A common plot of melodrama involves the arrival of the ‘Lost Rightful Heir’, who through his/her sheer royal presence will end family squabbles, defeat the usurper and ascend the throne. In more familiar desi pop culture, the value of lookalikes and a family resemblance is priceless. Much political hay has been made of Priyanka Gandhi’s resemblance to her grandmother or Akhilesh Yadav’s resemblance to his father. A recent essay even argues that what really matters is the nose. This and other familiar plots are still forming and reforming in aftermath of the death of J Jayalalithaa.
On January 17 morning, for instance, Jayalalithaa’s niece Deepa gave a press conference in Chennai to announce her political debut. She said she was considering her choices between joining the AIADMK, her late aunt’s party, and floating a new party. Who is Deepa and why would anyone take this bid even half-seriously? For this we have to go back to her rather fortunate genetic lottery.
On December 6, at the grounds of the Rajaji Hall in Chepauk, Chennai, tens of thousands of people came to pay their last respects to the iconic Jayalalithaa Jayaram whose body lay in state. She had been pronounced dead at 11.30pm the previous night.
A sense of shock was evident in the weeping men and women who came to say farewell to their beloved leader. A sense of anger had already built. “She is responsible for all this,” said one angry woman, grey and haggard, who had spent the past three nights standing vigil outside Apollo Hospital, praying for her leader’s recovery.
She was Sasikala Natarajan, who has reverted to her maiden name since 2011 and is now known as VK Sasikala, close aide and confidante of Jayalalithaa. Sasikala stood at the head of Jaya’s body throughout that day, strikingly similar to what Jaya had done when her leader and political mentor MG Ramachandran had died in 1987.
Already one plot – the Lost Heir – was in rapid formation. One autorickshaw driver who had arrived from the outskirts of the city summed up the mood –“Deepavaranum,” he said –Deepa must come. This man was referring to Jayalalithaa’s only niece, Deepa Jayakumar, who too has recently reverted to her maiden name from being Deepa Madhavan.
Deepa was seen prominently a few times in the previous weeks outside Apollo Hospital and on December 6 at Marina Beach, the venue of Jaya’s funeral, demanding loudly that she be allowed inside to see her aunt. She wasn’t allowed by the police.
Why did the autorickshaw driver feel that Deepa, a political novice, must lead the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) after Jayalalithaa? “Avangalukku Ammamadhiriye face-cut irukku,”he said, meaning that Deepa had a striking facial resemblance to the late leader.
Cut to December 31, the day Sasikala took charge, seemingly reluctantly, as the general secretary of the party, an all-powerful post as far as the AIADMK is concerned. The ‘Reluctant Heroine’ is also a familiar subplot. The reluctant hero/heroine is always clear that they didn’t want these powers that have been thrust upon them. The responsibility to save Tamil Nadu? She didn’t want it.
But that subplot disappeared when Sasikala made her first appearance in public as a politician on December 31. It was submerged by a tidal wave of déjà vu.
First, Sasikala entered the AIADMK headquarters in the front passenger seat of a white Land Rover car, just as Jayalalithaa had for the last 20 years. She wore a moss green sari with a maroon border, her hair tied in a loose bun, covered by a black cloth pinned with a bow – exactly as Jayalalithaa would. Her maiden speech, delivered with a lot of tears, was strikingly familiar –the cadence and delivery too was that of Jayalalithaa’s. At a point in her speech, Sasikala said, “The AIADMK will continue to rule for another 100 years.” At this point, her right hand went up in the air with one finger skyward – a mannerism that Jayalalithaa was fond of, especially when making an emphatic point during her speeches. The Queen was dead but long live the queen, said every element of the reincarnation.
Sasikala avoids the media, preferring to issue statements, a la Jayalalithaa. No cameras are allowed inside Poes Garden, Jaya’s home where Sasikala continues to live. Only Jaya TV, owned by Sasikala, is allowed access and the content thoroughly vetted and sanitised by her.
Sasikala has also taken on the political moniker of ‘Chinnamma’ or little Amma, again climbing on the back of the larger-than-life cult of her friend.
