This town on the banks of the river Pamini, a sub-tributary of the Cauvery, in Tamil Nadu is famous for two things. One is the 1,000-year-old Chola-era Rajagopalaswamy temple whose Vishnu deity draws devotees from across India. The other is a woman who is whispered about as a power centre in Tamil Nadu whenever the AIADMK has ruled the state in the last 25 years.
Sasikala Natarajan, described variously as “aide”, “confidante”, “friend” of AIADMK supremo Jayalalithaa, does not live in this rustic place any more. Her home is the Poes Garden residence of the Chief Minister in Chennai.
People say she visits only during important family functions, like her mother’s death anniversary, and no one remembers seeing her in public here. The only member of Sasikala’s family who lives in Mannargudi is her brother V Dhivaharan, whose home in a sprawling compound is hidden behind rows of fruit-bearing mango trees. A guard declares there is no one at home, and dogs come barking to the gate. Nor is Dhivaharan to be found at the Sengamalarthayyar Educational Trust College for Women that he owns, says the guard there.
“Very disciplined, good college. Better than Government Arts College. All the people are preferring STET only,” says a shop owner in Mannargudi.
Dhivaharan has kept a low profile since December 2011. That was when Jayalalithaa carried out an unexpected and swift purge against Sasikala and a dozen of her family members, who were alleged to have amassed wealth and properties alongside political influence within the AIADMK.
As surprising as Sasikala’s sudden expulsion was her return to Poes Garden some three months later, after a public apology in which she distanced herself from her family members who, she claimed, had “misused” her proximity to Jayalalithaa, and swore she could never think of betraying her “akka”. Since then most of her family members have remained persona non grata in the Jayalalithaa household.
Sasikala is said to have fully resumed her role as her friend’s gatekeeper and counsel in a party whose centralised functioning is so opaque that even the seniormost ministers are clueless about important matters. “Sasikala is the person who handles all matters related to Jayalalithaa’s case in Supreme Court. No one in the party knows anything about it,” says a long-time AIADMK watcher in Chennai.
The Supreme Court has set June 1, two weeks after the declaration of the Assembly election results, as the deadline for the Karnataka government to finish arguments in its appeal against the Karnataka High Court order setting aside a Bangalore special court’s conviction of Jayalalithaa in a disproportionate assets case.
Just as Jayalalithaa is inaccessible, so is Sasikala. She gives no interviews, and her last public statement was her 2012 apology. In contrast to Jayalalithaa’s first term as chief minister between 1991 and ’96, she has rarely appeared by her side in public in the last few years.
Although the family remains out of view, its business interests have, however, grown. Last October, a company in which two members of Sasikala’s extended family are directors bought 11 cinemas in Chennai. Another Sasikala relative runs Jaya TV.
In this town, the AIADMK candidate in the May 16 election is S Kamaraj, a wealthy contractor and a former party district secretary. He was not in the first list of candidates, triggering speculation that he was chosen later because of his closeness to “the family”. But here is the paradox. In a place synonymous with the “Sasikala family”, AIADMK did not win in Mannargudi in 2011.
Local boy T R B Raja of DMK, the sitting MLA and son of former Union minister T R Baalu, is standing for re-election. “When you talk about AIADMK, you have to talk about Mannargudi. But for all that, what has the Sasikala family done for this place,” he asks, as he reels off the DMK’s contributions — a fertiliser factory, a modern rice mill, Government Arts College, and reopening of the railway station after 40 years, and several train connections, which he credits to his father during his time as the Union minister.
“Sasikala may be strong in Poes Garden,” says Raja, 41, “but she is not strong here.”