Sasikala Natarajan has been appointed as the general secretary of India’s regional AIADMK party, replacing J Jayalalitha, who died in December after a prolonged illness. BBC Tamil’s Thirumalai Manivannan profiles Sasikala’s political journey in the southern state of Tamil Nadu.
From a homemaker to becoming a trusted friend of the most powerful woman in Tamil Nadu politics, it has been a long and dramatic journey for Sasikala.
For close to three decades, Sasikala, known as “Chinnamma” (younger mother) to her supporters, has been an almost permanent fixture in Jayalalitha’s life, often seen with the former chief minister on public platforms.
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Never given any formal role by Jayalalitha in the party or the state government, Sasikala’s identity remained as her aide and confidante.
But her proximity to power allowed her and her extended family to wield huge influence in the party and the government.
Jayalalitha’s death has now given Sasikala an opportunity she never had.
She has now been tasked to lead the AIADMK, the party which has ruled the southern state for nearly 25 out of the last 40 years.
Her transformation from an aide of Jayalalitha to her political successor is remarkable.
Sasikala was born into a middle-class family and spent her early years in Thanjavur district. She married M Natarajan, who worked as a public relations officer in the state government.
When he lost his job during during the 1975 Emergency, Sasikala started a video rental business to support her family. She was reportedly introduced to Jayalalitha by a civil servant.
Sasikala started visiting Poes Garden, Jayalalitha’s residence, to provide video cassettes to her. This customer-consumer relationship soon blossomed into a strong friendship.
She moved into Jayalaltiha’s home in the late 1980s, at a time when she was fighting a political battle to wrest full control of the AIADMK after the death of her mentor and the party’s founder M G Ramachandran.
Her influence over Jayalalitha increased during her first term as chief minister between 1991 and 1996, and she became a permanent resident in the leader’s house.
Sasikala’s friendship with Jayalalitha gave her and her family members, including her husband, incredible access in the government.
They were often accused of misusing their proximity to the AIDMK leader, an allegation they always denied.
Jayalalitha also dismissed any criticism of her association with Sasikala, saying she was her “soul sister”.
Their friendship deepened when Jayalalitha adopted Sasikala’s nephew VN Sudhakaran as her “foster son”.
Mr Sudhakaran’s wedding to the grand-daughter of Tamil cinema legend Sivaji Ganesan in 1995 made national headlines.
The event, billed as the “mother of all weddings”, became a spectacular public relations disaster for Jayalaltiha. She was accused of using government resources for the grand wedding.
Analysts say that Jayalalitha paid a heavy political price for this, and lost the 1996 assembly elections, including her own seat.
Sasikala’s influence over Jayalalitha also became the source of intense media speculation and tabloid gossip.
They also faced corruption charges. A Karnataka high court order in 2015, which cleared them of involvement in a corruption scandal, paved the way for Jayalalitha’s return to power after a setback in September 2014 when a trial court found them guilty of corruption.
India’s Supreme Court has heard an appeal in the same case, and has reserved its verdict.
Amid her legal troubles, Jayalalitha increasingly distanced herself from Sasikala’s family, and banished all of them from her house.
Whatever the reasons behind their friendship, Sasikala’s proximity to Jayalalitha also gained a political and social dimension in Tamil Nadu.
Sasikala belongs to the backward Mukkulathor community, which has a dominating presence in southern and some central districts of the state.
With Sasikala apparently calling the shots behind the scenes in the AIADMK, the influence of the Mukkulathor community increased within the party structure.
The Mukkulathor community, which has often had a hostile relationship with the Dalit (formerly Untouchable) community in southern districts, saw Sakikala as someone who could defend their interests.
But caste calculations aside, Sasikala’s political and administrative acumen is still largely unknown.
While her supporters claim that having donned the role of Jayalalitha’s “political adviser” for many years, Sasikala is experienced in handling sensitive party matters. But her critics say that she is yet to prove herself, and the corruption case she faces may become an obstacle in her path.