For thirty years, VK Sasikala was known for her association with the most powerful woman in Tamil Nadu. Described by most as Jayalalithaa’s friend, a ‘shadow’ by some others, it was the late Chief Minister, who saved the kindest words for Sasikala, describing her as “almost like a sister”.
Then, over four years ago, when Jayalalithaa passed away on December 5, 2016 after battling illness at a hospital in Chennai, it appeared that Sasikala’s moment had finally come. She was soon handed control over the AIADMK, the party that her best friend Jayalalitha had helmed for 27 years until her demise and her ascent to the Chief Minister’s post appeared all but inevitable.
Her dreams, however, were cut short by the Supreme Court on February 14, 2017 when it upheld her conviction in the disproportionate assets case. On January 27, Sasikala was formally released from Parappana Agrahara jail in Bengaluru after serving her four-year imprisonment. Her return was expected to create waves in Tamil Nadu’s politics ahead of the Assembly Elections. However, on Wednesday, the 66-year-old took her rivals and her followers by surprise, announcing her decision to withdraw from politics.
“I never wanted a post or power. I am always thankful for the people of Tamil Nadu. I am staying away from politics and I pray to my sister (late CM Jayalalithaa) and god for establishing a good governance.” “The true followers of Amma should strive to fight against the ‘evil’ DMK and aim to establish the government of Amma,” she said in a press statement.
TNM traces the rise and fall of VK Sasikala.
Born in 1957 to an agriculturalist couple, Vivekanandam and Krishnaveni, Sasikala grew up in Mannargudi with her five siblings. Although Sasikala’s family was not rich, they did belong to the influential Kallar community.
In 1973, she married M Natarajan, who was an employee in the state’s Directorate of Information and Public Relations, with DMK chief and then Chief Minister M Karunanidhi even presiding over their wedding.
But the couple went through trying times early in their marriage. In an interview to Shobha Warrier for Rediff, V Chandralekha, who was collector of South Arcot in the early 1980s, said Natarajan lost his job during the Emergency and remained unemployed for four years between 1976 and 1980. While he was eventually reinstated and posted as Chandralekha’s PRO following a court case, it was presumably during the intervening period that Sasikala started a video rental shop in Chennai.
“Sasikala used to come and tell me her stories, like how they were victimised, etc. She used to tell me that her jewels were sold and pawned to fight the case. She then set up a video renting shop in Chennai. Jayalalithaa used to be one of her customers. She didn't know the films were taken for Jayalalithaa as it was a servant who used to collect the videos,” recalled Chandralekha.
Soon, the video rental business became videography, after Sasikala went to Singapore to purchase video recorders to film marriages and other functions. It was then that Sasikala turned to her husband’s boss, Chandralekha, to help boost her fledgling business.
Chandralekha said, “One day, Sasikala wanted me to put in a word to Jayalalithaa as she was the propaganda secretary of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam then and used to attend a large number of functions. Sasikala asked me, would you please recommend my name? I recommended her name to Jayalalithaa and told her that I knew Sasikala and her husband was my PRO.”
Chandralekha’s introduction was enough to seal the start of a lifelong friendship. After Sasikala and her team filmed several of Jayalalithaa’s functions, “some good association developed,” said Natarajan to NDTV.
The association developed into trust as Natarajan and his wife stood by Jayalalithaa through one of her darkest hours as a politician, following the death, in 1987, of her mentor and then Chief Minister MG Ramachandran.
While Sasikala and her husband moved into “Veda Nilayam” Jayalalithaa’s Poes Garden residence soon after MGR’s death, Natarajan was kicked out in 1990 for trying to “dominate”Jayalalithaa.
From then on, Sasikala remained the lone figure in Jayalalithaa’s life, sharing her moments of triumphs and defeat. From running the Poes Garden household and taking care of Jayalalithaa’s every need to entertaining political visitors and controlling Jaya TV, the party mouthpiece, Sasikala, in Chandralekha’s words, made herself “indispensable” to Jayalalithaa.
When Jayalalithaa was catapulted to power in 1991, Sasikala’s influence in the party and in government grew. In the eyes of the public, every step and misstep Jayalalithaa took in her early years as state administrator, Sasikala was not far behind.
They attended the Mahamaham festival at Kumbakonam in 1992 together, with Sasikala pouring holy water on her friend, even as a stampede broke out just metres away, killing more than 50 people, as the crowd pushed and shoved to catch a glimpse of the Chief Minister.
But the trust and faith Jayalalithaa placed in her was never more apparent than when she adopted Sasikala’s VN nephew Sudhakaran as her foster son. The extravagant wedding that Jayalalithaa conducted for her foster son, who she later disowned, saw the friends dress like twins – in red silk sarees with matching gold and diamond jewellery. If pictures from the wedding were anything to go by, some may even say that Sasikala was in many ways, Jayalalithaa’s equal.
