People

High school dropout turned party maestro

Ms Sasikala taking office as party general secretary at the AIADMK heaquarters in Chennai in December.
Ms Sasikala taking office as party general secretary at the AIADMK heaquarters in Chennai in December.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

The Indian state of Tamil Nadu has been undergoing a political crisis since its popular chief minister J. Jayalalithaa died two months ago. V.K. Sasikala, once her constant companion, and O. Panneerselvam, a frequent stand-in for the late leader, are battling to become the next state chief. Sasikala has little political or administrative experience, but has the support of most legislators; Panneerselvam, who has experience on both fronts, is fighting back and winning over voters every day. India Bureau Chief Nirmala Ganapathy reports.

V.K. Sasikala

Soul sister pitted against loyalist

The woman who looked set to be the state's next chief minister before a surprise challenge from within her own party is a high school dropout from a lower middle-class family.

Ms V.K. Sasikala, 61, whose father ran a medical shop, hails from the Thevar community dominant in southern and central Tamil Nadu. She grew up in  Mannargudi town, where many families have relatives working in Singapore. 

At 16, she married Mr M. Natarajan, a public relations officer in the state government. Initially a housewife, she opened a video rental shop after her family ran into financial problems.

In 1982, she was introduced to Ms Jayalalithaa, nine years her senior. The actress-turned-politician joined the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) party that year and was propaganda secretary. Ms Sasikala, who had branched out into video recording, started taping Ms Jayalalithaa's public meetings.  

They became inseparable friends - Ms Sasikala and her husband moved in with Ms Jayalalithaa at Poes Garden in Chennai in the late 1980s. Ms Sasikala stayed there for the most part of the past 31/2 decades, even after her husband was evicted in 1990 by Ms Jayalalithaa, who is said to have disliked him.

 

Ms Sasikala is said to have provided emotional support while Ms Jayalalithaa fought through - and won - a tough succession battle after her mentor and party founder M.G. Ramachandran died in 1987.

 Ms Jayalalithaa, an intensely private politician who remained a spinster, called Ms Sasikala "a soul sister not related by blood", amid heavy speculation about the relationship. 

"I cannot express through words how it is to be without her after 33 years," Ms Sasikala told party members in December after her friend's death. "I have spent my life looking after Amma (mother). For the last 33 years,  I was with her only."

Their relationship was not without controversy. In 1995, Ms Jayalalithaa, who had adopted Ms Sasikala's nephew V.N. Sudhakaran as her foster son, threw a lavish wedding  for him. Excesses such as the use of 11 banquet halls and invitations sent with silver platters and silk saris sparked criticism that would haunt Ms Jayalalithaa for the rest of her political career.  One immediate result was that she lost the 1996 state assembly elections. 

In 2011, Ms Jayalalithaa expelled Ms Sasikala, her husband and 12 other members of her family from the party, reportedly because of the family's interference in administrative and party matters.

A year later, Ms Jayalalithaa welcomed Ms Sasikala back on the understanding that she would disown her relatives. Her husband and others have all returned since Ms Jayalalithaa's death. 

Called Chinnamma, or mother's smaller sister, Ms Sasikala has moved to tighten her grip on the party even though she has never fought an election. She was this month announced as head of the AIADMK legislature party and chief minister of Tamil Nadu. 

But her path to power might be blocked not just by party rival O. Panneerselvam, but also by a corruption case dating back to 1996.

Following a conviction in this case involving unaccounted wealth of 660.5 million rupees (S$14 million), she and Ms Jayalalithaa were jailed briefly in 2014. They were acquitted by the high court, but the case is now in the Supreme Court, with a hearing expected this week.

If convicted, Ms Sasikala will not be able to hold a government post. And even if she becomes chief minister, she will have to win elections within six months. 

Observers are not too sanguine about her prospects. 

"She does not have public support. She is not a liked figure in Tamil Nadu," said Chennai-based commentator Badri Seshadri.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 13, 2017, with the headline 'High school dropout turned party maestro'. Print Edition | Subscribe