Former Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa was a well known public figure. ‘Amma’ to the Tamil masses, Jayalalithaa was an astute leader with a political career spanning over three decades. News of her death on December 5, 2016, was received with much grief across the country. Around 77 people in the state are believed to have died of grief since she took seriously ill and when she passed away, says the TN ruling party AIADMK.
While Jayalalithaa’s ascent from a very young and stylish actress to MGR’s protegee to a mature politician was keenly followed by the people of India, her deep and often disturbing friendship with Sasikala was also avidly watched. Numerous columns have been written, debates waged, and gossips traded. The death of CM Jayalalithaa has breathed new life into a number of Sasikala related conspiracy theories and has sparked a new spate of rumours.
Sasikala Natarajan’s association with Jayalalithaa dates back to the 1980s. The acquaintance soon turned into a close friendship – one that would last Jayalalithaa a lifetime. By 1991, the 34 year old Sasikala had moved in with Jayalalithaa and had become her primary aide, confidante, and caregiver. Jayalalithaa is often known to have referred to Sasikala as her “udanpiravaa sagodhari” (sister but not a sibling). From managing Jayalalithaa’s health issues to wielding her assets, and from being closely involved in the party’s inner machinations to accompanying Jayalalithaa in her pilgrimages (remember the Mahamaham incident?) and temple visits, Sasikala became Amma’s shadow; the two often looked upon as Siamese twins. In fact, Sasikala soon came to be addressed as “Chinnamma” when Jayalalithaa gained her moniker “Amma”.
The Mannargudi Family
While Sasikala’s constant presence by itself may have raised a few eyebrows, it did not quite cause dissent or criticism. It is only when the rest of her family started to rise quickly, both in affluence and in influence, by virtue of Sasikala’s close association and her growing political clout, that protests started to become public.
Sasikala’s husband, brother, nephew, and numerous other relatives grew rich and wielded a great deal of authority. So much so, that in the early 1990s the family which had come to be known as the “Mannargudi Family” (and even “Mannargudi Mafia” by critics) was accused of running a parallel government.
VN Sudhakaran, Sasikala’s nephew was adopted by Jayalalithaa and she hosted his wedding – a multi-crore grand and gaudy affair characterised by an extravagant display of wealth. Sasikala and her family were accused of grabbing government land throughout the state, of dictating terms with ministers, and of transferring IAS officers and officials for their personal gains. Jayalalithaa’s excessive reliance on the Mannargudi family became one of the moot points for her declining popularity. In the state legislative assembly elections of 1996, AIADMK managed to muster merely 4 seats. In December 1996, Jayalalithaa was arrested in the Colour TV scam and it emerged that the Rs. 10.13 crore kickbacks were received by Sasikala. Add to this the litany of corruption charges that confronted her and one can well imagine the wake up call that Jayalalithaa must have been faced with.
A Falling Out
The corruption charges dogged Jayalalithaa till 2014. Her inability to remain in the CM’s office due to criminal convictions and the uncertainty of the party’s performance must have driven her to find new advisers and undertake a massive clean-up drive. In December 2011, Sasikala and her family were unceremoniously thrown out of Jayalalithaa’s Poes Garden bungalow and removed from the party as well. Many AIADMK members cheered. Sudhakaran had been disowned a few years ago and rumours said that he had swindled the former CM of a few crores. It was at this time that the Tehelka Magazine reported that Jayalalithaa had been administered slow poison by Sasikala and this was causing the leader to keep poor health.
The falling out was not a very long one, though. In 2013, Sasikala wrote an apology letter to Jayalalithaa and the AIADMK professing ignorance of her family’s activities and claiming to have disowned her entire family including her husband Natarajan. Sasikala returned but now a kept low public profile. It has been largely believed that through Jayalalithaa’s final years, Sasikala still remained the main controller of finances and assets. Through the years Jayalalithaa had remained on distant terms with her own family, her niece and nephew, and once again rumours blamed Sasikala for the alienation.
The prolonged ailment of CM Jayalalithaa that kept her in Apollo Hospital, Chennai, for about 75 days and her subsequent death have proved one thing beyond doubt. Sasikala Natarajan and her family are certainly not popular figures in the state. Much has been said. It is rumoured that Sasikala did not allow Jayalalithaa’s niece to meet her aunt during her long ailment, that Sasikala manipulated an ailing CM in many ways, that news of Jayalalithaa’s death had been kept under wraps for a few hours by Sasikala and her family to get their own political dealings sorted. And much more.
One of the main reasons the gossip mill accuses Sasikala of any involvement in Jayalalithaa’s death is the presence of her entire family around CM Jayalalithaa’s body following her demise. These were people the former CM had kept out of her household and party. The quick return of all members of the Mannargudi family, even as dignitaries were pouring in to shower their final salutations, sent alarm bells chiming through the state. Add to this, a rather hurried and clandestine swearing-in ceremony in which O Panneerselvam was handed the CM’s chair (a little after midnight), hardly a few hours after Jayalalithaa’s body was interred. And it is not difficult to imagine why Shashikala has been accused of just about everything from poisoning the former CM to political arm twisting. The presence of Natarajan, who was seen as an anathema to Amma is particularly disconcerting.
Taking an objective view, we must reach the conclusion that whatever the rumours say, there is not a shred of evidence of any wrongdoing that has been produced as yet. Political manoeuvring is a reality and is hardly new to a country like India. All we can now do is to trust in the strength of our democracy and believe that if Sasikala does take on the leadership of the party and is found unsuited, the people will vote her out. Or at least the AIADMK cadre will.
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