As lakhs of supporters converged on Rajaji Hall early on Tuesday morning to pay their last respects to Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa who died on Monday night, the view on the stage was a powerful image of the AIADMK's past and perhaps its future. Flanking the body of Jayalalithaa on all sides was the family of Sasikala Natarajan, the controversial figure at the heart of Jayalalithaa's story for the last 40 years.
To the left of the stage was Sasikala herself, occasionally wiping tears. Standing next to her was her nephew Vivek Jayaraman, who is believed to be increasingly in control of the family's business operations, and its cinema ventures in particular. On the right of the stage was Dr Sivakumar, Sasikala's niece's husband, who is widely believed to be in charge of taking health decisions for the late CM and was a key figure during Jayalalithaa's 75-day hospitalisation. Other members of the Sasikala clan were also seen on stage.
The image is important because in the absence of a clear succession plan, party-watchers have been looking for signs about who is holding the party's strings. Sasikala and her family's prominence will not come as a surprise. Hailing from Mannargudi in Tiruvarur district, Sasikala was introduced to Jayalalithaa in the 1970s by her late husband, and became a close aide. A few years after AIADMK founder MGR's death in 1987, Sasikala moved into Jayalalithaa's home in Poes Garden. Sasikala's sister-in-law Ilavarasi, who was a co-accused in the disproportionate assets case against Jayalalithaa, joined her some years later. Sasikala and Ilavarasi's families have steadily expanded their business empires and become a formidable force in the state, particularly in Mannargudi. Barring a 100-day fall-out in 2011-12, Sasikala has been Jayalalithaa's closest confidante. Opposition to her has frequently led to expulsion from the party.
With O. Panneerselvam, the man who is best known for being catapulted into the CM's chair in Jayalalithaa's absence, being made CM again late on Monday night, speculation is rife about a party position being given to Sasikala, or more likely, a leader chosen by her, since she and Panneerselvam are both Thevars (an influential caste grouping in TN politics). Hectic political activity on Monday evening and night had already given some indication that the process of attempting to consolidate the party had begun. Party MLAs signatures were sought on a blank piece of paper and a meeting was first called at 6 pm and then cancelled, as an attempt to herd the flock began. Soon after Apollo Hospitals declared Jayalalithaa dead at 11.30 pm, Panneerselvam was sworn in, yet again.