Cover Story/ Tamil Nadu Politics : Amma Leaves, Shadow Prevails
After Amma, Chinnamma?: The conspicuous presence of Sasikala (in black saree) from hospital to funeral ground signals her possible role in the Tamil Nadu politics. The competitive claims over Jayalaithaa's legacy is certainly going to unfold the new power game in Tamil Nadu politics
When all eyes of the world were glued to the happenings in Apollo Hospital of Chennai, where Tamil Nadu Chief Minister was being treated for unknown illness. Finally, the sad news of passing away of Selvi J Jayalalithaa came through a press release by the Hospital on November 5, 2016. Though political situation was immediately taken under control with swearing in ceremony of O Paneerselvam as Chief Minister, all eyes are now on her closest aide Sasikala Natarajan especially when political pundits predict a possible power tussle in the state politics. Her presence around Jayalalithaa from hospital to the funeral ground raised many eyebrows about her possible role in Tamil Nadu politics.
Although Sasikala may not be familiar to the people outside Tamil Nadu, in Tamil Nadu, if Jayalalithaa was Amma (Mother) to her loyalists and party workers, Sasikala is ‘Chinnamma’ (Junior Mother) in her circles. It is believed that Jayalalithaa has never taken any crucial political decisions without consulting Sasikala. She silently followed Jayalalithaa like a shadow right from the dawn of her political career, and mostly worked underground without coming to fore as a political leader. Still, she often hit the headlines of newspapers only for wrong reasons.
Even before the wet soil on her grave dry, cracks started visible. It started even before the announcement of Jayalalithaa’s death but subdued for some time. Now some leaders started questioning knee jerk haste in conducting swearing in of OPS as CM. “It was done in a hurry to check and rebellion to Chinnamma (SasiKala) from holding the fort suddenly,” said a senior leader of the party. But her supporters said, Chinnamma was in charge of party affairs, when Amma was alive and active. “Chinnamma has support of 100 MLAs,” said another party functionary. To this rival group said, Amma had cancelled the candidate list for May 16 Assembly polls, prepared by Sasikala to thwart Sasikala fielding her own persons. Amma sat and interviewed aspirants personally. Chinnamma had her own say in the appointment of bureaucrats for key postings and police officers. How OPS, the new CM is going to face is a million dollar question.
“In the sandalwood coffin, Puratchi Thalaivi Selvi J Jayalalithaa, (Revolutionary leader Ms Jayalalithaa) was inscribed not Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. They want to give a quick burial for her close friend. Madam death was not officially declared. Only hospital bulletin said. So they want to cover up something. Why Madam was not taken abroad for treatment. Except people close to Sasikala, former Chief Secretary only knew what was ailing and treatment given to her, ” said another functionary.
On the fateful day of September 22, un confirmed sources allege, there was a quarrel between Jayalalithaa and Sasikala. The latter wanted to accommodate some of her relatives, she allegedly pushed Jayalalithaa. A servant who tried to help Jayalalithaa to get up was prevented by her. When she tried to open the door to call the security officers, maid was beaten up. Late night Jaya was taken to Apollo hospital for treatment.’Earlier also media reported that there was an attempt to give slow poison the Amma and there were some conspiracies hatched to liquidate Madam. In the hospital settlement or will was signed in the presence of judge bequeathing Jayalalithaa’s properties. These allegations cannot be cross checked for its voracity but doing rounds in party circles and social media.
Tamil actress Gautami has opened the Pandora’s Box by writing a blog addressing to none other than Prime Minister Modi over these issues. She raised the critical about the ‘secrecy and isolation’ maintained during the treatment of a beloved public leader like Jayalalithaa and ‘authority’ or ‘persons’ restricting access to the leader and taking decisions about the course of action in the treatment.
The Turbulent Relations
The rustic Sasikala Natarajan is from small town Mannargudi in Tiruvarur District. This self-effacing school dropout, video shop owner turned multi-billionaire, wife of a Public Relations Officer who once believed to be the main strategist of Jayalalithaa. Her political moves are going to be crucial for the future of Tamil Nadu politics.
Sasikala, 59, may not be averse to taking over the party reins where her public interaction would be less. She has come a long way since 1980s when she ran video shop and her controversial husband Natarajan, and then a PRO in the Governmen’s publicity wing introduced her to Jayalalithaa. She moved to Poes Garden in 1988 and remained devoted to Jayalalihaa. She became an indispensable to her and Veda Nilayam. In the last 20 years, Jayalalithaa distanced Saikala twice, once in1996 blaming her for the party’s defeat in Assembly polls and again in 2012 when she charged her for betraying her. Jayalalithaa revoked her decision to suspend Sasikala from AIADMK's primary membership and took her back.
Since her hospitalisation on September 22, Sasikala, allegedly ran the government from the corridors of Apollo Hospital and managed the party affairs. Her family members are believed to have continued to influence her and her decisions. After lying low for many years, the family members of Sasikala, particularly her husband M Natarajan, were seen prominently at the funeral on December 6.
