CHENNAI: Less than two weeks after J Jayalalithaa died, her party has announced that her closest aide, Sasikala Natarajan, will replace her as the chief of her party, the AIADMK. Ms Natarajan, 54, holds no post in the party. Rules will be amended if needed to place her in control, said AIADMK spokesperson C Ponnaiyan today. “It is the desire of the entire party,” he said, adding, “Sasikala has functioned as the conscience of Amma.”
Amma or mother is how lakhs of supporters, whose devotion bordered on religious, referred to Ms Jayalalithaa, who was Chief Minister when she died on December 5 after a massive cardiac arrest. Ms Natarajan, who lived with her at her huge bungalow in Chennai’s Poes Garden, is called Chinamma (mother’s younger sister). Ms Jayalalithaa never married.
Ms Jayalalithaa’s party functioned with an unusual amount of sycophancy with ministers frequently prostrating before her at public events, a practice she did not discourage. After her death, O Panneerselvam, a loyalist who carried her photo in his shirt pocket everyday, was made the new Tamil Nadu Chief Minister. Twice earlier, while she was alive, he had filled in for her while she was arrested on corruption charges before returning to office. The arrangements that saw him taking oath hours after Ms Jayalalithaa died in hospital were attributed to Ms Natarajan, who, according to critics which include some party insiders, staged a coup predicated on a major role for her in the near future.
Despite holding no party position, Ms Natarajan’s influence over Ms Jayalalitha, who was 68 when she died, was well known. She had a considerable say in appointments and in the selection of candidates.
About four years ago, the women were estranged after Ms Jayalalithaa became convinced that Ms Natarajan was conniving with her husband and other relatives to undermine her authority. As part of the reconciliation, Ms Natarajan agreed that she would no longer be associated with her relatives.
Yet, when Ms Jayalalithaa’s body was placed in a huge public hall, drawing an endless sea of visitors, the same family members who Ms Natarajan had disowned were conspicuous in their presence. While political analysts zoomed in on this, the AIADMK was unperturbed. “In her moment of agony and crisis, probably Sasikala would have needed her family members around her,” said party spokesperson Dr V Maitreyan.
At the nationally-televised funeral, it was Mrs Natarajan, who first met Ms Jayalalithaa in the 80s, who performed the last rites. In the days after, Chief Minister Panneerselvam and others in his cabinet made regular visits to her, furthering the theory that she would soon be made General Secretary, a position held by Ms Jayalalithaa for nearly 30 years. Other giveaways of the party’s plans included the appearance of posters showing Mrs Natarajan alongside Ms Jayalalithaa, but commanding more real estate.