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All About Eve... Er, Sasikala

There are fascinating parallels between the Tamil Nadu saga and the 1950 film 'All About Eve'

21/02/2017 1:24 PM IST | Updated 22/02/2017 1:35 PM IST
Reuters Photographer / Reuters

A mixture of the 1950 classic "All About Eve", "The Godfather", and "Macbeth" minus any remorse is now being played out live in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

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The role of the aging Broadway star played by Bette Davis should have gone to the erstwhile movie star and until recently grand dame of Tamilian politics and Chief Minister of the state, Jayalalithaa - only she died in December 2016 under mysterious circumstances. Instead the role of this protagonist has gone to her right-hand man of many years, Panneerselvam. Humble, civil, and quietly competent - if somewhat uncharismatic - he was Jayalalithaa's loyal and trusted colleague. Since joining the AIADMK party as one of its founding members in 1973, he has held a variety of top positions, including chief minister of the state on two occasions when Jayalalithaa was barred from the post by the Supreme Court due to cases against her and she appointed him in her place.

The role of the fawning fan who has ambitions to usurp her idol's place, originally played by Anne Baxter, has been more than ably assumed by Sasikala...

The role of the fawning fan who has ambitions to usurp her idol's place, originally played by Anne Baxter, has been more than ably assumed by Sasikala, Jayalalithaa's personal companion of more than two decades. Living in Jayalalithaa's luxurious home in Poes Garden, Sasikala had time to learn, scheme, and build and consolidate her own power base. She also brought in her family into her dealings and soon they were known as the Mannargudi Mafia (named after her hometown). She acquired substantial informal political clout and a huge personal fortune.

In 2011, Jayalalithaa threw Sasikala and her family out of her home and political party for apparently scheming to depose her. There is also a theory that Sasikala was trying to poison Jayalalithaa and it was then Gujarat Chief Minister and now Prime Minister Narendra Modi who alerted her. Within months, though, after profusely apologising and supposedly disowning the bad elements in her family (including her husband Natarajan), Sasikala was back at Poes Garden—making many wonder what hold she had over Jayalalithaa.

Sycophantic party members didn't call Jayalalithaa by name, but rather Amma, meaning mother. Soon they began calling Sasikala Chinamma or little mother, showing not only a heightened respect but an expected line of succession. However, over the many years of their association, Jayalalithaa tellingly never gave Sasikala an official political post.

On 5 December 2016, Jayalalithaa died, after a long hospitalisation during which no one—apart from Sasikala and her family—was allowed to see her. Not Jayalalithaa's own family, nor her acting Chief Minister Panneerselvam, nor even the state governor. Rumours abound that Jayalalithaa was intentionally being given the wrong medication by Sasikala's doctor while at home and finally pushed down the stairs before being brought to a hospital.

After Jayalalithaa's death, things moved rapidly. With some encouragement from Modi, Panneerselvam was made Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. Within days, Sasikala's brother approached Panneerselvam and insisted that he make Sasikala the general secretary of the party in reward for her many years of service to Amma. Since this idea had the support of many MLAs, Panneerselvam agreed.

Unlike 'All About Eve', where only two people's careers were at stake, here the welfare of an entire state and its 77 million people is in the balance.

A few weeks later, Sasikala called Panneerselvam to her home (i.e., to Jayalalithaa's Poes Garden home which Sasikala and her family were occupying). He arrived to find all the party MLAs gathered and demanding that he resign and offer his post of chief minister to Sasikala. In all this, the party MLAs' unquestioning obedience of Sasikala is inexplicable—unless a Godfather-like mode of persuasion (e.g., "either your brains or your signature will be on the contract"), promises of gold, or both have drawn them amorally to her side.

On 5 February, Panneerselvam submitted a terse letter of resignation to the state governor, saying he was resigning for "personal reasons". On 7 February, deeply disturbed, he came to Jayalalithaa's gravesite at about 9pm, sat down, and meditated for some 40 minutes. In the meantime, hearing of his presence there, the public and press gathered. When he stood up, he spoke to the crowd and revealed that he had been forced to resign by Sasikala and her supporters. Undeterred and in retaliation, on 8 February Sasikala denounced Panneerselvam as a traitor and pressed the governor to quickly swear her in as CM— the governor however maintained a low profile. On 9 February, she barricaded her MLAs in a luxury hotel and took away their cell phones to prevent them from communicating with outsiders or defecting to Panneerselvam.

Unlike the movie All About Eve, where only two people's careers were at stake, here the welfare of an entire state and its 77 million people is in the balance.

The words of Eve in her award acceptance speech before she leaves for greener pastures to Hollywood chillingly suit Sasikala: "Do not think for a moment that I'm leaving you. How could I?"

Over the years, Sasikala and her Mannargudi Mafia have been rumoured to be involved in many instances of coercion and extortion—such as forcing owners of attractive properties to sell for a fraction of the market value, taking expensive jewellery without paying, and demanding bribes on government contracts—not to mention the possible murder of Jayalalithaa. Sasikala had thus far managed to escape all charges, perhaps because of the police and judges she carries in her pocket –as Sollozzo said—"like so many nickels and dimes". But on 15 February, the Supreme Court convicted Jayalalithaa and Sasikala of having disproportionate assets. Since Jayalalithaa is dead, she escaped her punishment, but Sasikala has been sentenced to four years of imprisonment and barred another six years from standing for election.

The drama, however, continues. Since Panneerselvam did not have enough MLA support, another man that Sasikala handpicked has now been made chief minister of the state. While Sasikala may not be physically occupying the coveted post, there is little doubt that she'll be pulling the strings from prison. This constitutes a happy story-line for Sasikala—but for democracy and Tamil Nadu, it's a tragedy. The words of Eve in her award acceptance speech before she leaves for greener pastures to Hollywood chillingly suit Sasikala: "Do not think for a moment that I'm leaving you. How could I?"

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