Sasikala’s rise to the top heralds a new kind of ideology-free transactional politics
Business Standard, February 11, 2017
Last May, not long before she disappeared from the public view, J Jayalalithaa fought her last election as sitting MLA from R K Nagar in north Chennai. She didn’t campaign but swept in unopposed. R K Nagar is a proletarian, lower middle area but why is this nondescript neighbourhood so important?
Because it is the only vacant MLA seat in Tamil Nadu’s 234-seat legislature. Can V K Sasikala, pretender to Amma’s throne, fill that seat?
The plain answer is “No”. The R K Nagar by-election is imminent but Ms Sasikala is so deeply detested in Chennai that she knows she will be thrashed. Each time her posters come up in the city they are ripped apart. The tale of tattered posters, in a nutshell, encapsulates the political crisis in Tamil Nadu, a succession battle so gripping that it has put every other story, including the ongoing state elections, in the shade.
Ms Sasikala’s bid to become chief minister is a case of political inheritance so odd as to be almost without precedent. She is neither a dynastic nor a designated successor; she has never fought an election; she’s played no official role in party affairs till her sudden elevation as AIADMK chief after Jayalalithaa’s death on December 5. Her sole claim to political power is that she allegedly holds the keys to Amma’s vast treasure chest, a fortune she helped amass over the years. This may buy her most of AIADMK’s 135 MLAs but it wins her no popular support. If she was to legitimise her position, she would have to find a some safe Thevar-dominated constituency. Andipatti near Madurai is being mentioned as one such option.
How a 60-year-old former video parlour owner from Cuddalore emerged from the inner recesses of Poes Garden to stake her claim as chief minister is a saga stranger than any fiction.
Ms Sasikala has conveniently dropped her husband M Natarajan’s name, though, as befitting a respectable “Chinamma” (which translates as mausi or mother’s younger sister) she still sports a diamond-studded thali or mangal sutra. But it is to Mr Natarajan that she originally owes her ascent to power.
In the early 1980s, employed as a government PR, he requested his boss, Chandralekha, the district collector in South Arcot, to introduce his wife to Jayalalithaa, then a rising political star. Ms Natarajan (as she was then known) ran a small videography shop, hiring camera crews to film weddings and other functions. Ms Sasikala made a flattering video on Jayalalithaa’s appointment as AIADMK propaganda secretary, following up with another glowing portrait when she entered Parliament as a Rajya Sabha member.
From those modest professional encounters began a friendship between the two women, a relationship so close that in time Ms Sasikala came to run not merely Jayalalithaa’s house but oversee her business affairs. (Chandralekha’s introductory favour was not returned – the IAS officer-turned-politician was the victim of an acid attack in 1992.) There is an unusual photograph on the internet that sums up Jayalalithaa and Ms Sasikala’s mutual well-being and wealth – the two women are dressed as brides, draped in matching rich red-and-gold saris, and covered head to toe in gold ornaments.
There have been only a couple of nasty blips in this long-standing association: In 2011, Ms Sasikala and her relatives, who formed a cordon sanitaire around the chief minister, were expelled from the party and Ms Sasikala evicted from the house. The reason for this expulsion hardly stretch the imagination. Among those disowned was V N Sudhakaran, Jayalalithaa’s “foster son” (in fact Ms Sasikala’s nephew), whose fabulously expensive wedding hosted by the two women had some years ago brought Chennai to a standstill. Swiftly distancing herself from her kin, Ms Sasikala, however, was back in favour within months and safely home.
Among her first actions after the chief minister’s demise was to conduct a purge of officials such as Sheela Balakrishnan, Santha Sheela Nair and
K N Venkataramanan, considered close to Jayalalithaa. From there to ordering party MLAs to pledge allegiance to her promotion as chief minister was but a short step.
O Panneerselvam’s challenge, after his deep communion with Jayalalithaa’s departed spirit at her Marina Beach memorial, must have come as rude surprise. Like her, he belongs to the Thevar community and could rob some of her political base. But unless the Supreme Court puts her back in jail for her ill-begotten riches, Ms Sasikala’s rise to the top heralds a new kind of ideology-free transactional politics. It shows the way to other political heirs: All that matters is financial muscle and enough rented hotel rooms to lock up your MLAs in. Public support is as dispensable as torn posters blowing in the wind.