It is the first time a party that had its origins in E V Ramaswamy Naicker’s Dravida Kazhagam has had a leader with no popular support and no charisma.
Since the death of sitting Chief Minister Jayalalithaa on December 5, the projection of Sasikala Natarajan as “Chinamma”, the natural successor to “Amma”, has drawn grimaces at best from the public. The more expressive of Jayalalithaa’s supporters went around tearing Sasikala’s face off posters featuring the two friends.
There is reason for the public’s negative reaction.
Sasikala has been blamed for most things that have gone wrong during Jayalalithaa’s administration, and has not been credited for anything that has gone right.
The dislike for Sasikala and her “influence” on Jayalalithaa began in 1995, when Jayalalithaa funded a dizzyingly exorbitant wedding for her foster son Sudhakaran. Sudhakaran is Sasikala’s nephew, and that did not help the public’s opinion of Sasikala.
For decades now, Sasikala has been accused by Jayalalithaa’s family members of isolating her from them.
The disproportionate assets case, which saw Jayalalithaa go to prison in 2014, haunted Jayalalithaa for most of her political career. It was the one black mark that rivals could use against her, and her only defence was denial. Sasikala is the co-accused in the case.
Most damning, however, is her temporary expulsion from the AIADMK by Jayalalithaa in December 2011. The announcement in which Jayalalithaa, then a few months into her penultimate term as Chief Minister, confirmed the expulsion was cryptic, devoid of details. It only said Sasikala had been expelled along with 18 other members of her family (popularly known as the “Mannargudi clan”) with immediate effect. She was even ordered out of the Poes Garden home which she managed for Jayalalithaa. Sasikala’s exit was celebrated by the AIADMK cadre, complete with the distribution of sweets.
In the absence of facts, theories began to crop up, and one of the popular ones on blogs was that Sasikala’s family had been poisoning Jayalalithaa.
During Jayalalithaa’s long hospitalisation, and again in the absence of facts and even updates about the Chief Minister’s health, whispers about foul play began.
In the days following Jayalalithaa’s death, and even now, one of the first suggestions offered by Google Search for “Sasikala” is “Sasikala killed Jayalalithaa”.
The prominent role not just Sasikala, but her entire family, played in Jayalalithaa’s funeral and last rites did not go down well with the public.
When Sasikala had been expelled, she had been kept away from Poes Garden for several months. Her re-acceptance into the fold, in February 2012, was conditional. Sasikala reportedly wrote in a letter to Jayalalithaa, which subsequently found its way to the press, that she would cut off her entire family, including her husband; she added that the Mannargudi clan had manipulated her and clouded her mind, and that her friend meant more to her than any of them.
But these “manipulators” were back in the power circles, literally before Jayalalithaa’s body was cold.
In the weeks leading up to her assumption of the post of the party’s General Secretary, Sasikala held meetings with senior party functionaries behind closed doors. Finally, on the final day of 2016, Sasikala made her first political speech. Never interviewed in her life and only seen on podiums as part of Jayalalithaa’s entourage, Sasikala had not addressed the public before. And it showed.
Her lacklustre speech and bumbling pronunciation made for a stark contrast to Jayalalithaa’s confident oratory and flawless diction. She consulted notes throughout the speech she delivered in a monotone. She reiterated her closeness to Jayalalithaa and their fondness for each other; she made a case for how much she had been affected by Jayalalithaa’s death and wept copiously, using a handkerchief even before the tears came to her eyes. Jayalalithaa had always remained stoic in public, even while speaking about the worst experiences of her life. Sasikala tried to place herself in a succession of luminaries who had led the AIADMK – a clear indication that she intends to make a bid for the chief ministership of the state.
But if she had looked up from her notes often enough, she would have seen the bored faces of most party functionaries and sensed that the outbreaks of applause were obligatory and not heartfelt. She would have seen them stifling yawns. She would have seen that her audience only perked up when her speech meandered towards its end.
That it is a bad idea for Sasikala to make herself the face of the party ought to have been clear from the absence of supporters outside Poes Garden. A little before and after noon, amidst heavy police presence, the roads were packed with party workers in spotless white dhotis and shirts – not with the public.
Can a leader with no popular support hope to survive? Would it not have been a better idea for her to remain behind the scenes? It is widely known that she and current Chief Minister O Panneerselvam have their differences. With no unity at the top, can the party retain its numbers in the Assembly?
Having just eased past the DMK-led coalition that is the current opposition in the 2016 elections, the party will need all its MLAs to stay on board.
Anything that precipitates a shift in loyalties could be the death knell for the AIADMK.
It remains to be seen whether Sasikala’s election as General Secretary could provoke that shift.
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