The All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s decision on Sunday to make its general secretary VK Sasikala the chief minister was not totally surprising but it still came as a shock to the people of Tamil Nadu.

This was borne out in the hundreds of messages on Facebook and Twitter, painting the development as a calamity of sorts. Sasikala is set to take control of the government on February 9.

Despite all indications since December 5, when former chief minister Jayalalithaa passed away, that Sasikala, her close aide of three decades, would eventually take over the mantle of chief minister, there was still hope that the negative public image she and her family have would force the party to give up the idea.

Twitter and Facebook were rife with messages calling Sasikala’s appointment a blow to democracy in Tamil Nadu. The AIADMK’s 2016 victory in the Assembly polls was a historic one given that Jayalalithaa became the first chief minister since 1987 to win two consecutive elections. It was purely a mandate for Jayalalithaa and nobody else.

But that mandate has now been used to hand over the reins to a person who, only three months ago, held no major position either in the party or the government.

However, for keen political observers in Tamil Nadu, the AIADMK’s decision didn’t come as a surprise given the culture of sycophancy that has sustained the party. While for the outside world Sasikala was the negative influence who pulled Jayalalithaa into corruption cases, inside the party she was the undisputed No 2 who was a key part of decision making and organisational management.

When Jayalalithaa was around, her iron grip over the party meant sycophantic display of loyalty helped other leaders earn her trust and positions in the party and government. Though Sasikala lacks the former chief minister’s mass appeal, she has replaced Jayalalithaa as this power source in the AIADMK.

Ordinary beginnings

Born in 1957 in Thiruthuraipoondi in the Cauvery delta district of Tiruvarur, the first two decades of Sasikala’s life were very ordinary. She married VN Natarajan, now considered the brain behind her elevation, in the 1970s and opened a video rental business.

After Jayalalithaa became the propaganda secretary of the AIADMK in 1982, Natarajan, then a public relations officer in the government, approached Indian Administrative Service officer VS Chandralekha to help introduce his wife to Jayalalithaa. The idea was to convince her to engage Sasikala to cover her public events.

By the end of 1980s, Sasikala moved into Jayalalithaa’s Poes Garden residence in Chennai. It is still not clear how she became so close to Jayalalithaa, who later called her the “sister not born in my mother’s womb”. Over the years, some have speculated that Natarajan turned into Jayalalithaa’s political advisor following the death of AIADMK founder MG Ramachandran in 1987 and helped her capture the party two years later. While Jayalalithaa never acknowledged Natarajan’s contributions in public, he has given himself disproportionate credit on more than one occasion for her political career taking off.

Sasikala’s proximity to Jayalalithaa grew at a time when the latter was going through a tough period in her personal life. Her brother moved out of her Poes Garden residence in the early 1980s, leaving the highly-successful cinema star all alone.

It was between 1991 and 1996, when Jayalalithaa served her first term as chief minister, that Sasikala’s importance in the AIADMK grew. She fully managed Jayalalithaa’s domestic needs and also became the channel for party leaders to communicate to the chief minister. In part, this arrangement suited Jayalalithaa well, as she wanted to maintain the image of being a tough leader not easily accessible to every one. But this also meant Sasikala and her family had the power to decide what went to Jayalalithaa and what did not, a reason why many veterans of the AIADMK slowly moved out.

A reading of the documents in Jayalalithaa’s disproportionate assets case would make it evident that Sasikala and her family had a role in managing the leader’s finances as well. They were part of many companies that were floated during those years, the functioning of which was a key aspect of the illegal wealth case. The case is currently pending in the Supreme Court for judgment.

After Jayalalithaa lost the 1996 elections, Sasikala was briefly sent out of the Poes Garden house but was taken back months later. This drama was repeated in 2011, when Sasikala was expelled from the AIADMK along with 11 others. Jayalalithaa even issued a diktat that party members should not have any truck with them. She was again rehabilitated after a long and emotional apology letter she wrote to Jayalalithaa.

Secrecy as strength

Not much is available in the public domain about Sasikala. No one knows what her ideological leanings are. Given the power the family wields, the media has trodden a cautious path in writing about them.

This behind-the-scenes functioning was a crucial factor in Sasikala clan’s survival. Nothing exemplified their opaque style of operation than the way information about Jayalalithaa’s health was managed in the 75 days she spent at the hospital before her death on December 5. Only Sasikala and her coterie had access to the AIADMK leader. The Sasikala family dominated at Jayalalithaa’s funeral, with Sasikala herself performing the final rites. Since December 5, Sasikala has stayed put at the Poes Garden house without openly declaring if Jayalalithaa had willed it to her or her family members.

Image: PTI

Their tight control of the party was also evident in the manner in which a power transition was completed in the early hours of December 6. O Panneerselvam, the perpetual stop-gap arrangement in the AIADMK, took over within hour’s of his leader’s death. On Sunday, he stepped down to make way for Sasikala.

In the last two months, she has mimicked Jayalalithaa in the way she has built her image as the leader who could unify the AIADMK and keep it under control. Ministers and legislators fell under her feet, like they did with Jayalalithaa, to persuade her to lead them. Even on Sunday, she pointed out that it was Panneerselvam who wanted her to take over as chief minister.

Way forward

But given the developments in the last two months, it was clear that pushing Panneerselvam out was not an easy task. One, he had the tag of being Jayalalithaa’s choice. In 2001 and 2014, when she had to step down from the chief minister’s post due to corruption cases, it was Panneerselvam that she chose to hand over the chair to. There was also a perception that he had the support of the Centre, given the camaraderie he displayed in his meetings with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the swift manner in which the Union government helped Tamil Nadu pass the law enabling the conduct of Jallikattu.

Secondly, the public perception about Sasikala and her family has been negative. “They were seen as the hands behind Jayalalithaa’s corruption scandals,” said R Manivannan, professor of politics at the University of Madras.

While her control over the party might have given her the chief minister post, she would now have to contest a by-election within six months to continue. This may not be an easy task to accomplish.

This was why, AIADMK officials said she might choose to contest from a constituency in south Tamil Nadu, where her Mukkulathur community has a majority in some pockets. She may not take the risk of contesting from Dr Radhakrishnan Nagar in Chennai, a seat that fell vacant after the death of Jayalalithaa.

A senior AIADMK legislator said Sasikala had a brilliant political acumen. With four years to go for the next elections, setting right her image would not be a difficult task, the MLA said.

Two other factors will also play a major role in shaping Sasikala’s political future and determine if she will continue as chief minister for the remaining four years of this government’s tenure. The Supreme Court’s decision in the disproportionate assets case will decide her political future, since a conviction under the Prevention of Corruption Act will disqualify her and keep her away from contesting polls for six years.

The second would be tackling the opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. The DMK and its allies have 98 MLA in the Tamil Nadu Assembly and will need only 19 more to topple the government. The party’s working president MK Stalin on Sunday made it clear that he was not happy with Sasikala taking over as chief minister, and said the people’s mandate was for Jayalalithaa and not to those in her household.

Another key element to be watched would be the extent to which her husband and brothers influence the AIADMK and the government.