If there was any proof needed that politics in Tamil Nadu is both Shakesparean and Kollywoodish, rewind to the footage at Rajaji Hall where J. Jayalalithaa's body was kept for people to pay their last respects. There, in full public glare, played out a chilling scene before the final act. People who had been banished by Jayalalithaa when she was alive, emerged out of the shadows to claim their position under the sun.
Move over, Rajinikanth. Tamil Nadu politics post Jayalalithaa is the real 2.0.
For the better part of Tuesday, AIADMK cadre watched how Sasikala's family members had occupied every inch around Jayalalithaa's body. The elected representatives, including chief minister O Panneerselvam, were seated on the steps below. A new order had emerged in Tamil Nadu's political theatre.
Because the man who had been thrown out of Jayalalithaa's Poes Garden home was back. M. Natarajan, Sasikala's estranged husband. A former public relations officer in the government, he has been arrested in the past on land grabbing charges. Jayalalithaa had reportedly asked Sasikala to choose between her and Natarajan. Chinnamma, as Sasikala is referred to, chose Amma.
But death is a finality and life moves on. Hence Natarajan returns, with relationship status changed. QED.
Right from the time that Jayalalithaa was hospitalised on 22 September, speculation was rife in Chennai that Natarajan, who was persona non grata for anyone in the AIADMK so long as Jayalalithaa was hale and hearty, was making his moves. Not many bought that, arguing Sasikala would not take such a chance knowing Jayalalithaa wouldn't approve.
The 2012 apology letter was cited as proof. In December 2011, Sasikala was thrown out of Poes Gardens by Jayalalithaa for keeping in touch with her family members. The chief minister was believed to have had information that they were working against her. But in March 2012, Sasikala's bags and baggages were back in Jayalalithaa's residence after writing an emotional letter. In the letter, she wrote :
"Only after coming out of Poes Garden, I became aware of the machinations of my relatives who have misused my proximity and brought disrepute to Akka (elder sister) and the party. I have no role whatsoever in that. Hereafter, any relative, whosoever it might be, who had conspired against Akka, will remain a persona non grata for me as well.''
Four years after that letter, Sasikala is back with all the "persona non grata''. Jayalalithaa had openly told her party men not to have any truck with Natarajan but here he was, publicly pulling the strings within less than 24 hours of her demise.
On Monday afternoon, when I went inside Apollo Hospitals in Chennai, the ground floor was teeming with MLAs. Each one of them, I learnt were being called one by one, to the second floor where Sasikala and other ministers were sitting. The grapevine suggested that this was to get the legislators to endorse Panneerselvam as the next chief minister. Which means more than ten hours before Apollo Hospitals officially declared it was all over, the AIADMK was preparing to move on.
But then two and two do not add up. Why would Sasikala go out of her way to facilitate a third innings for Panneerselvam? Tamil Nadu's finance minister is neither known to be on good terms with Sasikala, nor has support of all MLAs. Were the MLAs coerced in any way to back Panneerselvam? Who were the people who decided it will be Panneerselvam? Was there a non-AIADMK factor that played a part in the decision? What is the deal that has been worked out between Panneerselvam and Sasikala?
Natarajan, even though kept out of the AIADMK, is known to be an astute networker. At Rajaji Hall, he was introduced to Prime Minister Narendra Modi by BJP leaders, a sight noticed by all those who understand Tamil Nadu politics. Other BJP leaders were also seen moving closely with Natarajan. So is Sasikala's husband now the link between the AIADMK and the BJP? If true, that is an interesting development because there was talk of the Sasikala camp making overtures to the Congress, resulting in the sudden visit of Rahul Gandhi to Apollo Hospitals in September. One of Sasikala's brothers, Dhivakaran, is also an active member of Team Sasikala.
During Jayalalithaa's time, Sasikala gained importance because of her proximity to the AIADMK chief. Jaya had decentralised most of the responsibilities in the Poes Garden household to Sasikala and since that was the seat of power, Sasikala's influence extended to the party and even over parts of the establishment, unofficially.
But then Sasikala is no Jayalalithaa. Would the party, including Panneerselvam, be comfortable with Chinnamma breaking a promise she made to Amma? Will they choose to work with a man who Amma despised?
In an interview to a Tamil news channel after the final rites, Natarajan said 'we' will take forward the legacy of MGR and Jayalalithaa. The 'we' presumably refers to Sasikala, himself and everyone else in the party. Politically correct but the fact that he has emerged as one of the leadership voices of the AIADMK, would make Jayalalithaa turn in her grave.