Jayalalithaa's death sparks rumours of Sasikala's 'villainy', but are they justified?

Along with the overwhelming adulation of common people and the praise for her pro-poor policies, what made the public discourse about the death of Jayalalithaa remarkable is the portrayal of her long term associate Sasikala Natarajan as a scheming opportunist plotting to usurp her political legacy and wealth.

For almost all the sections of the media, Sasikala was not grieving the loss of the closest person in her life — somebody that she served and lived with for close to three decades; instead she was making underhand plans with the help of her large family that was banished by Jayalalithaa a few years ago.

A solemn, teary-eyed 59 year old woman standing at a stretch for an entire day next to Jaya’s body didn’t evoke even a fraction of the attention that her family crowding around did. Nobody saw her heartbreak; and nobody — not even the educated media elites of Chennai — thought for once about the immense body of global research which proves that bereavement induces enormous psychological and physical distress and long term morbidity.

In their eyes, Sasikala had no right to grieve because she and her “Mannargudi Mafia” were out there to loot Jaya’s goods.

There is near unanimity in this common narrative — that Sasikala controlled Jaya’s life all these years, she ensured that there was absolute secrecy about Jaya’s treatment and what ailed her, and that she had intensely plotted during Jaya's final hours to usurp power. There is no credible source for this story except conjectures and interpretation of circumstances. However, it chose to ignore that two senior-most officials close to Jaya, the state Governor, as well as an important institution such as Apollo Hospitals were in the know, had there been anything sinister going on.

This is a meta-narrative, something that unifies our life experiences and personal values into a one dimensional understanding. It fits the popular imagination of an exploitative Sasikala, her parasitic family, and a benevolent Jayalalithaa. However, its fundamental problem is its inability to discern and see that there is more than one right interpretation for every context. The problem is also that long-held prejudices and antecedents of people (her family’s lawless run during 1991-96) colour popular perceptions.

 Jayalalithaas death sparks rumours of Sasikalas villainy, but are they justified?

A file photo of Sasikala and Jayalalithaa. PTI

Isn’t there a counter-narrative possible? Does Sasikala appear different when looked through a different lens? Is she such a demon as she is projected to be? Can a different reading of the context change the narrative?

Available facts and evidence indeed point to an alternative story: a story of exemplary loyalty, mental strength and political sagacity. A story in which Sasikala could be as heroic as Jayalalitha.

Sasikala came into Jaya’s life about three decades ago and moved in with her in 1991 when she was about 34. Since then, all that one knew about her was as Jaya’s associate and caregiver. Except for her brief expulsions twice, she had been with Jaya all her life - at home, in political campaigns, temple visits and wherever she went including jails. In simple words, her life was dedicated to Jaya and she never ditched her, not even when she could have fled to safety after 1996.

She had no personal or public profile other than literally being Jaya’s shadow. Senior editors have recounted on various occasions how Jaya used to introduce Sasikala as her sister who cared for her. According to veteran journalist N Ram, Jaya compared Sasikala with her mother - that the former cared for her the way her mother would have, had she been alive. In fact, Sasikala was obviously so indispensable for Jaya that no sooner was she expelled, she was called back immediately. Sasikala even had to abandon her married life in favour of her life at Poes Garden.

She came in as a young, sprightly woman and is now pushing 60. She was indeed the closest and only meaningful relative Jaya ever had. Doesn’t it grant her a right to actualise it?

Sasikala was not just an “aide” as the popular narrative presents her often. She had been Jaya’s support system in politics too. According to informed sources, she had been actively involved in the affairs of the party, particularly in screening the candidates and granting them the electoral seats as well as negotiating with potential allies. As The Indian Express report quotes a prominent left leader, “it will be foolish to underestimate her political skills… She has been cunning and shrewd in talks… She is sharp and demanding in deals, doesn’t compromise and never shies away from reasonable solutions.”

More over, she had been Jaya’s penumbra in all her roadshows, state-wide campaigns and public meetings for about 25 years. Nobody in AIADMK except her had such training, that too for over two decades. Nobody other than her could closely interpret Jaya as a politician and negotiator. In India’s dynastic politics, kith and kin even without political acumen or training take over regimes. In such a scenario doesn’t Sasikala's experience make her a rightful claimant to Jaya’s political legacy?

Now, the most important question. Had she not moved the way she had allegedly done in the last hours, what could have been AIADMK’s future? Jaya not only hadn’t nurtured a second-line leadership, she also consciously nipped any such possibility in the bud. With no apparent heir, and no organised process of succession, the party had all the reasons to implode into casteist and self-seeking fragments after Jaya’s death had Sasikala not intervened. All the ploys, trickery or reported deceit, she would have undertaken were unavoidable at that time. There was absolutely no other possibility because Jaya never had any favourites.

Yes, there is a real worry that her family, which the media pejoratively call the “Mannargudi Mafia” for their alleged lawless deeds using their access to Sasikala, could made a comeback and start a proxy-rule and be an extra-constitutional threat to people. But, their presence around her at Jaya’s funeral alone cannot be an indication of such a menacing prospect. Probably they could have gatecrashed sensing an opportunity or Sasikala herself could have asked for them because in grief, one does need a support system.

It’s unfair to judge Sasikala so soon. If she and her family indeed behave in a way that most suspect, then people will trash them as they had done after their recklessness during 1991-96. It’s the political responsibility of the opposition, particularly the DMK, to keep them accountable. There is indeed some moral ambiguity because of the past, but as Barack Obama said about Fidel Castro, history will record and judge. History is also replete with stories of villains turned into heroes.

Updated Date: Dec 09, 2016 17:53:12 IST