Almost all of her family members were seen standing around the late CM’s body at Rajaji Hall. The exception is Jayalaltihaa’s nephew who stood on the opposite side. He was not introduced to PM Modi, but Sasikala, her husband, OPS were introduced to him. Deepak’s sister, Deepa was not allowed to pay homage to her aunt. However, VN Sudhakaran, Jayalalithaa’s erstwhile foster son, and his elder brother TTV Dinakaran, were not present.
“We are not able to understand how they were allowed to be present during the funeral, because only Sasikala, who was expelled along with 12 of her family members, was re-admitted into the party. Party cadres who were waiting outside the hospital were not allowed to have a glimpse of their departed leader,” observed a senior AIADMK leader.
Who will Inherit the Wealth?
Jayalalithaa Bungalow at No. 81, Veda Nilayam, Poes Garden, was an address that lent its name to a neighbourhood and a site that for 25 years remained a symbol of political power. After her death, a question mark hung heavy over the fate of the 24,000 sqft Bungalow: As of now there is no news of a will that Jayalalithaa has left behind. Jayalalithaa and her mother Sandhya purchased the Poes Garden property in 1967 for Rs 1.32 lakh. Being class II heirs of Jayalalithaa, her nephew and niece could, if they want to, can stake claim to a share of the Poes Garden property, originally acquired by their grandmother, legal experts say.
Apart from her Chennai house, Jayalalithaa's fixed assets and investments are worth more than Rs 80 crore. In her affidavit filed for this year’s Assembly election, she declared her total assets at a conservative Rs 118.58 crore. Other immovable assets included two estates in Kodanad (worth Rs 3.33cr), investments (Rs 20.12 lakh) in Sasi Enterprises and in Royal Valley Floritech Exports (Rs 40.41 lakh).
She declared commercial property in Sri Nagar Colony, Hyderabad, valued at Rs 13.34 crore, and 14.5 acres of agricultural land in Ranga Reddy District near Hyderabad worth Rs 14.44 crore. Besides, Jayalalithaa had a huge bank balance amounting deposits of Rs 10.63 crore in various banks in the city and 1,250 kg of silver worth Rs 3 crore. These do not include gold and silver ornaments the court seised from her. The issue is pending in the SC, which on June 7 reserved its judgment in the case. It is learnt from unconfirmed sources, Poes Garden is to be given to Deepak, and Kodanadu estate to Deepa. Going out of hands, there are cries it should be made memorial.
Will her political heir apparent Sasikala stay put in Veda Nilayam or will Jayalalithaa’s niece Deepa Jayakumar and her brother Dipak stake claim to the property? Or will face the same fate of Jayalalithaa's mentor MG Ramachandran, whose house in Ramapuram, Chennai remained mired in legal disputes decades after his death? After Jayalalithaa’s funeral, Sasikalaa headed back to Veda Nilayam.
On December 5, there were rumours of two groups backed by two caste groups Sasikala’s Thevar faction and Gounders, a predominant caste pushing for their representative candidate for chief ministership. While OPS represents the Thevars, Lok Sabha Deputy Speaker Thambidurai, KA Senkottaian, have the Gounders’ support. Meanwhile, Sasikala is now being projected as the next leader who inherited Jayalalithaa’s political wealth.
In AIADMK, general secretary has more powers. So, all eyes are on party’s annual general council meeting, which is slated for this month. In the race for the post are besides Sasikala, OPS, Thambidurai, former minister Edapadi K Palanisamy and Sengottaiyan. OPS, who was the interim CM twice, need not keep a low profile and carry out orders from Poes Garden. “OPS who faulted many times, and wept when taking oath as CM following Jayalalithaa’s imprisonment in Assets case in 2014. He put her portrait in front of his table. But after her demise, in the zero hours, he took oath without any trouble. He was standing near the body without shedding any tears. Earlier, when Madam was alive he used to bend to show his respect, he is a good actor,” pointed out a former minister.
While it is Advantage Panneerselvam in the immediate aftermath of Jayalalithaa’s departure, the last word of the subject has yet to be said. As per reports, the new Chief Minister has already consulted the new power centre, Sasikala, twice within 24 hours of oath taking. Main opposition, DMK with strength of 89 MLAs in the Assembly, would play a wait and watch game. If any split in the opposite camp, it would try to turn tables in its favour. It needs 45 MLAs to form government.
Amma’s death had put down an end to rule by cine personalities during the past four decades (Anna, Karunanidhi, MGR, Janaki and Jayalalithaa all have cinema background). She has left a huge void on the political firmament. Her departure could signal the meltdown of Dravidian politics in the State – the DMK patriarch M Karunanidhi is also old and ailing – and see a slow resurgence of nationalist parties like the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party, though the small caste-based parties could make immediate gains. In the immediate future, who stakes claim over Amma’s legacy and take control over the ruling party and administration is the real question everyone is curious about.