The AIADMK appointed Sasikala Natarajan, a close friend and associate of late Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa for 22 years, as the party’s interim chief on Thursday.
“Just as we saw MGR in the form of Jayalalithaa, so too we see Amma in Sasikala,” said chief minister O Panneerselvam while reading out the resolution.
Natarajan, who has never contested an election, held public office, or indeed, a formal position of leadership within the party, was not present at the meeting.
The party’s 2,770-strong assembly in Vanagaram, Chennai, appointed her as the interim general secretary, the highest position in the party. She will function as general secretary - with the full authority that the post entails - until she is formally elected sometime in January.
AIADMK party bylaws stipulate that eligible candidates must have been a member of the party for at least five years. Natarajan, who was expelled by Jayalalithaa in 2011, rejoined the party in 2012 and hasn’t completed the necessary five-year term.
Party sources say the AIADMK will seek to make an amendment to the bylaws soon – but until then, Natarajan will function as an interim chief.
The decision ended weeks of suspense over the successor to Jayalalithaa but surprised no one.
Barely hours after Jayalalithaa was buried on Marina beach next to the memorial to her political mentor, MG Ramachandran, senior party leaders began projecting Natarajan – or Chinamma as she is called by the party -- as Jayalalithaa’s natural heir.
Natarajan performed Jayalalithaa’s last rites and her relatives were seen keeping a vigil as the former chief minister’s body was laid out for the public to pay their respects.
The past few weeks have seen a flow of officials - from district secretaries, to ministers, to even chief minister O Panneerselvam - visiting Natarajan at her residence in Poes Garden.
Natarajan’s absence also triggered speculation. While AIADMK sources say her absence was to ensure a fair proceeding, experts point out that it could also have been to avoid interacting with cadre – many of whom are opposed to her.
The last few weeks have seen a sharp divide between the leadership of the AIADMK - which has rallied around Natarajan, fervently putting up banners of her across Tamil Nadu - and the cadre, who have vandalised the banners with equal alacrity.
Her election to the top post was opposed by ex-AIADMK MP Sasikala Pushpa, who threatened to also run for general secretary.
The appointment has brought Natarajan - previously a backroom political player - into the forefront. It remains to be seen whether she will try to replace O Panneerselvam as chief minister as many suspect.