On Saturday, a grim Sasikala walked purposefully out of Jayalalithaa’s Poes Garden residence, folding her hands in the traditional Tamil vanakkam (greeting) to loyalists gathered there. She grabbed a microphone from the waiting Jaya TV crew, a channel owned by her, and addressed the crowd. “We have been hoping that due process of democracy will be followed and we have been patient,” she said. “But if they test our patience any longer, we will do what we have to do.”

This was a new face of Sasikala, one long alluded to and whispered about, but one that no one had ever really seen in public. A veiled threat to the Centre issued, Sasikala again purposefully walked to the waiting car and sped away to the Golden Bay resort near Kalpakkam, where the majority of 130 MLAs of the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) who are in support of her, have been sequestered since 8 February.

On 7 February, Sasikala displayed anger for the first ever time in public, at an impromptu press meet outside Poes Garden. “The AIADMK is united,” she stated firmly, calling a rebel MLA a ‘traitor’ and alleging that the rival DMK (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) was behind the ‘conspiracy’ against her.

“She is ten times Amma in terms of decision making,” said a senior leader of the AIADMK who has interacted closely with Sasikala for years. “Amma (Jayalalithaa’s moniker) would listen to arguments and opinion. But when Chinnamma (Sasikala’s moniker, meaning Little Amma) takes a decision, that is it. No one can convince her otherwise,” he said.

Amma would listen to arguments and opinion. But when Chinnamma takes a decision, that is it

Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

The Beginning

Born in Thiruthuraipoondi to Krishnaveni and her husband Vivekanandan, VK Sasikala, now 62 years old, grew up in Mannargudi, a small village near Thanjavur. She married M Natarajan, then an assistant PRO in the Cuddalore district administration. Sasikala was also running a small VHS cassette rental shop in Chennai. All of this was in the early 1980s. With Natarajan’s intervention with then Cuddalore district collector S Chandralekha, Sasikala was introduced to Jayalalithaa Jayaram, the propaganda secretary of the AIADMK under Chief Minister and popular cine star MG Ramachandran.

Jayalalithaa wanted Sasikala to make videos of her rallies and public speeches. Impressed with her work, Jaya continued to give her business and a friendship soon formed between the two. By the late 1980s, Sasikala and Natarajan would move into Poes Garden to help Jayalalithaa manage her home.

Sasikala’s large family of brothers, nephews, sisters-in-law and the like were regular guests at Poes Garden. Until 1989, when the DMK government under Karunanidhi raided one of Natarajan’s houses in Chennai. Police found a letter signed by Jayalalithaa, announcing her resignation from the post of MLA. A furore broke out in the state Assembly over this find and a furious Jayalalithaa held Natarajan directly responsible for the loss of face. He was expelled from Poes Garden. Sasikala stayed on.

By the late 1980s, Sasikala and Natarajan would move into Poes Garden to help Jayalalithaa manage her home.

1991-1996

Then came power and its headiness. Jayalalithaa’s first term as chief minister of Tamil Nadu was a shot in the arm for Sasikala and her family as well. Jayalalithaa even adopted VN Sudhakaran, a nephew of Sasikala, and performed a grand wedding in Chennai in 1995, which hogged headlines in the New York Times, for its obscene display of wealth. This wedding would lead to Jaya’s downfall the next year, come elections. When the Karunanidhi government came back to power, a slew of corruption cases, Foreign Exchange Regulation Act (FERA) cases and Income Tax cases were filed on both these friends.

To date, most AIADMK workers hold Sasikala and her family responsible for the various allegations of corruption and legal troubles that Jayalalithaa underwent, including being incarcerated twice — once in 1996 in the Rs 8.53 crore colour television scam, and the second in 2014 in the Rs 58 crore Disproportionate Assets case. “Amma got a bad name due to the corruption perpetrated by Sasikala and her family,” said another senior leader of the AIADMK.

