Following the demise of former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa, two pertinent questions about her relationship with Sasikala have been doing the rounds. First, is Sasikala going to be Jayalalithaa’s political heir in the same way Jayalalithaa had emerged as the successor to MG Ramachandran in the late 1980s? Second, is Sasikala going to be Jayalalithaa’s legal heir, to lay claim to all her property including the sprawling bungalow at Poes Garden, where they both lived for almost three decades?
There is a clear distinction between Jayalalithaa’s position in the 1980s and Sasikala’s position today. MG Ramachandran had groomed Jayalalithaa to become his political successor (though he did not say it in so many words) by appointing her to the powerful position of the political secretary of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK).
Jayalalithaa, however, did not become an automatic choice for the top job when MGR died as those opposed to her vilified her as ‘the other woman’ and rallied round MGR’s wife, Janaki Ramachandran, to assume the party leader’s position. AIADMK was split back then; but in the subsequent battle of ballots, Jayalalithaa’s party trounced Janaki’s rump to emerge as the flag-bearer of the MGR legacy.
In contrast, Jayalalithaa clearly had not groomed Sasikala for any such political role. In the last three decades that Jayalalithaa had been at the helm of the AIADMK and Sasikala has been on her side as a personal aide, Sasikala never became an MLA, an MP, or even an office-bearer of the party. Clearly, Jayalalithaa had wanted Sasikala to be confined to her domestic role.
In her now famous interview to Simi Grewal in 1999, when she was asked about the growing criticism of her proximity with Sasikala and the latter’s emergence as an extra-constitutional power, Jayalalithaa had said: “She is a much misunderstood, maligned person. And she has been the target of a lot of vilification and persecution simply because of her loyalty to me and her closeness to me…Most of the criticism has come from men, men who are politicians,”
“You see, it is impossible for someone who is in the thick of politics to run a political career and manage a household. But most men don’t understand this. Because they have their women at home. They have their wives or mothers to look after their personal needs. Now, for example, I can’t go shopping; someone has to do my shopping for me. And I have to leave at odd times. I have to leave in a hurry. There is no time for me to lock up the house or to see that everything is safely put away. I just can’t attend to these practical things. Someone has to manage things for me. She does all that,” Jayalalithaa had said.
Clearly, Jayalalithaa, in both words and actions, had envisioned a domestic role for Sasikala. And that was the case till her death a few days ago. But, despite Jayalalithaa’s wishes, the objective situation in the party has made Sasikala a power-centre. Both lived in Veda Nilayam at Poes Garden; anyone in the party or the government seeking access to Jayalalithaa at her residence had to go through the scrutiny of Sasikala.
It was inescapable that top ministers and bureaucrats met Jayalalithaa in Sasikala’s presence. It was inevitable that she listened in to any discussion on party strategy that happened in Veda Nilayam. That made her the source of all available information on major happenings in the party and the government.
The fact that she was privy to all the developments in the party and the government and that she guarded access to Jayalalithaa on a day-to-day basis made Sasikala the cynosure of all eyes in Tamil Nadu. Her ambitious husband and other close relatives made use of Sasikala’s unique position to make gains in politics and business.
It came to such a head that, on 17 December, 2011, in a dramatic move, Jayalalithaa threw out Sasikala and her kin from her bungalow. A Tehelka report had reflected on the reason behind the Jayalalithaa-Sasikala split: “There is a perception that Sasikala, 55, is planning a palace coup and the Mannargudi (the place from which Sasikala hails) mafia are hoping to install Sasikala as chief minister. Allegedly, the disproportionate case that Jayalalithaa has been travelling to Bengaluru for – she is being questioned by a special trial court there – gave the Mannargudi group ideas. An unfavourable judgment or remark by the court and an orchestrated political campaign, it was felt, would have put pressure on Jayalalithaa to resign and hand over the government to someone she could trust.”
How did Jayalalithaa find out about the shenanigans of the coterie? The Tehelka report gives a clue: “According to an AIADMK insider, it was Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi who had alerted the lady in Poes Garden and warned her about the Mannargudi mafia...He is believed to have indicated to her that big investors were avoiding Tamil Nadu because of the extortionate demands of Sasikala and her family. Specifically, an NRI businessman who came to Tamil Nadu with a project had to shift to Gujarat because the Mannargudi mafia had sought a 15 percent cut.”
The Tehelka report went on to say: “Following another tip-off, Jayalalithaa sought independent medical opinion on the medicines she was being given. Without telling Sasikala, Jayalalithaa apparently went to see a well-known doctor. Her tests revealed, the story goes, that she was being given sedatives and chemical substances that had small quantities of poison”. That sealed Sasikala’s fate.
But Sasikala’s dramatic expulsion and subsequent return to the Jayalalithaa fold exactly a hundred days later is now part of the folklore in Tamil Nadu. That, despite all her apprehensions, Jayalalithaa had become too dependent on Sasikala to strike out an independent existence became all too evident.
Will Sasikala be able to reap a political dividend of Jayalalithaa’s such domestic compulsion? The developments in the next few months will make that clear.
But another thing cannot be left to the future: If Jayalalithaa has not willed it otherwise, Sasikala must not be allowed to continue to live in Veda Nilayam at Poes Garden. She lived there as an aide to Jayalalithaa; with Jayalalithaa dead, Sasikala should have no place there.
If anything, Jayalalithaa’s nephew and niece have a legal claim over the property which their grandmother had bought in 1967 (Jayalalithaa was just 19 then), but the fact that Jayalalithaa kept them at a distance in her lifetime would make their claim hollow.
It is in the fitness of things that Veda Nilayam at Poes Garden be converted into a Jayalalithaa Memorial, to chronicle her tumultuous and eventful journey in the world of cinema and politics.
It will also be a tribute to her – Amma to millions of Tamilians – that her investments in the city of Hyderabad and all over Tamil Nadu, her jewellery and allied wealth, are put to use for the benefit of those millions who loved her and whom, in turn, she loved all her life.
If Sasikala lays claim to all or any of it and succeeds in gaining control over it, thanks to her political weight in the current government, that would besmirch the reputation of a mass leader like Jayalalithaa. All Tamilians who love Jayalalithaa must not allow that to happen.
Updated Date: Dec 10, 2016 18:53:49 IST