Behind J. Jayalalithaa's towering legacy, lurks the shadow of another powerful woman, her companion and bittersweet friend for many years, Sasikala Natarajan.
To the late chief minister of Tamil Nadu, Natarajan was not only an important ally but also "udanpiravaa sagodhari" -- sister not related through blood. Their relationship, though fraught with periods of rancour and feud, was mostly affectionate, though underlying Natarajan's constancy, many sensed manipulation and self-serving agendas.
Natarajan, for her part, demonstrated tireless solidarity and allegiance to Jayalalithaa -- she even went to jail with her when the latter was arrested in 1996 for the colour TV scam -- and was her pillar of support in the male-dominated world of Tamil politics. They often operated hand in hand, such as in the Tansi land scam, in which they were allegedly involved.
The two met through Natarajan's husband G Natarajan, who had been hired by IAS officer VS Chandralekha, Tamil Nadu's first-ever woman collector, as her public relations officer. In a few months, thanks to a chain of special favours to her husband, who had promoted Chandralekha's work with great success, Sasikala had found her way into the good books of the future chief minister (who was then propaganda secretary to MG Ramachandran, popularly known as MGR).
Soon, the Natarajan family began to gain a foothold over Jayalalithaa's life, more so after MGR fell ill. As the Mannargudi Mafia, named after the village Sasikala and her kin came from, became more powerful, a host of rumours about their misdeeds began to fly thick and fast. Their hand in irregular land and property acquisitions was suspected.
But Sasikala continued to crawl her way into Jayalalithaa's heart, who adopted her nephew as a foster son and spent an unseemly amount of wealth on his wedding in 1995, drawing much criticism from the public. At the ceremony, Jayalalithaa and Sasikala were photographed dressed almost like twins, in golden-orange saris and decked in diamonds. The wedding itself consisted of ten dining halls that could hold 25,000 people.
Shortly afterward, when AIADMK lost the assembly elections in 1996 and the incoming Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) government arrested Sasikala for violating the Foreign Exchange Regulation Act (FERA), Jayalalithaa distanced herself from the Natarajans. But the two were back being friends within months.
This wavering between alliance and enmity would mark the course of the relationship between the two women for years, leading to the grand finale in 2011, when Jayalalithaa expelled Natrajan and a dozen of her family members from the primary membership of the AIADMK, fearing they were plotting against her life. Natarajan's namesake Sasikala Pushpa accused the clan of hatching a "conspiracy" and "foul play". But, yet again, in a few months time, Natarajan was back with her Akka (sister) after publicly distancing herself from her own family.
With her protector gone now, Natarajan now stands at a crossroads, where her future will be determined by the reaction of the supporters of AIADMK. If they embrace her as their beloved Amma's soul sister, she has a chance of playing a major de facto role in the ruling of the state, influencing the new chief minister, O. Panneerselvam. On the other hand, if she is rejected by the support base of the party, the way ahead for Natarajan will get rougher.
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