Four years ago, the AIADMK supremo and former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, J Jayalalithaa, died of a prolonged illness at a hospital in Chennai, leaving a leadership vacuum in her party. Subsequently, in about 70 days after her death, her close aide and surrogate sister Sasikala Natarajan was sent to Parappana Agrahara prison in Bengaluru to serve a four-year sentence in a disproportionate assets case. While she was named the second accused, Jayalalithaa was the first accused, but since she had passed away, the case against her stood abated.
With little over two months to go for her to complete her four years of imprisonment, Sasikala is still waiting for remission. Her advocate, Raja Senthura Pandian, has, in a representation to the Chief Superintendent of Parappana Agrahara, asked for immediate remission without any discrimination.
“She has completed 45 months and this makes her eligible for a reduction of 132 days in prison on the grounds of good conduct,” he said.
Sasikala’s release is eagerly awaited by her loyalists and cadres of Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam (AMMK), a party floated by her nephew TTV Dhinakaran with her approval after she went to jail.
Soon after Jayalalithaa’s death, Sasikala was `elected’ AIADMK interim general secretary by its executive and general councils. The two incidents — the death of a leader and the imprisonment of a `future’ leader and `Chief minister in waiting’ — created ripples in the tough political turf of the Dravidian land of Tamil Nadu. In fact, even a venue had been identified for her swearing-in ceremony. But what unfolded thereafter was a series of developments that left the Tamil Nadu politics gasping.
SC VERDICT: UPSETTING POLITICAL AMBITIONS
Political observers claimed that they could unmistakably see, though not visibly, the BJP’s role behind those simultaneous developments in the post-Jayalalithaa AIADMK. The BJP has been waiting on the fringes to gain a foothold in the state. The interim chief minister and senior functionary O Panneerselvam who endorsed her candidature for the general secretary post earlier raised a banner of revolt against her by resorting to ‘dharma yudh’. Sasikala made the MLAs camp at a beach resort to prevent poaching.
On Feb 14, 2017, the Supreme Court, too, delivered its final verdict, restoring the Karnataka trial court verdict in the disproportionate assets case. And Sasikala had to leave for the prison the next day, which totally destroyed her political ambitions.
The quick developments prevented her from taking over the party and the chief ministerial post. But what Sasikala did thereafter had upset the applecart of those who tried to eliminate her from politics.
Sasikala handpicked another senior minister, Edappadi K Palaniswamy, in the place of the much-touted Panneerselvam who had the blessings of the BJP, and proposed his name for the chief minister’s post with the nod of the majority of the party MLAs.
Opponents patch up
During her four-year incarceration, Palaniswamy consolidated his position after patching up with his bête noir Panneerselvam and other disgruntled elements within the party. He and Panneerselvam together removed Sasikala from the post of the `interim general secretary’ and anointed themselves as co-ordinator and joint co-ordinator of the AIADMK. Above all, the party has also announced an alliance with the BJP for the forthcoming assembly polls.
These surprising developments have in a way helped the BJP enormously. Political observers say, playing backroom politics, the BJP, which has set 2026 as its target year to capture power in Tamil Nadu, has almost appropriated the AIADMK now.
“Our aim is to dismember the DMK first in this election. We can take care of other issues later,” said a senior BJP functionary in Chennai.
After all, everyone loves a comeback story. Sasikala’s evolution into a leader after emerging from the shadows of Jayalalithaa was cut short in an abrupt manner. As her career was about to be ramped up, she was dislodged. Projected largely as a ‘con woman’, she was, in fact, made to realise in a hard way that the power she had enjoyed for decades was not hers.
What she failed to notice that the shield Jayalalithaa provided her was gone after her death. She had remained a de facto power center though her suggestions and decisions had to bear the stamp of approval from Jayalalithaa to run the party. She and her relatives, who stayed at Jayalalithaa’s residence, took care of political decisions concerning the party. Many ministers and functionaries had also remained more loyal to this `unrelated sister’ than to the queen herself in those days.
WHAT NEXT FOR SASIKALA
It was smooth sailing for Sasikala until Jayalalithaa was alive. All senior functionaries paid obeisance to her though she rarely made public appearances. When she lost the ring of protection, she got exposed, betrayed and jailed. She was naive to understand the intricacies of the treacherous national politics. Having lost her husband Natarajan, a former government employee and also a backroom operator in the AIADMK, when she was in jail, she now totally depends on her nephew TTV Dhinakaran who runs AMMK.
“It is true that she has to face uncomfortable realities since so many developments have taken place after she left for jail four years ago. The AIADMK also has been in an existential crisis. Will she be allowed into the party again or will she be with Dhinakaran? Does the BJP have special plans for her? Or will she keep away from active politics? These questions will be answered shortly,” said an AIADMK leader.
But her possible re-entry would further complicate the environment in the state. One of her confidantes says, “Sasikala is determined to re-enter the political scene with new vigour and regain the AIADMK general secretary post, but her release is in the hands of the BJP government.”
PLAYING BACKROOM POLITICS
Though she cannot contest elections for a maximum of six years upon being convicted and serving the sentence, she can play backroom politics. Dhinakaran has already taken away about five per cent of votes from the mother party. Jayalalithaa’s vacuum has eroded further. Hence it is to be seen whether the BJP would ever attempt to unify the AIADMK factions prior to polls. The political landscape remains complicated now.
Sasikala met Jayalalithaa, who was a loner then, in 1979 as a video cassette seller. Since then, their inexplicable bond remained unshackled despite brief separations mainly due to `political reasons.’ Twice she was expelled from Jayalalithaa’s residence — in 1996 immediately after the drubbing in assembly polls and on Dec 19, 2011, along with 13 of her Mannargudi town kin including her husband Natarajan and nephew Dhinakaran. But Sasikala re-entered Jayalalithaa’s residence on March 31, 2012.
In a letter, dated 28, 2012, Sasikala had even claimed that she was unaware of her relatives’ alleged “conspiracy to usurp the party and power”. Jayalalithaa accepted her whole-heartedly after that.
But at present, her power seems to be rooted in the distant past. Jayalalithaa once said, “She [Sasikala] is the most misunderstood person. She takes care of me and my house like my mother.”
It remains to be seen if Sasikala has to remain content with the role she played for more than three decades to Jayalalithaa – a lurking shadow.