There is little doubt now that Sasikala wants that post.

And though she is said to have interacted with ministers on a regular basis, even deciding candidates during elections and taking part in alliance negotiations, she has never had a public political profile.

But in the last two days, she has been attempting to create one. On Thursday, she summoned the new CM and senior ministers to Poes Garden and was closeted with them for several hours.

“Sasikala needs to be the general secretary. Only then can she control the party. The late CM did not appoint her as her successor, so she does not have the kind of moral authority that Amma had. Besides, there is every danger that a proxy general secretary might turn against her, perhaps even demand that all Amma’s properties be converted into a memorial and that Sasikala vacate Poes Garden, which is for her the main symbol of continuity with Amma,” says a senior AIADMK legislator.

Still those who assert that the party will stick together for the sake of power concede that even as general secretary, Chinnamma will be not be able to exert half the control over senior AIADMK members as Periamma did.

A member of Sasikala’s extended family conceded she would need “all the support” she can get if she assumes the party’s top leadership. But that support may not be forthcoming if her family members assume various positions in the party hierarchy, says the legislator. “What role is Natarajan playing now? What positions are family members going to get? These are people who spoilt Amma’s name and now, they are coming back. We hope party seniors will prevent this from happening,” says a party cadre in Chennai.

Sources close to Sasikala claim that she would distance herself from her family. “Sasikala realised her mistakes long ago. She doesn’t believe in Natarajan or his political skills. She did not ask her family members to come and take positions at Rajaji Hall, they came by themselves,” says a friend of Sasikala.

Sources say that sister Ilavarasi, her son Vivek, and TTV Dinakaran, the son of Sasikala’s sister Vanithamani, are the only relatives in Sasikala’s good books. However, her relatives might have different ideas. “She is grief stricken now. Her relatives are unlikely to let go,” says an AIADMK source.

Among the 17 Sasikala relatives who were thrown out of party in 2011-12, her nephew Dr Venkitesh, who once held the posts of party’s youth wing leader, and another nephew, TTV Dinakaran, former MP and treasurer of the party, are seen as the most likely to push for a stake in the post-Jayalalithaa AIADMK

Other political parties are waiting and watching. A senior DMK leader said that if the AIADMK’s disgruntlement spills out, it would be easy for the DMK to break the party, but “no one wants another election so soon”. While the DMK needs just 23 more legislators for a majority in the Assembly, it would need to woo many more for defectors to avoid attracting the provisions of the anti-defection law.

The BJP is also keeping a close eye on the developments. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi consoled a weeping Sasikala at Rajaji Hall by placing his hand on her head, some AIADMK workers interpreted it as the PM’s blessing to the new dispensation.

A senior AIADMK member said the BJP would view the evolving arrangement — Sasikala heading the party and Panneerselvam as CM — as the most ideal from its own point of view. “Modi and BJP are not just looking at support in the Rajya Sabha for the presidential election, they are looking at Tamil Nadu for the 2019 parliamentary elections,” he said, going to predict that the BJP would want the AIADMK to stay together, stitch an alliance with it and hope to make big gains. The Congress too is monitoring the evolving situation.

Party insiders say Sasikala may choose to enhance her legitimacy as Jayalalithaa’s true inheritor by contesting the by-election in R K Nagar, her late friend’s constituency.

As Accused 2 in the disproportionate assets case against Jayalalithaa in which the Supreme Court reserved its judgment a few weeks ago, and with two other family members also in the list of accused, Sasikala does not face the same dangers as her friend — she was not a public official at the time of the alleged crime and with Accused 1 no more, the charge of conspiracy may also be weakened. Still, the decision in the case could determine her already dented public standing.

Both supporters and critics of Sasikala say it would be wrong to underestimate her and that she could well grow to fill the vacuum that Jayalalithaa has left. But all agree that she will never grow to become another Amma.

“A leader like Jayalalithaa, with that combination of charisma, intellect, grasp of issues and the ability to articulate them does not come along every day. Sasikala has zero charisma,” said an official.

At their Amma’s grave on the Marina next to MGR’s samadhi, hundreds of cadres are filing past early in the morning. Many men are lining up at a stall set up nearby, to get their heads shaved. “She was our mother,” says Madhammal, a woman cadre from Omalur in Erode. “There can be no second Amma”.