But before Jaya went to jail, Sasikala and her relatives too tasted arrest and a jail term. In 2014, for 21 days, Jaya and Sasikala would spend jail time together. While this jail term would weaken Jayalalithaa, it would strengthen Sasikala.

“I have met her in person a few times but I have mostly heard her when in court,” said Damodaran Prakash, chief of bureau in Chennai at Tamil magazine Nakkheeran, who followed the DA case for 19 years. “She is a speaker who only speaks off a script. She speaks to lawyers in a polite and humble way and she also speaks to them in English,” he said. That revelation is important since one of the reasons for delay in the hearings of the DA case was Sasikala’s submission that she did not understand English and that all documents had to be translated into Tamil for her perusal.

“She is a very strong lady, as strong as Jayalalithaa, maybe stronger,” said Prakash.

Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

She is a very strong lady; as strong as Jayalalithaa, maybe stronger

A Friendship Like No Other

Although the misogyny of Tamil politics has meant that various political leaders, foremost among them M Karunanidhi of the DMK, would mock and make snide remarks about the relationship between Sasikala and Jayalalithaa, the latter would always defend her friend. At times, Sasikala was a “mother figure” to Jaya and at others, “like a sister I never had”. These tidbits of information about her confidante were revealed in interviews between 1991 and 2006.

Sasikala, otherwise, largely stayed behind the scenes, ministering to her friend. “In the later years, she (Sasikala) used to accompany Jayalalithaa and sit in the front seat at any event or rally,” reminisced Prakash. “There was obviously a close bond between the two. When Jaya was on stage, she would often smile at Sasikala. I don’t think anyone can have a friendship like the one between Jayalalithaa and Sasikala. It is a special bond,” he said.

Then came the tumult of 2011. Sasikala and her relatives were peremptorily thrown out of Poes Garden by Jayalalithaa, stripped of party posts and the AIADMK cadre instructed not to have truck with any of them. “But the message to the police from Amma was clear,” said a senior official in the Tamil Nadu police. “If any wrongdoing is found against the other relatives, action can and must be taken against them. But she was clear that in no way should Sasikala be harmed,” he recalled.

Rumour mills speculated that an audio taping of a conversation in Bengaluru during the DA case hearings were handed over to Jayalalithaa. The taped conversation was between Sasikala and her relatives, arguing over a plan to unseat the Chief Minister.

But within a few months, Sasikala was back inside Jaya’s home, making public a letter of apology to her “elder sister”, disowning her relatives and stating that they had hoodwinked her.

“I do not think that Sasikala would harm Jayalalithaa in any way,” said journalist Prakash. “When the case was going on in the Bengaluru trial court, she and her relatives were taped discussing a ‘conspiracy’ to overthrow Jayalalithaa. Sasikala, according to my sources, was the only person who refused to go along with her husband Natarajan’s plan. She said — 'I will burn myself alive if anything happens to Jayalalithaa.' That is the bond they shared,” he said.

She also swore, in that letter, that she would not aspire to any post politically or within government. Loyalty won Jayalalithaa over.

“In 2011 before her 313 questioning (Section 313 of the Criminal Procedure Code), she was thrown out of Poes Garden,” said Prakash. “At that time, everyone expected that she would speak something against Jayalalithaa because she was thrown out and her relatives were arrested and there were a lot of cases including land grabbing and attempt to murder cases foisted against more than 12 of her relatives.”

“When she came to court (trial court in Bengaluru), she looked pathetic. She came looking like a village woman. She had oiled her hair and was looking very old. We were keenly watching to see what she would say, because if she spoke against Jayalalithaa, the case could have turned on its head,” continued Prakash.

“That was the first time I personally heard the voice of Sasikala. Sasikala spoke nothing against Jayalalithaa. She made a speech that all these cases were foisted by Karunanidhi and the DMK. We never expected this from Sasikala. It was like a political speech. The testimony went on for half an hour. After that, she came for hearings for the second day and then finally, on the third day, she re-entered Poes Garden,” he smiled.

