M Natarajan, AIADMK chief Sasikala's husband, no longer shares name-space with her. That is because Sasikala, arguably the most powerful person in Tamil Nadu today, does not call herself Sasikala Natarajan any more. She is VK Sasikala (short for Vivekanandam Krishnaveni Sasikala, her maiden name). To the AIADMK, however, she is just Chinnamma.
For as long as Jayalalithaa was alive, Natarajan was persona non grata. Although he was a powerful figure in the dispensation in Jayalalithaa's first term as chief minister in 1991-96, he was thrown out of Poes Garden subsequently. Among many things, he was accused of using Jayalalithaa's name to make money. A host of other cases were filed against Natarajan in subsequent years, many of them in 2011. He was accused of grabbing land, cheating, assault among other things. He was also convicted by a CBI court to two years in prison in a car import case.
When the doors of Veda Nilayam in Poes Garden were shut on Sasikala in December 2011, Jayalalithaa issued a firm diktat to her party cadre not to have any connections with any member of the family. When Sasikala was taken back four months later, her apology included dumping her family for Jayalalithaa. She wrote:
"Only after coming out of Poes Garden, I became aware of the machinations of my relatives who have misused my proximity and brought disrepute to Akka (elder sister) and the party. I have no role whatsoever in that. Hereafter, any relative, whosoever it might be, who had conspired against Akka, will remain a persona non grata for me as well."
Which is why the presence of Natarajan by Jayalalithaa's casket on 6 December shocked everyone. Not only was he accepting condolences from the visiting VIPs, but BJP leader L Ganesan even sought to introduce him to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Subsequently at the Marina, when the last rites were being performed, Natarajan was seen with Rahul Gandhi, Ghulam Nabi Azad and Tamil Nadu Congress chief Thirunavukkarasu. The TNCC president and Natarajan go back a long way and the relationship is said to have been instrumental in the Congress moving closer to the Sasikala faction after Jayalalithaa's hospitalisation. Rahul even air-dashed to Chennai to enquire about Jayalalithaa's health in October. The bonhomie translated into an embarrassing moment captured on live TV, when the four leaders were seen smiling away on that sombre occasion.
It perhaps also conveyed the political reality. That it was time to move on.
Now that Sasikala has taken over the party and may even become the chief minister, what will be Natarajan's sphere of influence?
Plenty if you believe those in his inner circle. Chennai speaks in hushed tones about Natarajan's clout, making it appear as if he pushes the buttons on the remote control to the party and the government. But no one speaks on record, as they do not know if it will be appreciated by Poes Garden.
Whispers convey that O Panneerselvam was Natarajan's choice for the chief minister's post. They brag that he will remain Chief Minister Panneerselvam till such a time that he does not disobey Natarajan's diktat. "The day he crosses the line, Panneerselvam will become Kanneerselvam," a Natarajan aide bragged. 'Kanneer' translates to tears in Tamil.
Natarajan, who lives in Kalakshetra Colony in Besant Nagar in Chennai, is someone who likes to flaunt his connections. But he has reportedly been asked to lie low after his interview to a Tamil channel on 6 December after Jayalalithaa's burial created a furore. In the interview, Natarajan spoke like a long-standing AIADMK functionary and Jayalalithaa associate saying, "When MGR was laid to rest at the same place, when we were deciding on who will be the next leader, among the many important leaders, we decided that Amma has the quality to take the party to the next level." And to emphasise that he will have a say in the leadership stakes after Jayalalithaa, he said, "Even an ordinary person can take the party forward. There is no vacuum in the party."
Sources close to Natarajan even claim that he played a significant part to ensure nothing untoward took place after Jayalalithaa passed away. "He gave specific instructions to the top police officer that no person coming to pay his or her last respects should be beaten up by the police in the name of crowd control. It is only because of him that Chennai was peaceful," said a source.
Natarajan's coterie likes to build up the image of a man with brains, clout and political savvy. Those close to him even insist that Natarajan has been in indirect touch with Sasikala, even though for the world, they are believed to be estranged. They say he would pass suggestions on to her, using one of the relatives as a courier. Instructions, they claim, would sometimes be written with pencil and sometimes with pen. "Only Natarajan and Sasikala knew the specific meaning of what a pen or a pencil conveyed," one of them says conspiratorially.
Much of this also needs to be taken with a pinch of salt as Natarajan's power now lies in Sasikala's name. She is sensible enough to realise that in the public eye, he is her Achilles heel and that the AIADMK cadre won't take kindly to his interference in matters concerning the party or the government. But at the same time, she has not issued any public diktat asking the rank and file of the party not to entertain Natarajan, like Jayalalithaa did.
This gives rise to doubts and suspicion.
Updated Date: Jan 13, 2017 16:09:40 IST