07/02/2017 1:52 PM IST | Updated 07/02/2017 1:52 PM IST

The Real Problem With Sasikala Claiming Jayalalithaa's Mantle Has Little To Do With Her Credentials

The discomfort lies elsewhere.

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We can say it's about the disproportionate assets court case hanging over her head. We can claim it's about the fact that she's never held elected office or even a party post. We can say it's because she's just been a shadowy power broker, one who was expelled by Jayalalithaa more than once. We can worry about the checkered retinue of family and friends that comes in her wake. We can contest her credentials for the job.

But the real problem with VK Sasikala, the Chinnamma who would be Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, is that we do not know what to call the relationship based on which she is claiming Jayalalithaa's mantle. That's the point where we get stuck. That's the source of our real discomfort.

When Lalu Prasad Yadav went to jail and Rabri Devi was installed in the gaddi, there was a lot of tongue-clicking and eye-rolling. But everyone understood the deal. This was the wife keeping the seat warm for the husband. "Rabri Devi was also pulled out of her kitchen to occupy the CM's post. All through her tenure it was Lalu who was controlling the administration," says political analyst Ravinthran Thoraisami.

Sasikala, to her credit, is no Rabri Devi. She has pretty much pulled off a coup of sorts, taking control of the party on her own. She is clearly nobody's gungi gudiya, as the Congress syndicate had once hoped Indira Gandhi would be. Without the protection of Jayalalithaa, Sasikala could have been out in the cold but she has bent the party to her will.

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When MG Ramachandran died, the AIADMK hastily propped up his widow Janaki, again a figure who had not been in active politics. That experiment lasted all of 24 days. That was also to ensure that the other woman in the story, MGR's protégé, Jayalalithaa was left out in the cold. Famously, she was even pushed off the cortege bearing MGR's body. But she grimly dug in her heels and planted herself next to his body when it lay in state and established her right to the chair. It was high melodrama but we understood the triangular fight taking place, Janaki vs Jayalalithaa jousting for the legacy of the man who had loomed so large in both their lives. It was a familiar television soap opera script.

If Jayalalithaa had a shadowy behind-the-scenes husband who was suddenly being pushed forward to claim the mantle, we might have tut-tutted and shaken our heads. But we would not have been surprised. We understand the claims of spouses, mistresses and even illegitimate sons (ND Tiwari's recently acknowledged son is apparently shepherding his flirtation with the BJP). Our democracy is strewn with examples of this kind of passing of the baton up, down and sideways in the family tree. Even Rajiv Gandhi had hardly any experience before he was catapulted to the prime minister's post after his mother's assassination, bypassing every senior and seasoned minister in that cabinet. And the country resoundingly voted him and his party into power in the next election in a great sympathy wave.

Our democracy is strewn with examples of this kind of passing of the baton up, down and sideways in the family tree

Sasikala does not get the advantage of a sympathy wave because we do not know how to even describe that up-and-down relationship between her and Jayalalithaa. The media calls that relationship by many names. Friend. Confidante. Close aide. Bosom buddy. Chinnamma — younger mother. Trusted lieutenant. Permanent fixture in Jayalalithaa's life. Soul sister. Constant companion whether at home in Poes Garden or on holiday in a Nilgiris tea estate. A person from Ms Jayalalithaa's "household" was how the DMK's MK Stalin seemed to archly refer to her. "The woman she has lived with on and off for a decade" wrote the New York Times in 1998, obviously struggling to define the relationship in any conventional terms. Jayalalithaa called her "udanpirava sagodhari — sister not related by blood". She told Simi Garewal, "When Mr MGR was alive, I could never dream of getting carried away. He was always there to give me a knock on the head and bring me down to earth. Now, in my case, Mrs Sasikala does that. I can always depend upon her to tell me the truth as it is."

Reuters Photographer / Reuters
Jayaram Jayalalitha (C), leader AIADMK, arrives with her companion Sasikala Natarajan (L) in Madras, May 10, 2001.

None of these terms can capture the tempestuousness of the decades-long relationship between the woman who ran a video cassette rental business and the politician. "The customer-consumer relationship soon blossomed into a strong friendship," writes the BBC somewhat coyly. The Sunday Guardian, too, follows suit when it writes that "the relationship between Jayalalithaa and Sasikala blossomed into a beautiful friendship."

But that "beautiful friendship" came with so much tearful public drama that would strain the limits of any ordinary friendship. There was the "mother of all weddings" for the foster-son where Sasikala and Jayalalithaa dressed like twins in matching gaudy orange-gold saris and diamonds. There was Jayalalithaa garlanding Sasikala as part of her 60th birthday celebrations at a temple. There were the expulsions and then the return of the prodigal friend. There was Sasikala's vow to sever ties with her relatives and serve without nursing ambitions for public office. There was the disavowal of Sasikala's husband who was very much back on the scene as a mourner-in-chief when Jayalalithaa died, accepting the condolences of the prime minister himself.

All of this happened in public. None of this drama seemed to affect Jayalalithaa's political standing and consolidation of power. When Murasoli Maran cast aspersions on the relationship, Jayalalithaa slapped a defamation case against him.

That 'beautiful friendship' came with so much tearful public drama that would strain the limits of any ordinary friendship

But none of the terms used to describe the relationship offer a familiar and recognised path by which to claim inheritance of a political legacy. This is a relationship that should have stayed discreetly in the background. It should have never had the guts to claim inheritance in the public sphere. That Sasikala has managed to almost wrest that, at least from the party, is actually something quite astounding.

This does not mean she gets the people's vote. P Chidambaram correctly says, "It is the right of the AIADMK MLAs to elect their leader. It is the right of the people to ask if the leader deserves to be CM." In the end, the murky details of disproportionate assets court cases and the unsavoury reputations of many around her might derail Sasikala's ambitions. As rap artist Sofia Ashraf, famous for her viral song "Kodaikanal Won't", bluntly tells Sasikala in her new song, "My vote is not for you."

That might well prove to be true. But that Sasikala has come this close to the prize is an incredible story of Indian politics.

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