Sasikala’s proximity to Jaya was based on ‘control & rule’ (Sunday Guardian)
MADHAV NALAPAT NEW DELHI | 25th Dec
Using her friendship with Jayalalithaa, Sasikala (left) replaced the CM’s supporters with her own loyalists, thereby exercising iron control over the state’s administration. PTI
t was 1977, and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.G. Ramachandran had appointed IAS officer V.S. Chandralekha as the state's first-ever woman collector, posting her at Cuddalore. Savvy about the ways of the world and hungry to get ahead, Chandralekha acquired a PRO whose task was to ensure that her activities were given frequent and respectful coverage in the local media. The PRO, R.Natarajan, was not squeamish about the means used to ensure flattering coverage. Whatever his methods, Natarajan soon had a flock of journalists feeding off his trough, and a satisfied boss, who soon became a star in the state, a process helped by her growing proximity to MGR. The CM made no secret of his admiration for the no-nonsense Collector, who was later transferred to Madurai, naturally with the indispensable Natarajan (and his wife Sasikala) in tow.
Around this time (1981), MGR decided to bring his screen heartthrob, Jayalalithaa, into politics, as the propaganda secretary of the AIADMK. She was wildly popular in the state as a movie star, and in a state where "reel" life often substituted for the real in public consciousness, was seen as MGR's alter ego. Countless stints of acting together had reinforced the perception within the broader public that Jayalalithaa was MGR's partner in love, not his wife Janaki, who abandoned her unpromising film career after marrying MGR.
In 1982, because of Jayalalithaa's polish and fluency in English, MGR elevated her to the Rajya Sabha. By then, it was clear to other party members that he was grooming co-star as his political heir. "Look after her, see that the rally is a success", was the command given by the CM to Chandralekha, when the AIADMK organised a huge women's rally in Madurai (1982) that showcased the propaganda secretary in her new role of defender of women's rights.
Chandralekha did so with her usual dispatch, and the rally was a huge success. Along with demonstrating the crowd-pulling capacity of Jayalalithaa, the event marked the start of a close friendship between the two, a bond that picked up speed once MGR transferred Chandralekha to Chennai as urban development secretary, a prize department.
A friendship blooms
Given her affinity for newspaper coverage, it was a given that the indefatigable Natarajan was by Chandralekha's side even in Chennai, using his smiling visage and much else to garner adulatory headlines on the performance of his lady boss. However, Natarajan had a problem, and that was his wife, Sasikala. She was childless and was medically certain to remain so. Would Chandralekha consent for Sasi to indulge her maternal instincts by looking after the IAS officer's young son Abhijeet by a Bengali husband, who too was a civil servant, but who had moved out of Chandralekha's life? The offer was gratefully accepted, and Sasikala proved a caring guardian for the precocious boy.
Jayalalithaa With Sonia Gandhi at her residence in New Delhi in 1999
Sasikala liked movies, especially those where lavish lifestyles were featured. Success to her was acquiring the luxuries that made life meaningful. She began to fret to her husband about the one-bedroom tenement that he and she were sharing in Chennai. After repeatedly being reminded about what a miserable life she led when compared to the movie stars whose lives she followed so enthusiastically, Natarajan asked Chandralekha for yet another favour. Could Sasikala be given permission to do a video film on the glamorous propaganda secretary, which she could subsequently sell at a huge profit? Of course, she did not even have a video camera, so deprived was she in her role of spouse to the improvident Natarajan. That problem was quickly solved with the gift of a camera by Chandralekha.
As for Jayalalithaa, while she did not see much point in a video film about her ("After all, who am I? MGR is everything!"), she finally agreed to Chandralekha's request, and permitted Sasikala to begin filming her, at work and off-duty. During those few days of shooting, something happened between the two.
Sasikala had woven a cocoon around Jayalalithaa, who met only with those approved by the “Mannargudi Mafia”, as Subramanian Swamy termed her family. So tight was this cordon that it took an election defeat to awaken Jayalalithaa.
By the time winter arrived in 1984, the relationship between Jayalalithaa and Sasikala blossomed into a beautiful friendship, with the younger lady soon taking charge of the 36, Poes Garden household of her busy friend. From laundry to menus, Sasi managed matters at home. That year, she became indispensable to the future CM of Tamil Nadu, providing comfort and reassurance in the darkening days that followed MGR's stroke (1984) and growing incapacitation. With each step that MGR took towards his eventual demise (in 1987), those within the party who had not warmed to the role played by Jayalalitha began a campaign against her.
When MGR died after three years, a distraught Jayalalithaa, leapt onto the carriage transporting the cortege to the cremation site. She was pushed away from the vehicle carrying MGR's body, rough hands pulling at her sari and tearing much of it away, in full view of rolling cameras. The (literal) manhandling of Jayalalithaa ensured that the emotional Tamils took to the lady who was MGR's love in so many movies, and indeed was clearly his favourite in real life as well.
Power behind the ruler
Though MGR's widow, Janaki, quickly took over both the Two Leaves symbol as well as the post of CM, it was Jayalalithaa who attracted the crowds. This drew the party MLAs to her in droves, so much so that Janaki lost the no-confidence motion brought against her by Jayalalithaa's supporters, thereby becoming MGR's heir in the party.
