"Sahikkalai, 'ma (I just can’t bear it)," says Ilavarasan, an auto driver on Beach Road, waiting for his next rider not far from where J Jayalalithaa lies buried. Just opposite is Madras University's grand old auditorium all decked up for a new chief minister's swearing-in.
Ilavarasan is referring to VK Sasikala, the woman desperate to lord over official power in Tamil Nadu and unable to bear the BJP's warmth towards O Panneerselvam — the state's chief minister until 5 February.
Looking out into the sea, Ilavarasan runs his rough hands through his weather-beaten mop of hair and explains why he is deeply upset. "Look, we have run behind MGR’s cortege, you must have been a little child then. We’ve also seen Jayalalithaa getting on the truck and not leaving. Does Sasikala think she can do the same and she will become Jayalalithaa? Ivanga tagudi yennai (What is her calibre)?", he asks.
Never elected to public office, Sasikala has never delivered a political speech and is now waiting to be crowned Tamil Nadu chief minister exactly two months after Jayalalithaa’s death on 6 December.
But the delay in her swearing-in is not the only question mark for Sasikala.
The Madras High Court last week refused to discharge Sasikala from three Enforcement Directorate cases filed in 1995 and 1996 on charges of violating the Foreign Exchange Regulation Act (FERA). The biggie, of course, is the Supreme Court ruling in a disproportionate assets case where Sasikala is the second accused — first accused was Jayalalithaa. The verdict will likely be out next week via a division bench of Justices PC Ghose and Amitava Roy. On 7 June, 2016, the Supreme Court reserved its verdict on the 19-year-old case.
Riding on the hope that the violence after the Jallikattu uprising reflects a lack of leadership, Sasikala rushed in with her chief ministerial ambitions egged on by her coterie’s clamour within the party and the assumption that New Delhi’s gaze is conveniently distracted by the five state Assembly elections. But the lessons from the Jallikattu protests were more nuanced — the message it sent to New Delhi is that Tamil Nadu’s voters are unhappy with any non-Jaya option and squatting outside Poes Garden to get Sasikala out of there could well be the next social media-led protest.
"That peace was brokered so swiftly did not go down well, that's why the violence broke out. New Delhi knows it. They're not so naive to think that Sasikala is the answer to Tamil Nadu's troubles," says a government source.
Before arm-twisting her way to being anointed AIADMK general secretary in December, Sasikala held no formal post in the ruling party. Yet, after Jayalalithaa’s death, Sasikala and her army of burly sycophants has not cleared out of Jaya’s palatial residence in Poes Garden — a piece of Chennai’s most prized real estate.
Wave upon wave of Jaya fans cried themselves hoarse asking for details of her hospitalisation when she passed away. Radio silence greeted them so they filled those gaps with conspiracy theories.
Now, just a day before Sasikala hoped to become chief minister, two abruptly-scheduled events reveal the intrigue and insecurity within the Sasikala camp: All of a sudden, Jayalalithaa’s closest aide in the secretariat and advisor, former chief secretary Sheela Balakrishnan was asked to quit. Along with her, two others KN Venkataramanan and A Ramalingam, secretaries I and IV in the CMO, were plucked out. Jayalalithaa had appointed Balakrishnan in March 2014 as advisor and leaned on her heavily for all important state matters. Most crucial in the present context, however, is that apart from Sasikala herself, Balakrishnan is that one other person who knows every single detail of Jayalalithaa’s hospitalisation.
Soon after kicking out Balakrishnan, Dr Richard Beale, the UK-based doctor who was treating the late Tamil Nadu chief minister, was flown in to Chennai on Monday to address a press conference — something that should have happened two months ago. All that Dr Beale said was duly spouted on Sasikala’s and AIADMK’s Twitter handle sparking a steady stream of online guffaws for the crass timing. Sometime around midnight on Monday, as uncertainty clouded Sasikala’s ascent to the top job, her photo was quickly taken down from the chief minister’s Twitter handle and replaced by Panneerselvam’s. Today, around 11 am the @CMOTamilNadu handle got deleted. That leaves no doubt about whose people were handling the CM's Twitter handle.
"She (Sasikala) won’t dare come to RK Nagar, she’ll get booted out, her car windows will get broken," says Srividya Krishnan, a long-time resident of this upmarket Chennai neighbourhood that voted for Jayalalithaa and a seat that’s now fallen vacant.
As per the Constitution, Sasikala must win an Assembly seat in six months and she may look for someplace other than RK Nagar, the late Jayalalithaa’s constituency. Resentment against Sasikala runs deep here.
RK Nagar is currently the only constituency that is vacant, though.
"Just combing her unkempt hair into a near coiffe and wearing high-neck green blouses like Jayalalithaa does not make her Jayalalithaa. Sasikala does not understand that after MGR and Jayalalithaa have gone from our politics, an era has ended. Nobody can take their place, least of all Sasikala and her goons,” says Ilavarasan, revving up his auto for the next ride.
“Don’t forget that panchayat elections are around the corner. Sasikala’s people are trying to delay that as much as possible. You don’t have to wait for any case verdict. The people will speak.”
Fittingly, Jaya TV, the AIADMK's official mouthpiece finding its live telecast plans for Sasikala's swearing-in cancelled, is treating viewers to non-stop astrological predictions. The new AIADMK chief will certainly need luck in plenty.