But that’s not where the lookalike opera ends. We still have to reckon with the woman who is pitching herself as the ‘Lost Yet Rightful Heir’, Jayalalitha’s niece, daughter of her younger brother Jayakumar. A week after her aunt’s demise, Deepa began to give interviews to dailies and news channels, demanding to know the details of how her aunt had passed away after 75 days in hospital. When this reporter met her, Deepa was clear that she only wanted answers to those questions. “I will consider entering politics if the people want me to,”she said.
On January 8, Deepa made an appearance from the balcony of her T Nagar home in Chennai. She was the spitting image of Jayalalithaa – hair done up in a tight bun, waving two fingers, the symbol for the AIADMK, the two leaves. She did not meet party cadre gathered outside her house but said in a statement that she would announce her decision on whether to form a new party in a few days.
Meanwhile, posters and banners sprouted up all across Chennai and Tamil Nadu, hailing Deepa as the ‘Vaarisu’ and ‘Varungala thalaivi’ (heir apparent and the new leader) of the AIADMK. The resemblance to her aunt was hard to miss in these posters.
Likewise, Chinnamma posters, alongside Jaya’s beaming face, sprang up all over the state, a few days after Jaya’s funeral. Almost immediately, most of these were defaced – with cow dung, tar, black paint or Sasikala’s face simply torn off – reportedly by furious AIADMK cadre themselves.
Banners too are prominently erected across Chennai city, with pictures of Sasikala photoshopped to such an extent that Jaya and Sasikala could be twin sisters.
Can Jaya’s cult be taken over by either of these women?
“No way,” exclaimed a vehement Vaasanthi, author and senior journalist, who has written two books on Jayalalithaa. “They (Sasikala and Deepa) cannot fool the public or even the cadre. They can fool the ministers who want to be in power. The cadres are not for her (Sasikala), many of them are against her. Both of these women can only act,” she said.
Vaasanthi is also dismissive of Deepa’s attempts to emulate her late aunt. “She is a blood relation and you have this strong sentiment in Tamil Nadu – rathatthinrattham (blood of one’s own blood). Deepa has come from nowhere and no one knows whether she was really in touch with Jayalalithaa. Both these women are exploiting the situation and the helplessness of the ministers,” she says.
The AIADMK, she says, is a party, which has hinged on a strong iconic leader since inception, whether it was founder and former chief minister MG Ramachandran or his successor J Jayalalithaa. The cadre now is split, without an icon to follow. “There is nobody in sight,” explained Vaasanthi. “They (the cadre) are in a pathetic situation. They do not know what to do.”
Most party members are not vocal about such sentiments – these are spoken in hush-hush tones, as the repercussions of dissent within the AIADMK are usually severe. If Jayalalithaa was prone to dismissing party members without explanation, with the mysterious Sasikala, no one really knows what whip she will wield.
One of the few party members who have dared to openly object to Sasikala is KS Gita, a 50-something lawyer and a self-proclaimed family friend of Jayalalithaa who was inducted into the party by the late leader in December 1992. Gita recently filed a petition in court, seeking investigation into Jayalalithaa’s death, but that petition was dismissed, as the magistrate ordered her to exhaust all options (such as the DGP and the home secretary) before moving court.
Gita was the General Secretary of the Janata Dal when Chandra Shekhar was the Prime Minister of the country from 1990 to 1991. Gita says that she was asked by Chandra Shekhar to reach out to Jayalalithaa to discuss an alliance, since the DMK government was on the verge of dismissal (in 1990). “I went to see Kalaignar (Karunanidhi, leader of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and then Chief Minister) in his house and Ponmudy (senior party leader) and Shanmuganathan (Karuna’s assistant) were there. They told me Kalaignar was in a cabinet meeting and cannot be disturbed. I told them I have an important message and that their government is going to be dismissed,” she narrated.
Soon enough, Jayalalithaa got wind of this and reached out to Gita through Sengottaiyan, a senior leader of the party. (Today, Sengottaiyan is an MLA from Gobichettipalayam who was a minister in Jaya’s previous regime from 2011-2016). “She sent word to me and Sengottaiyan came to meet me. I arranged everything, gave them the number of Chandrashekhar. The Prime Minister came to Poes Garden and had tea with Jayalalithaa in 1990. Chandrashekhar told her that they were going to dismiss the DMK government,” she said. On 30th January 1991, the DMK government was dismissed because of its alleged closeness to the LTTE and PM Chandra Shekhar thereby cited a breakdown of law and order to dismiss it. He then imposed President’s Rule on Tamil Nadu on 31st January.