When Jayalalithaa was routed in the 1996 Assembly Elections following her first term in power, many placed the blame squarely upon Sasikala and her family. The public display of wealth at Sudhakaran’s wedding shocked and angered an electorate that decided to vote in the DMK. But the electoral defeat was only the beginning of their troubles.
With arch-rival Karunanidhi back at the helm, Jayalalithaa found herself embroiled in a number of corruption cases. She soon announced that she was keeping a distance from her friend. But Sasikala too was named in 39 cases and was arrested in June 1996 for alleged illegal foreign exchange transactions.
Spending 10 months in jail, Sasikala was reportedly under tremendous pressure to turn approver and implicate Jayalalithaa in the cases, writes R Ramasubramanian in Rediff. Quoting an AIADMK functionary, the website states that Sasikala refused to do so, standing by Jayalalithaa. Her incarceration, the cadre says, “cemented her relationship” with ‘Amma’. Having passed the loyalty test, Sasikala was back in Poes Garden.
Jayalalithaa crafted the ‘Amma’ image, “a leader for the people and by the people”, having disowned and distanced her own family. But even as she gave up her jewels and her silk sarees, putting the years of ostentation and splendour behind her, best friend Sasikala surrounded Jayalalithaa with her family members, who peddled their influence in the state.
“They are everywhere,” said a seasoned IPS officer to The News Minute in May 2016, seven months before Jayalalithaa’s demise, “very manipulative, and try to manage everything. Their men are everywhere from Jaya TV to ministers’ offices, and have stooges in police and IAS top to bottom…And they don’t leave out anything, even the cycle-stand contracts in bus-stands are taken in by them.”
Accusations such as “extra-constitutional authority” and “exploitation” were whispered even as the “Mannargudi Mafia”, as Sasikala’s clan came to be known, became synonymous with corruption.
Turbulence, however, returned to their friendship in 2011. Reports of Sasikala conspiring against Jayalalithaa reached the Chief Minister’s ears. In a swift move, the AIADMK leader threw out her companion and her relatives from Poes Garden and from the party. A terse statement issued at the time, instructed AIADMK cadres to not have any truck with Sasikala and the others expelled from the party.
But Sasikala was back in Poes Garden within 100 days of her expulsion. A moving letter she had written was beamed on Jaya TV. She stated, “Not even in my wildest dreams, I have thought of betraying 'akka'. For 24 years, I have been living under the same roof. I have no ambitions either in the party or in the government. I have always devoted my life to 'akka' and the rest of my life will be to serve her.”
Sasikala did keep her promise, remaining with Jayalalithaa all through her 75-day hospitalisation until her death. She soon emerged from the shadows to claim her leader’s legacy.
On December 29, 2016, more than three weeks after Jayalalithaa’s death, Sasikala was appointed as AIADMK General Secretary. In her maiden speech at the party headquarters, Sasikala invoked her best friend’s name multiple times. But it wasn’t just Jayalalithaa’s name that Sasikala was drawing attention to. From sporting the same pottu that the late CM wore to emulating Jayalalithaa’s hairstyle of a low bun wrapped in a black hairnet, Sasikala’s image makeover appeared a conscious effort to look the part of Jaylalithaa’s successor.
But a storm was brewing. Public anger was mounting - questions were raised over Jayalalithaa’s hospitalisation and eventual demise, voices were growing louder over her swearing-in as Chief Minister. And then, on February 7, 2017 then caretaker Chief Minister O Panneerselvam, considered a Jayalalithaa loyalist, launched his rebellion against Sasikala. It marked the beginning of the factional feud that the AIADMK would be gripped by for months to come. It was also the beginning of Sasikala’s downfall. A week later, the Supreme Court upheld the trial court’s judgment in the disproportionate assets case, convicting Sasikala and her two relatives to four years imprisonment.
On February 8, Sasikala returned to Tamil Nadu after being released from prison. However, the party that she had hoped to return to, is no longer the same. Edappadi Palaniswami, who was handpicked by Sasikala to lead the government, turned on her to keep the sinking AIADMK ship afloat. He brokered a peace with O Panneerselvam and merged the two party factions in August 2017. The final blow was fulfilling the condition for the merger - expelling Sasikala and her nephew TTV Dhinakaran, who was entrusted to lead the AIADMK in her absence.
At the age of 66 today, she is forced to forego any electoral ambitions being barred from contesting polls for six years, having been convicted under the Prevention of Corruption Act. Bereft of party, power and a best friend, Sasikala now returns to the shadows once more. However, this is politics, and not even retirement needs to be permanent.
This piece was originally published in February 2017, and has been updated.