As Talk Of Coup Builds, Party Focuses On Sasikala Natarajan’s ‘Calibre’

NEW DELHI: There is no dearth of evidence of how effectively and quickly Sasikala Natarajan assumed the centre stage of Tamil Nadu’s ruling party as its chief, J Jayalalithaa, deteriorated from a cardiac arrest towards her death on Monday evening. Most telling was the pride of place that was given to Ms Natarajan as she stood by Ms Jayalalithaa’s body to receive VIPs like Prime Minister Narendra Modi; she also performed the last rites of Ms Jayalalithaa on Marina Beach.

That has led to political betting on whether she will formally take over the party as its general secretary, a post held by Ms Jayalalithaa for 27 years. Dr V Maitreyan, AIADMK spokesperson, did not rule that out. “Sasikala is the backbone of Poes Garden,” he told NDTV, describing the palatial Chennai bungalow where Ms Jayalalithaa and Ms Natarajan co-habitated for years.

Sasikala Natarajan paying her last respects to Jayalalithaa. (PTI)
Mr Maitreyan refuted NDTV’s exclusive report on how Ms Natarajan, according to two AIADMK sources one of whom is a senior ministers, allegedly manipulated party legislators during Ms Jayalalithaa’s last few hours alive to ensure that the new government would be compliant with a flow chart of her making. “I deny it. I deny it,” he said, refuting that party legislators were corralled in a conference room in the basement of Apollo Hospital and made to sign blank sheets of paper which would later be used to prove they on-boarded the succession plan that saw Mr Panneerselvam take over as Chief Minister. In the Intensive Care Unit of the same hospital, Ms Jayalalithaa was fighting for her life, a battle that would end hours later.

The senior minister who spoke to NDTV on the condition of anonymity said that he suspected Ms Natarajan met privately with Mr Panneerselvam and four other heavyweights before the new of Ms Jayalalithaa’s death was announced. They believe that during this time, the transfer of power was negotiated.

Mr Maitreyan says none of that adds up, because Mr Panneerselvam’s promotion was a given. Twice before, when Ms Jayalalithaa was arrested on corruption charges, he had stood in for her. During her long hospitalization this year, he was assigned the departments that she directly supervised. If there was no party vote to formalise Mr Panneerselvam’s ascension to head of the government on Monday night, it’s because the AIADMK doesn’t follow those processes, said the spokesperson.

Sasikala Natarajan recieved VIPs like PM Narendra Modi at Jayalalithaa's funeral. (PTI)
Sasikala Natarajan recieved VIPs like PM Narendra Modi at Jayalalithaa’s funeral. (PTI)

“You probably, you won’t know the system of the AIADMK. Our party runs on loyalty, our party runs on true obedience and discipline. And obviously when Panneerselvam is going to be the Chief Ministerial nominee, I don’t think there is going to be any discussion or any… all sort of things,” he told NDTV.

As Ms Natarajan kept vigil by Ms Jayalalithaa’s body for hours at a public hall where lakhs streamed in for a last glimpse of their Amma or mother, her husband and other relatives, all despised by the politician, were prominently placed. Those who knew Ms Jayalalithaa well say she would have been infuriated by their presence – Ms Natarajan had to formally renounce all ties with them to reconcile with Ms Jayalalithaa after an estrangement about four years ago. But the party has found ways to justify Ms Natarajan’s action, signalling its unwillingness to confront her. “In her moment of agony and crisis, probably Sasikala would have needed her family members around her,” said Mr Maitreyan.

The prominence assumed rather than conferred upon Ms Natarajan in the most public of fashions this week has triggered talk of whether she will take over as the AIADMK’s General Secretary, formally placing the party within her control. If that is problematic, the AIADMK is not about to say so on record. Instead, it is focused on underscoring her loyalty to its former chief. “There were fears that the DMK (main political adversary) would turn Sasikala against Amma, but she withstood her pressure,” said Mr Maitreyan referring the brief falling out between the two women. “That shows Sasikala’s calibre,” he said.

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