"Sasika said, 'I will burn myself alive if anything happens to Jayalalithaa.' That is the bond they shared."

2011 Onwards

Consolidation of Sasikala’s power within party and government began from 2011. A frequently unwell Jayalalithaa began to depend on Sasikala to pass on instructions to party leaders, bureaucrats and police officers. Everybody who went to Poes Garden knew that Chinnamma was powerful.

“I could not meet Jayalalithaa despite requesting several appointments,” said one businessman in Chennai who did not wish to be named. “I got an appointment only through Chinnamma. She was the one taking the calls.”

Government files and correspondence too would be vetted by Sasikala — transfers, promotions and postings were placed before Jaya at Sasikala’s will. “Sasikala has been running the government and party machinery for quite some years now,” agreed RK Radhakrishnan, senior journalist in Chennai.

“I have seen Panneerselvam and other ministers many times falling at the feet of Sasikala and Jayalalithaa,” said senior journalist Prakash. “They both always took decisions together. She commanded as much respect as Jayalalithaa did. Many times when these AIADMK members fell at her (Sasikala’s) feet, she would not even notice. She would just walk away,” he said.

Sasikala was also a key negotiator when it came to backroom deals. One powerful businessman in Tamil Nadu told this reporter about how Sasikala handled him during a period of financial distress. “I needed Rs 5 crores urgently or I would have gone down,” he said. “I went with folded hands to Chinnamma. She spoke to Amma and I got the money. Thanks to them, my business was saved.” Loyalty due, this businessman would subsequently become a front for many of Sasikala’s businesses.

Sasikala commanded as much respect as Jayalalithaa. When AIADMK members fell at Chinamma's feet, she would not even notice

Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

A Schemer

AIADMK leaders who have met and interacted with Sasikala concur that she is a clever woman with a talent for manipulation. “She has learnt politics from Amma for 33 years and in the later years, she was keeping track of all the intra-party issues and handling them very smoothly,” said one senior leader.

Journalist Prakash also points to an aspect of her character which is evident now, as the AIADMK flock fritters away from her control — that of grit and a determination to get what she wants, at any cost. “When she used to come to Egmore court (for hearings in the FERA cases), she would sit inside the police van outside and once she was inside the court, she would act like an epileptic so that she could convince the judge that she was sick. She would be laughing and chatting inside the police van and then when it was time to go inside court, she would lie down on a stretcher and be taken inside. A lot of journalists, including I, have seen this,” he laughed.

Sasikala was also ridiculed on social media when she made her first public appearance on 31 December 2016, elevated to interim general secretary of the party and made her first teary maiden speech, “dedicating her life to Amma and in turn to the people of Tamil Nadu.” In that appearance, Sasikala was the spitting image of Jayalalithaa — dressing like her, replete with a hairstyle and pottu (bindi) akin to Jaya’s and even wearing a little bow in her hair, just like Jaya would.

Now, Sasikala is facing the music as party leaders, MLAs and ministers raise the flag of rebellion.

Now, Sasikala is facing the music. Party leaders, MLAs and ministers are flocking to raise the flag of rebellion, joining hands with bête noire O Panneerselvam. AIADMK presidium chairman E Madhusudhanan, who joined the rebel camp on 9 February sent a letter to the Election Commission, stating that her appointment as interim general secretary was against the party’s bylaws. “The funds of the party are with Sasikala. I agreed to her becoming the general secretary only so that she will spend that money for the benefit of the party. But progressively it became a gang of authoritarians. It became Rowdy Raj. People do not want Sasikala. People are just stopping short of spitting at me (when I supported her),” he said.

The DA case verdict looms large in the coming week. If convicted, Sasikala cannot dream of becoming chief minister for 10 long years and will also have to go behind bars for four years. Will she be able to hang on to power despite the odds and the Centre against her? Chinnamma might likely be missing her brilliant and charismatic friend’s support to rescue her from this hole.

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