Sasikala Natarajan, who was unanimously appointed the interim general secretary of the AIADMK on Thursday, was for thirty years defined by her association with Jayalalithaa.
Supporters call her a friend, detractors a shadow, and the late chief minister, in an uncharacteristically open statement, a “surrogate sister”.
The mystery surrounding her — exacerbated by her refusal to speak to media — has only furthered speculations against her and her family, who have been derided by critics as the “Mannargudi mafia” because of their influence on Jayalalithaa.
Born in 1957 to a farmer couple, Vivekanandam and Krishnaveni, Sasikala belongs to the influential Kallar community—a sub-caste of the powerful Thevars.
In 1973, she married M Natarajan, then a government employee and a DMK member. Party patriarch Karunanidhi presided over their wedding, attesting to the goodwill Natarajan had with the Dravidian leader.
During the Emergency, when her husband was fired and to make ends meet, Sasikala started a video rental shop in Chennai.
This fledgling business, boosted and marketed by a newly employed Natarajan, caught the attention of Jayalalithaa, an actress-turned-propaganda secretary of the ADMK, who used it to propagate visuals of party chief MG Ramachandran (MGR).
A bond between Jayalalithaa and Sasikala that took birth then, grew as the husband and wife stood by the former through the party’ split following MGR’s death in 1987.
Although Jayalalithaa kicked out Natarajan from her Poes Garden residence in the early 1990s for allegedly conspiring against her, she kept Sasikala by her side. She then went on to adopt Sasikala’s nephew, Sudhakaran, for whom she threw a lavish wedding in 1995. The garish and ostentatious display of wealth led to her defeat in the 1996 polls and subsequent separation from Sasikala.
But Sasikala, who was jailed for 10 months in other corruption cases, was welcomed back to the fold with open arms by Jayalalithaa on her release.
The AIADMK chief then began creating an image of herself as “Amma”: Mother to millions of her supporters and voters, inculcating a sycophantic leadership cult just as her predecessor, MGR.
Sasikala and family, meanwhile, began wielding influence and became synonymous with corruption in the state.
In 2011, Jayalalithaa again expelled Sasikala and her family from the party for allegedly conspiring against her. But, within hundred days, Sasikala – having denounced her family – was back at Poes Garden.
In a public apology, she pledged her life to the chief minister. “I have no ambitions either in the party or in the government. I have always devoted my life to ‘akka’ (elder sister).”
Five years later, after Jayalalithaa’s demise, Sasikala has been crowned AIADMK chief. Her family, long out of the picture, is now back.