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Sasikala learnt from Jayalalithaa the art of making comebacks. In retreat lies her politics

Sasikala is no stranger to highs and lows. Just when you thought she would fade away into oblivion, she makes a comeback.

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With her announcement to quit politics, V.K. Sasikala, the former close aide of J. Jayalalithaa, has shocked all political stakeholders in poll-bound Tamil Nadu. The current exit, that has come out of her own will, is as dramatic as her previous one — on her way to surrender before a Bengaluru court four years ago, then AIADMK general secretary had stopped at Jayalalithaa’s memorial and hit the grave three times while offering prayers. Her supporters claimed it was her vow to fight the ‘injustice’ meted out to her. So, when she returned to Chennai two months ago after having served her sentence in a disproportionate assets case, she left many worried, especially the two men currently in charge in Tamil Nadu.

Is Sasikala’s retirement a tactical retreat to consolidate later? Or is this the end of the public gaze on one of the most enigmatic figures in Tamil Nadu politics? The questions are many but the answers will reveal only with time. This is why V.K. Sasikala Natrajan is ThePrint’s Newsmaker of the Week.

Also read: Ahead of Tamil Nadu polls, Sasikala says Jayalalithaa’s ‘true followers’ should unite

In exit, Chinamma invokes Amma

In a carefully worded statement, Sasikala said, “I have never desired for power or any position. I remained a sister of Amma (Jayalalithaa) even after her demise. Now, I will pray to the almighty as well as Amma, whom I deem as God, for the establishment of Amma’s government.”

Sasikala’s announcement of “staying away from politics” while “praying for the return of the golden rule of Amma (Jayalaithaa)” has surprised all, including leaders of her parent party, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and her nephew T. T. V. Dhinakaran, who heads the breakaway faction Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam (AMMK). At first glance, this looks like political surrender. But look closely and you will see an attempt to take a moral high ground and become politically untouchable — what her mentor had become, at least on one side of the political spectrum.

Sasikala has always maintained that “Amma’s golden rule” — where ‘people have voted Jayalalithaa back on numerous occasions because she represented their voice’ — should return. She may have harboured her ambitions of returning with ‘Amma’s rule’ where she could call the shots, but the courts had different plans for her. Her hope of being the unchallenged heir to Jayalalithaa’s legacy was dashed. But she is no stranger to highs and lows. Just when you thought she would fade away into oblivion, she makes a comeback. That’s why it is hard to write her off, even when she herself is announcing her retirement.

Also read: What makes Tamil Nadu CM Palaniswami and deputy CM Panneerselvam eat out of Amit Shah’s hand

But Tamil Nadu’s pitch has changed

In four years, the political arena in Tamil Nadu has changed drastically. Chief Minister Edappadi Palanisamy has strengthened his control over the AIADMK and managed to keep the party together even if it means reining in little mutinies. He has also managed to strike a compromise with his deputy O Panneerselvam.

Although Chinamma, as Sasikala is called by her followers, can’t contest polls till 2027, judging her impact on Tamil Nadu politics purely on the basis of her electoral participation will be naivety. Many say that this is no end to Sasikala’s political career, rather it’s a calculated strike. There is nothing that stops Sasikala from re-entering politics after the assembly election.

Stepping aside may just be a temporary act. It has its potential benefits. If the AIADMK loses the election, Sasikala need not share the blame, and a loss could lead to a split in the party. That may pave the way for her return. If the AIADMK-BJP alliance wins, then Sasikala may use her self-imposed exile and wait for an opportune moment to return to the party.

Also read: Alagiri to Dinakaran, all the pieces of Tamil Nadu puzzle are falling in place to suit BJP

Jaya’s pillar of strength 

Sasikala had been the pillar of strength for Jayalaithaa through her good times and bad, being a friend and emotional support for the former chief minister. She stood by the AIADMK leader when MGR was critically ill. It was Sasikala who helped Jayalaithaa through her tough times, particularly during her succession battle when a faction of AIDMK leaders had opposed her leadership. Despite Jayalalithaa’s credentials, it was V.N. Janaki, MGR’s wife, who was elected Tamil Nadu’s chief minister. It was what Sasikala did to protect Jayalalithaa that forged the strongest relationship between the two women.

