In the chaos of everyday life — long lines at bank ATMs, the arrival and departure of pilgrims to the Rajagopalaswamy temple and the buzzing tea shops — there is no overt sign to indicate that Mannargudi holds any significance in Tamil Nadu politics. But presence of Sasikala and her family — who go by the inglorious moniker of ‘Mannargudi Mafia’ — beside the body of AIADMK supremo J Jayalalithaa on Tuesday has thrust this town in east Tamil Nadu into the spotlight.
Several residents of Mannargudi, however, say it was only about four decades ago that the family moved to Mannargudi. The daughter of C Vivekanandan, a medical compounder, Sasikala or Sasikala V K as she was known then, moved to Mannargudi with her mother Krishnaveni and brothers V Vindogahan, V Jayaraman and V Dhivaharan. Both Vivekanandan and Krishnaveni are no more.
“The family was from Thiruthuraipoondi, a few kilometres from here. They had some agricultural land there which they left behind and moved to a house in Mannai Nagar (a residential area). Many of them, including Sasikala, later moved to Chennai or Thanjavur. Only her brother V Dhivakaran lives here these days,” says a 62-year-old businessman in Mannargudi, “a friend of Dhivakaran before he became powerful”.
Local residents say Sasikala’s family was among the earliest to build homes in the Mannai Nagar colony. Over the years, as the family fortunes grew, residents say they acquired the neighbouring properties — the house where Dhivakaran lives is now spread over two blocks. “Sasikala used to live here before her marriage,” says a neighbour.
Mannargudi residents say it was Sasikala’s marriage to Natarajan in 1975, a resident of nearby Thanjavur and a publicist in the information and public relations department of the government of Tamil Nadu, that propelled the family’s fortunes and power equations. It was through Natarajan that Sasikala gained access to Jayalalithaa.
As Jayalalithaa opened the doors of her Poes Garden residence to Sasikala, people in Mannargudi say, the family’s fortunes changed too. “Dhivakaran used to transport mud on a cycle rickshaw for construction work in Mannargudi. Few people know of it, but I have seen it myself,” says an elderly resident of the town.
Dhivakaran now runs a women’s college in Mannargudi, the Sengamal Thayar Educational Trust (STET) College, which was sanctioned during Jayalalithaa’s first term as chief minister. Apart from his Mannai Nagar home, Dhivakaran owns a palatial home at Sundarkottai near the STET college, a few kilometres from the main town.
Dhivakaran is also a key player for the AIADMK here and is said to be Sasikala’s eyes and ears for the region. “He decides the fortunes of political aspirants here,” says a resident. Earlier this year, Dhivakaran’s intervention is believed to have resulted in a local businessman, S Kamaraj, getting the AIADMK ticket to contest the Mannargudi Assembly seat though the party had initially identified Sudha Anbuselvam, the Mannargudi city council chairperson.
Despite Mannargudi being known as Sasikala’s town, the AIADMK does not hold sway here. The town falls in the Thanjavur parliamentary constituency, a traditional DMK stronghold, but which the AIADMK won in 2014, its first since 1977.
The party has won the Assembly seat only twice — in 1984 and 1991. Former Union minister and DMK leader T R Baalu’s son T R B Rajaa, who owns businesses in the region, has won twice since 2011.