Jayalalithaa With Sasikala in tow after casting her vote in the local Assembly polls in Chennai in May 2001
Standing by her side was Sasikala, by now her constant companion, in repose as well as work. If "Sasi" had a vice, it was her suffocating love for Natarajan and the rest of her and his family. She could never desist from helping out a relative, no matter how condemnable his actions or dissipated his character. The numerous relatives of Sasikala decided that this was their chance to big-time wealth.
Opportunity came calling when the AIADMK swept to power in the 1991 assembly elections. By then, Natarajan had ensured that he and his wife dominated the nominations for the party ticket. They also took care of the campaign and the collection of funds. Jayalalithaa was content, retreating for long stretches of time to her books, reading classics of literature over and over again, all the while leaving the sordid work of politics to Sasi. Not surprisingly, Natarajan and the rest of Sasikala's brood encouraged such a hands-off attitude.
Decisions began to be auctioned by Sasikala and her kin, a process that saw exponential growth in the personal wealth of her huge family, together with a sharp decline in Jayalalitha's popularity in whose name all these decisions were being taken. By that time, Jayalalithaa wised up about Natarajan, expelling him from her presence and (she thought) that of her partner as well.
However, the bonds of family proved far stronger than friendship, and Sasikala continued to meet with Natarajan, who guided her in the numerous paths that needed to be trodden in order to make Sasikala's family super-rich.
The Mannargudi Mafia
By the time the next assembly elections rolled along in 1996, the family was very wealthy indeed, and the entire blame for this fell on the doting CM, who was regarded as being complicit in the family's moneymaking, especially given her closeness with Sasikala's relatives, including adopting a nephew as her "adopted son".
Jayalalithaa with Vajpayee and Prakash Singh Badal of the Akali Dal party in 1998. AFP, REUTERS
Sasikala had woven a cocoon around Jayalalithaa, who met only with those approved by the "Mannargudi Mafia", as Subramanian Swamy termed her family. So tight was this cordon that it took an election defeat to awaken Jayalalithaa to see the damage. She announced the severance of all ties with Sasikala, by then in jail on corruption charges. However, a series of tearful missives from her prison cell won back the love of Jayalalithaa, and months after the break, there was a reunion. Sasikala did not forget to ruthlessly eliminate, from the party and elsewhere, all those who had shunned her during her exile from Jayalalithaa's feelings. Slowly, carefully, she replaced supporters of the former CM with those who owed loyalty only to herself and her clan.
The Lok Sabha elections (1998) brought the AIADMK to power, as part of the NDA. Vajpayee's trouble-shooters saw Sasikala's influence and the emotional grip on Jayalalithaa, and began cultivating the "Mannargudi Mafia". However, the lust for money of Sasikala's family was too much even for Pramod Mahajan to stomach, and he and Brajesh Mishra launched an operation to cut the AIADMK to size, refusing to process decisions that the party wanted.
The effect of such indifference was to open the door to Sonia Gandhi, who by the end of that year had established links with Sasikala's clan. In 1999 came the tea party at the Ashok Hotel attended by Sonia and Jayalalithaa. Hosted by Subramanian Swamy, smarting over Vajpayee's refusal to make him a Union Cabinet Minister, the get-together initiated the parleys which led to the AIADMK withdrawing support from the NDA.
A reality check
Although Jayalalithaa lost the 1999 Lok Sabha polls (as well as the Congress Party that migrated to the DMK and has remained with that party ever since), she returned to power in Tamil Nadu in the 2001 assembly polls. But unseated by a Supreme Court decision, she handed over formal power to O. Panneerselvan, a trusted aide, who regularly visited 36 Poes Garden to take dictation from Sasikala. Elsewhere, he had to follow the instructions of her kin, or risk losing his job.
By the time Jayalalithaa returned to office in 2003 (because of a High Court verdict), it was too late. The people of Tamil Nadu had had enough. In 2004, she did poorly in the Lok Sabha polls, and lost the state once again to the DMK in 2006.
But through all of this, Jayalalithaa remained loyal to Sasikala, refusing to credit multiplying reports of the cupidity of her clan.
In 2011, when the AIADMK won back the state, the Sasikala clan moved in for the kill. But this time around, Jayalalithaa had no intention of duplicating her earlier stints in office, each of which had ended in electoral disaster. She asked Sasikala to keep her flock away from government. Jayalalithaa knew that this was probably her last shot at entering the history books as a great leader of the country. If she were to lose control of the administration to Sasikala, it would be curtains to such an ambition.
Meanwhile, reports swirled about how Natarajan was going around saying that his nominee would take over as CM "once Jayalalithaa goes to jail" (in the Bangalore disproportionate assets case). Should Jayalalithaa be forced to quit, Sasikala wanted her choice to be appointed, as did the army of hangers-on of her family that she had implanted within the AIADMK.
Finally, by mid-November, Jayalalithaa had had enough. She expelled Sasikala from the party, this time most likely for good, thereby sacrificing her happiness, which would undoubtedly give her a chance at entering the history books – maybe even as Prime Minister, should there by an AIADMK sweep in the next Lok Sabha polls.