In 1987, soon after MGR’s death, Jayalalithaa was publicly insulted by Janaki and a section of the AIADMK cadre when she tried to get into the vehicle carrying the leader’s mortal remains. That’s when she decided to take back the power she deserved and went on to become the chief minister of Tamil Nadu six times. When Sasikala shifted to the former chief minister’s Poes Garden residence, her indispensability for Jayalalithaa did not remain the subject of speculation.

Also read: BJP needs more than Khushbu Sundar to open account in Tamil Nadu. Star politics is over

Jaya’s safety kavach and the Mannargudi Mafia

The saga of friendship between Sasikala and Jayalalithaa began in the early 1980s when the former landed at the AIADMK leader’s office with a proposal to shoot a propaganda video for Jayalalithaa (who was then the AIADMK’s propaganda secretary). At the time, Sasikala was running a video rental business ‘Vinod Video Centre’ out of Chennai’s Alwarpet area and her husband M. Natarajan, whom she had married in 1973, worked in the Public Relations Department in the state government and had access to the political bigwigs.

Several meetings later, the two women struck a chord that resulted in their life-long association.

In or out of power, Sasikala provided support to Jayalalaithaa — gathering the support of her family and relatives from Mannargudi to protect her mentor from her detractors.

“It was as if Sasikala provided a safety kavach to Jaya to keep her safe. Just like the bulletproof vest that Jaya wore later in her life,” explained a senior AIADMK leader who had worked closely with both Jayalalithaa and Sasikala. Team Sasikala, ‘protector of Jayalalitha’, projected the former chief minister as a ‘victim of injustice’. And with her eloquent speeches, commanding personality and charm, Jayalalithaa won the hearts of the common people.

In 1990, when Jayalalithaa asked Natarajan to leave Poes Garden due to difference of opinions, Sasikala decided to stay back. She was seen walking behind her leader on every occasion.

“Meanwhile she (Sasikala) began placing her trusted people in various influential positions, be it in the government or the private television channels owned by Jayalalithaa. She had her people placed strategically, be it in the police department, IAS officers, media houses, etc. Nobody could reach out to Jayalalithaa without Sasikala knowing about it,” said a former AMMK leader who recently left the party.

Also read: Sasikala’s AIADMK entry looks tough but corruption never stopped Jayalalithaa from comebacks

Sasikala’s influence

In Jayalalithaa’s company, Sasikala weathered many storms. And she continued to keep her grip on power by keeping her hold over Jayalalithaa. Sasikala managed to remain in Jayalalithaa’s good books despite the former chief minister reportedly being aware of the Mannargudi gang’s misdeeds and their alleged involvement in the misappropriation of assets.

Sasikala is also known to have impressed upon Jayalalithaa to withdraw support to the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led NDA government. It is said that Sasikala, on realising that she was being ignored by the BJP, had arranged a meeting between Jayalalithaa and Sonia Gandhi in 1999. Stepping out of the meeting, Jayalalithaa announced she was withdrawing support to the NDA. The Vajpayee government lost the no-confidence motion by one vote.

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  1. The cult of personality reigns supreme in this “democracy”, where almost all political parties, save perhaps the CPI’s and BJP, are nothing but family-owned and operated enterprises, which segues neatly with India’s almost-intact feudal system, albeit with the trappings of modernity.

  2. It’s simple, she was forced to stay away or be a part of AIADMK alliance. It’s a order from Chanakye cum HM. For Sadika it’s Kamal Haasan moment where the corruptjailer threatens him to be part of police extortion inside the Jail road in the block Tamil Film Mahanadi. She knows if she challenges the alliance, she would be sent back to the place from where she was released.

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