Sasikala returns in an election year — a woman who has won and lost it all one too many times has another shot at power
Sasikalahas been an important part of Tamil Nadu politicsfor over three decades, functioning as the woman ‘next in power’ after the late Jayalalithaa.
- “I believe she would want to correct the perception that Jayalalithaa was the good person and Sasikala was the bad influence. She will want to set the record straight,” a senior journalist said.
- Sasikala will be formally released from jail today after serving a four-year sentence for a corruption case. She, however, will continue to be treated in the hospital for COVID-19.
Neither her chequered past and the jail term, nor being infected by COVID-19 virus, would make her less of a player in Tamil Nadu politics. Hopes and fears are surging about the role that she could choose to play in the upcoming state assembly elections.
The Sasikala factor is something all parties including her home party the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (
The incumbent Chief Minister, Edappadi Palanisamy, was Sasikala’s choice before the party distanced itself. He recently said there’s no chance Sasikala will be reinstated into the AIADMK but as the cliche goes, there are no permanent friends or foes in politics.
Sasikala isn’t just the woman in jail no. 9234. She has been an important part of Tamil Nadu politics for over three decades, functioning as the woman ‘next in power’ after Jayalalithaa. After the death of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) chief, Sasikala rose to power as calls for Chinamma (an epithet used to position her as the heir to Jayalalithaa, who was called Amma, meaning mother), as she was fondly called, to be the Chief Minister filled the air. Jayalalithaa was the first accused even in the disproportionate assets case, in which Sasikala was jailed.
“It may be too soon to comment on whether she will be included again in the party— whether as a General Secretary or mentor or any other role— but many AIADMK leaders have objected to criticising Sasikala in any form,” explained a senior journalist Rangaraj Pandey on his YouTube channel, Chanakya on Jan 16. “For Sasikala, the most important thing will be to erase the taint on her reputation. I believe she would want to correct the perception that Jayalalithaa was the good person and Sasikala was the bad influence. She will want to set the record straight.”
If Sasikala does return to prominence in Tamil Nadu one more time, it won’t be a surprise. Here’s a look at how she lost and regained power one too many times.
From running a video cassette business to being Tamil Nadu’s second most powerful woman
AdvertisementIn the early 1980s, in Chennai’s Alwarpet tucked away was a tiny little shop “Vinod Video Centre”. That video rental business was run by Sasikala Natarajan. Her husband R Natarajan worked as a Public Relations officer in Tamil Nadu government. It is through him— and a senior civil servant VS Chandralekha, who continues to play a key role in Tamil Nadu politics even now as an advisor to senior BJP leader Subramanian Swamy — that Sasikala first met Jayalalithaa, a superstar at the time being groomed by the then leader of AIADMK and Tamil Nadu’s Chief Minister M. G. Ramachandran.
MGR’s death in 1987 put the spotlight on Jayalalithaa, who after being manhandled by MGR’s supporters and his wife, swept the assembly elections in 1991 and began her tenure as the state’s Chief Minister, a position she went on to win six times. Standing beside her, for most that period, were Sasikala and Natarajan, both of whom moved into Poes Garden with her.
The rise of the Mannargudi Mafia
AdvertisementEven when Jayalalithaa ousted Natarajan from the house in 1990, Sasikala stayed back. She then continued to walk one step behind Jayalalithaa, while her family became all that the CM had.
Sasikala kept chipping away until people she chose or trusted went on to hold some of the most important posts in the Tamil Nadu government. Just like the fictional character Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather, Sasikala’s clout, often derisively described as the “Mannargudi Mafia”, is still omnipresent in the state.
“Their men are everywhere from Jaya TV to Ministers’ offices, and have stooges in police and IAS, top to bottom. The system got weakened after the fall of Sasikala in 2012, but once she was back, they were too. And they don’t leave out anything, even the cycle-stand contracts in bus-stands are taken in by them," an Indian Police Service (IPS) officer told The News Minute in 2016.
Jayalalithaa and Sasikala – not a completely rosy picture
The duo, who had ruled politics in Tamil Nadu, also had their ups and downs. In a move that shocked many, in 2011, Jayalalithaa had expelled Sasikala and 13 of her family members from AIADMK. “All party men are directed not to have any contact whatsoever with all these expelled persons,” Jayalalithaa had said then.
Earlier in 1996, Jayalalithaa had first distanced herself from Sasikala when they were arrested in the ₹66 crore disproportionate assets case.
It was reported that Sasikala’s growing clout in AIADMK that began to bother Jayalalithaa. But soon after in 2012, the Tamil Nadu CM marked a U-turn by reinstating Sasikala, after she publicly disassociated herself from her family members and wrote an apology letter to Jayalalithaa.
Jayalalithaa’s death and Sasikala’s close brush with being the CM
AdvertisementSasikala bounced back to prominence and cemented her position as Jayalalithaa’s most important aide by the time of the latter’s death in December 2016.
Even as conspiracy theories alleged that it was Sasikala who had slowly poisoned the leader, the party stood by Chinnamma. And so did the powers that be in New Delhi. “I emphatically request that respected Chinnamma has to immediately take over the leadership of the Government, as the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu,” wrote deputy speaker of the Lok Sabha M Thambidurai in a letter.
AdvertisementSasikala continued to live in Poes Garden – a house that was never hers, and Jayalithaa never left a will. Until she was arrested.
Sasikala’s world goes tumbling down
In February 2017, Sasikala was sent to jail along with her nephew V N Sudhagaran and sister-in-law J Elavarasi in the disproportionate assets case. The Supreme Court of India over-ruled the Karnataka High Court’s decision from 2015, which had acquitted Jayalalithaa and others, and sent them all packing to jail.
AdvertisementDuring the investigation, it was found that Sasikala and her relatives through shell companies had bought properties worth ₹300 crore in and around Chennai. In 2020, Sasikala’s relatives paid the ₹10 crore fine on her behalf.
During her tenure in jail, reports said that Sasikala had allegedly bribed jail officials for preferential treatment. She had also been let out first on a five-day parole in 2017 to meet her ailing husband Natarajan and then again on a 15-day parole in 2018 to attend his funeral.
One more chance for Sasikala
AdvertisementTo put it very mildly, Sasikala’s emergence from jail ahead of the Tamil Nadu polls is likely to make it a lot more interesting.
While the DMK is touted to be ahead in the electoral race, as per many estimates, the incumbent AIADMK government under E Palanisamy is stronger than it was when she was arrested. There were many who thought the AIADMK government wouldn’t survive its full term but it did.
The party did break as Sasikala’s nephew TTV Dinakaran took charge of the faction that was spun out. However, he has, in the past, underscored that his commitment is to protecting Jayalalithaa’s legacy more than any party. If he sticks to that stance, there is room for the rival factions to unite.
And as far as the AIADMK is concerned, there is a need for it too. The tug of war between the Chief Minister Palanisamy and the Finance Minister O Panneerselvam continues till date. Sasikala can fix that too. The question is whether she wants to.
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