Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa has been in hospital since September 22 with periodic bulletins claiming an improvement in her condition. But given that she is on respiratory support, it goes without saying that it would be difficult for her to attend to every detail of governance from her hospital bed.

But the way the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam government functions is well known. Jayalalithaa is known to manage every aspect of the administration. Nothing significant happens without her consent. Even in the state Assembly, ministers do not announce schemes or make significant remarks without attributing them to her. When something complex crops up, the standard reply is that they will take it to the chief minister for her consideration.

Since Jayalalithaa’s hospitalisation, Tamil Nadu has faced some serious issues, including the latest round of litigation in the Cauvery water dispute. But to the outside world, there have been no hiccups in the administration.

So, who has been taking the decisions and ensuring smooth governance in the chief minister’s absence?

It this context, the focus has shifted to another powerful woman in the administration – Sheela Balakrishnan. Clubbing the retired IAS officer with Jayalalithaa's friend V Sasikala, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam chief M Karunanidhi last week called them the chief minister’s “shadows”.

Rise of a civil servant

Scroll.in attempted to put together a portrait of Balakrishnan by speaking to a few retired Indian Administrative Service officers who had worked with her in the past. All of them were unanimous in their opinion that Balakrishnan was a fierce loyalist of Jayalalithaa and was her “eyes and ears” in the administration.

According to media reports, she has been working out of a room at the Apollo hospital since Jayalalithaa was admitted there.

Born in March 1954, the IAS officer from Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala rose swiftly through the ranks. “She is a 1976-batch officer," said a retired officer. "She was 22 at that time. That means she must have cleared the exam in her first attempt, showing how bright she is.”

Balakrishnan’s first big posting came when she was appointed director of social welfare in 1983 by MG Ramachandran, who was then the chief minister.

In Tamil Nadu, IAS officers are usually identified by the political party they are close to. Officers who get plum posts during the reign of the DMK are usually sidelined when the AIADMK comes to power, and vice-versa. But Balakrishnan kept herself free of such affiliations for a long time. Even under the DMK government of 2000, she was asked to manage the social welfare department as its secretary.

The big change came in 2002 when Jayalalithaa returned as chief minister after her acquittal in a corruption case. Balakrishnan became secretary to the chief minister, a position usually reserved for the most trusted officers in the government. Once in the elite circle, Balakrishnan could no longer avoid a political stamp. As expected, when the DMK returned to power in 2006, she was made the head of an educational institution and sidelined.

In 2012, when the post of chief secretary fell vacant in the state, there were reports that Balakrishnan’s husband, being the senior-most IAS officer then, would take over. But Jayalalithaa chose his wife instead. So pleased was the AIADMK leader with Balakrishnan that she was made advisor to the government after she retired from service in March 2014, a position she has held ever since.

Keeping a low profile

According to one retired officer, Sheela Balakrishnan's strength lies in the way she has managed to avoid the limelight despite the positions she has held.

She participated in almost every important government meeting in the last three years and could predict Jayalalithaa's preferences nine out of 10 times, said those who have worked with her.

"She understands the chief minister very well," a former bureaucrat said, adding that her method is quite simple: Make suggestions, not decisions. Her colleagues appreciate her command over English, which is of help while drafting files to be seen by Jayalalithaa.

"She will call for a meeting of officers and put together everything for the chief minister,” the former IAS officer said. "We have never seen her decide anything without Jayalalithaa's concurrence."

That is perhaps why Jayalalithaa, who has earned a reputation for frequently shuffling officers, has retained her. Balakrishnan’s way of functioning fits in with the chief minister’s style of micromanagement.

The officer also said that with no second-in-command in the party, it could be that the leader relies on trusted officers such as Balakrishnan.

Balakrishnan’s experience in the social welfare department is also highly relevant to the government’s various “Amma” welfare schemes, though it is not clear how much of a role she has in framing these policies.

New power centre

The power Balakrishnan supposedly wields – which is rarely spoken about in public or even within the administration – comes with problems, though. According to some officials, the post of advisor has undermined the position of chief secretary, who, as the highest officer in the administration, is the undisputed leader of the bureaucracy.

“The advisor is more senior than the present chief secretary," said former IAS officer MG Devasagayam.

While serving IAS officers are accountable for their actions and subject to disciplinary action, it is not clear how transgressions by retired officers in such positions of power are dealt with.

Also, while Balakrishnan has been the advisor since 2014, Tamil Nadu has had three chief secretaries in that period.

"It is important that this new structure be debated and reviewed for the sake of democracy," Devasagayam said.