As a multitude of supporters thronged in front of Rajaji Hall in Chennai to pay last respects to their leader ‘Amma’, Jayalalithaa’s body, wrapped in the Tricolour, was surrounded by Sasikala, her friend of many years, and Sasikala’s family. A poignant image, it pointed to the near absence of any family member of the former chief minister giving credence to reports that Jayalalithaa was perhaps alone during her last days. While lawmakers and leaders of the AIADMK filled the steps of the hall, it was mostly Sasikala’s extended family members who were seen standing beside Jayalalithaa’s body in reverence.
Born into a Brahmin family in then-Mysore, Jayalalithaa, after completing her primary education, had begun dabbling in acting roles in films, primarily guided by her mother who was also seen in some movies. She then went on to star as a leading actress in Kannada and Tamil films landing roles eventually with MG Ramachandran, then a matinee idol and one of the biggest actors in the state. MGR’s influence led her to joining the AIADMK in 1982, swiftly positioning herself as the party’s propaganda secretary and accompanying him during his tours. Reports suggest that though she was quite close to her family through the 80s, ties strained in the early 90s after the death of MGR and the rise of Jayalalithaa as a powerful leader of the party.
During the same time, Jayalalithaa came in touch with Sasikala through the latter’s husband who worked as a public relations officer in the government. Soon, Sasikala and her family attained entry into Jayalalithaa’s inner circle even as the leader’s own family members distanced from her. A turning point mentioned quite often is the lavish wedding that Jayalalithaa threw for her foster son Sudhakaran in 1995 that deepened the divisions between her and her blood relatives.
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While Jayalalithaa’s brother Jayakumar, her only sibling, died in an accident in 1995, his daughter Deepa had tried to meet the former chief minister even when she was at Apollo Hospital, a report in the Times of India said. Deepa, accompanied by her husband, was barred from meeting the chief minister by the police, the report said. She had also unsuccessfully tried to meet Jayalalithaa in 2014 following her conviction in the disproportionate assets case. It was not clear whether Deepa, perhaps Jayalalithaa’s closest family member, was not allowed to meet her at the insistence of the chief minister. But what was quite evident was that it was Sasikala who ran the show and took control of the party even when the former chief minister was admitted to the hospital.
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There is also widespread speculation that it will be Sasikala or a leader of her choice who would go on to succeed Jayalalithaa as the next general secretary of the party. While O Panneerselvam, the state’s finance minister, has taken over the reins of the government, the party will firmly be under the control of Sasikala and her family members. Certainly not as charismatic or popular as Jayalalithaa was, Sasikala’s influence will undoubtedly tower over the party.