With Jayalalithaa gone and Sasikala playing tough, what next for AIADMK?
For her fans, Jayalalithaa will always remain Amma ( mother) who had glamour, power and made men prostrate before her till her last day. They voted for Jayalaithaa because they wanted to, they tolerate Sasikala because they have to.
Peer closely at images of J Jayalalithaa’s final journey to the sands of Marina beach and you'll see the chaos that’s about to implode in the AIADMK.
With her dishevelled hair and dressed in an unremarkable olive green saree and baggy blouse, Sasikala Natarajan planted herself firmly next to Jayalalithaa’s body from the time the television cameras switched on in the early hours of 6 December and never left her side till the sky stained black and Jayalalithaa was six feet under the beach sand a few feet away from MGR’s remains.
Sasikala ensured we all saw her naked ambition to hold on to the power and faux legitimacy that proximity to Jayalalithaa brings.
Sasikala's du-jour presence at Jayalalithaa's final journey was a given, what was new was the brood that she brought along — including many who were thrown out by Jayalalithaa.
"What’s next is Jayalalithaa’s will. All these people are waiting to pounce on her property, it’s so crass and obvious,” says Ramya Srinivasan, who took time off her day job to go see Jayalalithaa’s body pass by Wallajah Road.
Sasikala’s sister-in-law Ilavarasi, brother V Divakaran, nephew Dr S Venkitesh, and Sasikala’s husband Natarajan all showed up on a politically charged, high-optics day with nine chief ministers and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who flew down from New Delhi to pay their last respects to the late chief minister.
Jayalalithaa’s brother Jayakumar’s son Deepak trailed behind Sasikala at the very end and they performed the last rites together. Was this just to stub out some of the bad press Sasikala got for Jayalalithaa's niece Deepa not being allowed to enter Apollo Hospitals or maybe a distracting bone for news media to chow down?
The parallels are flowing thick and fast — that Sasikala next to Jayalalithaa is like Jayalalithaa standing beside MGR’s body atop a truck in 1987 and what follows now could be a political reboot for the AIADMK party. Climbing on a truck, in 2016, when you know live television cameras are perched on rooftops, is the easy part; what’s impossible is to replicate the heady MGR-Jaya cocktail that held an entire state in thrall. For both MG Ramachandran and Jayalalithaa, their fan base fed into their political base and MGR actively mentored Jaya.
"I've seen her (Jayalalithaa) in Parliament coming down the steps in a white saree and with flowers in her hair, she was gorgeous," says a Jayalalithaa admirer. Would anyone say that of Sasikala? So yes, the differences are stark. Jayalalithaa may have stripped herself of the movie star aura and sheathed herself in sarees that show no skin but her devoted fans embrace both the actress and the politician in her.
"Amma oda padangal romba pudikkum, aayiram vaati paathirkken (I love her movies, I’ve seen them a thousand times)” says Senthaamarai, an employee in the Tamil Nadu secretariat. These are die-hard Jaya fans — people who have never voted for anyone but Jayalalithaa and they care little for Sasikala.
"Avanga enna, namma maadiri oru saadaarna aalu daan (Who’s she? Just another commoner like us)," Jaya supporters say of Sasikala.
"AIADMK will never be the same again, we don’t really care about the next election,” they pipe up in unison, these busloads of people who have come from the districts to say a final goodbye to Jayalalithaa. "Did Jayalalithaa ask to be buried? Why did Sasikala perform the last rites?" asks Meenakshi Shankar, who lives a few yards from the Poes Garden residence of the late chief minister.
Did Jayalalithaa, from her hospital bed, ask for her brother’s daughter Deepa to be pushed away from Apollo Hospitals?
Would Jayalalithaa have wanted Sasikala’s family out in full force at her funeral?
What we do know is that Jayalalithaa chucked out Sasikala and 11 others from AIADMK’s primary membership in 2011. Sasikala moved out of Poes Garden soon after. AIADMK party propaganda rags refer to Jayalalithaa to as permanent general secretary or ‘niranthara pothu cheyalalar’ - a post that Sasikala is now gunning for.
Sasikala’s rise from video cassette seller to Jayalalithaa’s closest aide is a story that begins in the late 1980s and has more gaps and intrigue than than known facts or a solid storyline. Her interface with government officials on day to day matters from inside Jayalalithaa’s sprawling residence is much clearer, though.
Files that must go through “Garden” mean they must pass the Sasikala test. Why Sasikala must even figure in any policy matter or file pushing riles more than just senior bureaucrats?
"It’s an embarrasment - to see Jayalalithaa’s reign being sullied by this lady’s (Sasikala’s ) unexplained involvement. I was amazed at this Sasikala and her kith and kin standing next the body and not giving anyone else any space. She is just a maid servant as far as voters are concerned,” says P Venkatram, a lifelong Chennai resident who lives a 5 minute walking distance away from Jayalalithaa’s house.
Senior government officials put it simply: “Look, you need people around the house to do the dirty work. Jayalalithaa can’t be doing these things and she’s a woman, so it can’t be a man in Sasikala’s role even if he may be more efficient. So, she has Sasikala who in turn can herd the household staff around and bring files to her. It’s not so complicated."
It’s been that way even inside Apollo Hospital. Sasikala called the shots although Jayalalithaa's advisor Sheela Balakrishnan and DGP R K Rajendran were around.
It’s barely six months since the AIADMK came to power the May 2016 Assembly elections. AIADMK won 134 seats, DMK won 89, and nine other seats went to two other parties. Before the elections, the mood within the AIADMK was tense, Jayalalithaa was not in the best of health and it was the first election after the historic floods of 2015. How the middle classes, shocked by those rains, would vote was an unknown. The DMK-Congress vote split helped and AIADMK wrapped it up but it was close till it finished.
For victories like these, it’s the Jayalalithaa magic that worked. Not Sasikala, not the party tag either.
P Venkatram voted AIADMK in the May 2016 Assembly elections. Now that Jayalalithaa is gone, will his vote change? “No way I’ll vote for Sasikala and how can they even think of propping her up as AIADMK general secretary?,” he asks.
For her fans, Jayalalithaa will always remain Amma ( mother) who had glamour, power and made men prostrate before her till her last day. They voted for Jayalaithaa because they wanted to, they tolerate Sasikala because they have to. There’s a big difference. Within the seemingly calm exterior of the post-Jaya AIADMK party lies impending upheaval. That's up next, in a few weeks if not days.
For the BJP, Jayalalithaa’s passing is their best chance yet in Tamil Nadu where they’ve had no luck so far.
What the BJP sees is not Sasikala but Tamil Nadu staring down a Jayalalithaa-shaped black hole.
(Disclaimer: The writer is not related to Ms. Sasikala Natarajan)
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