Chinnamma: Will Sasikala’s family be AIADMK’s biggest hurdle?

For over three decades, Sasikala lived in the shadows of the late Jayalalithaa. As she now looks to step out and gain control over the AIADMK, her family, once loathed by Jayalalithaa and viewed with suspicion by others in the party, could prove the biggest hurdle.

At Rajaji Hall on Tuesday evening, as Sasikala stood beside Jayalalithaa’s casket, with other members of her extended clan at vantage positions around the body, there were few AIADMK seniors in the frame. Elsewhere, Sasikala’s husband Natarajan, whom Jayalalithaa apparently loathed, escorted out VIPs. The message, amplified when Sasikala performed the last rites for her friend, was this: that Chinnamma, as Sasikala V K is often referred to, aide and confidante to Jayalalithaa for over three decades, was all set to take over the party. And that she wouldn’t be alone — with her would return Natarajan and other family members.

But there is no certainty that Sasikala, whose friendship with Jayalalithaa began in the early ’80s and who was a constant presence outside the glass cabin of Apollo Hospital’s ICU, where Jayalalithaa lay for 73 days, has been accepted as the new power centre by all in the party.

At stake now is the post of general secretary of the AIADMK, the party’s most powerful, which Jayalalithaa held from the time she took over the reunified AIADMK in 1990 until her death last week. Sasikala has to become general secretary in order to become party supremo. But whether she can exercise the kind of control Jayalalithaa had over the AIADMK, a party that claims to have 1.5 crore members, is now a big question mark.

Little is known about Sasikala’s early life except that she is from Mannargudi in Tamil Nadu’s Tiruvarur district and is from the Thevar community, a powerful backward caste. In 1975, she married Chennai-based M Natarajan, a DMK worker and a mover and shaker in political circles — DMK leader M Karunanidhi is said to have attended their wedding. Natarajan was then an assistant public relations officer, a post usually filled by political appointees. His first posting was in Cuddalore, where V S Chandralekha was the district collector.

Sasikala stayed mostly in Chennai with her brother Dhivakaran, recalls a friend of Natarjan. She launched a video-cassette business through which she made her first contact with Jayalalithaa.

“The business was initially meant for Dhivakaran. But as she found customers in upscale Poes Garden and Adyar, she took charge of it,” says a retired government doctor, who used to stay near Poes Garden and was a customer at Sasikala’s video store.

Hoping to expand her business, Sasikala approached IAS officer Chandralekha through her husband and sought to be introduced to the young and upcoming Jayalalithaa, who had joined the AIADMK at its Cuddalore rally on June 4, 1982. The massive public response to Jayalalithaa’s meetings for the Periyakulam by-election in 1982 and the Tiruchendur by-election in 1983 had marked her out as a promising star in the AIADMK. Party leaders began videographing her speeches to replay them at other places. That’s where Sasikala filled in.

Once Chandralekha introduced her to Jayalalithaa, says a retired police officer privy to happenings in MGR’s government and Poes Garden, Sasikala grabbed the opportunity. “She would videograph almost every event in Poes Garden. Jayalalithaa too enjoyed watching all those videos,” he says.

Natarajan was not around as the relationship grew, but in 1986, he played the role of an intermediary between Jayalalithaa and MGR after the two leaders had a fallout, when he felt she was promoting herself in Delhi’s power circles without his knowledge.

After MGR’s death in 1987, when Jayalalithaa was politically sidelined and had few friends, Sasikala stood by her. She shifted to Poes Garden in 1988 along with Natarajan, by now a known face in the Capital’s political circles for his influence among both the DMK and AIADMK camps.

In 1989, however, soon after the DMK played up a purported resignation letter by Jayalalithaa, followed by a physical assault on her by DMK leaders in the Tamil Nadu Assembly, she ejected Natarajan, suspecting that he was trying to take over the party. Sasikala chose to stay back at Poes Garden. – The Indian Express.

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