Gita says she was offered a seat of her choice if she joined the AIADMK in the subsequent election. “I said no to Sengottaiyan who brought Jaya’s offer of a seat to Gita. because I do not covet power.”
By 1992 though, Gita had joined the AIADMK and claims she even sent a letter to Jayalalithaa warning her that she’d go to jail if she continued to have any truck with Sasikala and her family who were indulging in a lot of corrupt activities.
“I told Jayakumar Anna (Tamil term meaning elder brother; Jaya’s younger sibling and Deepa’s father in 1995) a few months before his death that Jaya will go to jail thanks to Sasikala. Jaya had not responded to my letter. Later I understood that it probably never reached her, because Sasikala vetted the correspondence,”she said.
Gita continues to be a vocal voice of dissent in the party as well as a member. She says she has never been given a ticket for any election since then, despite applying each time. In the first couple of weeks after Jaya’s death, Gita was a supporter of Deepa, but now she feels that Deepa too is putting on an act to gain power, riding on the back of her blood ties with her aunt.
“They (Sasikala and Deepa) are just trying to cheat the poor illiterate voter,” said Gita. “The people who are going there and standing outside Deepa’s house are all innocent people who do not know the plans of both these people. This is all hype,” she said.
Gita is upset that the only two people who are being viewed as possible successors to Jaya are Sasikala and Deepa. “Sasikala and Deepa will both be a curse upon this state. Everybody wants to make money. What idea or vision do they have for the state or people?” she asked, adding it was time for a change in state politics in which merit, and not lookalikes, needed to be leaders.
As they say in the comics: meanwhile, elsewhere. Meanwhile elsewhere, that change is slow in coming, but is on its way, at least as far as the functioning of the state government is concerned. Chief minister O Panneerselvam, by all accounts, appears to be changing the functioning of state administration – driving it towards consultative and consensual decision making, rather than following his late leader’s style of a single point authority.
“He is quick to respond to urgent files and is also available for meeting us whenever there are important issues we need to flag off to him,” said a senior bureaucrat on condition of anonymity. “He also listens and asks for our opinions before issuing directions. This was never the case with Jayalalithaa.”
Panneerselvam has been working hard, beginning his day early and staying late, ensuring that the transition of power in the state has been smooth. The third-time chief minister reportedly told a close confidante: “Even if I am chief minister for just five days, I intend to do a good job.”
Whether this change in process trickles down to the party and to the voter is anybody’s guess. “The party is waiting and watching to see what will happen,” said N Sathiyamoorthy of the Observer Research Foundation, a political analyst. “None of us can really tell what will happen since no journalist has been able to speak with either Sasikala or Panneerselvam and we don’t really know them. But the politics of cult leaders has to change,” he said.
Vaasanthi too feels that the politics of the cult icons is perhaps, on the decline in the state, with the death of Jayalalithaa and the ageing of nonagenarian Karunanidhi. “Maybe Tamil Nadu is moving towards politics without an icon,”she said. “Even in the DMK, MK Stalin may become popular but he is not likely to be an icon like Karunanidhi or Jayalalithaa.”
Sasikala and Deepa, attempting to appear in Amma’s likeness, may be the visible end of a political strategy. Sasikala has cultivated senior leaders of the party who are likely to mutiny and gathered them over to her side, even if temporarily. As the new general secretary of the party, district-level senior workers are on her side, if not the disgruntled cadre. No attempts though have been made by her so far to claim credit for the state’s handling of the aftermath of Cyclone Vardah or the drought that has hit Tamil Nadu that has to date led to deaths of more than a hundred farmers
“Why should she (make an attempt to take credit)? She is only now staging an act,” said Vaasanthi. “What has she so far expressed (in public)? As long as Jayalalithaa was there, she never brought Sasikala to the forefront. She continues to act behind the scenes,” she said.
Meanwhile the play continues.
(Published in arrangement with GRIST Media)