As thousands of people – inconsolable party cadre and others – filed past the body of J Jayalalithaa lying in state in the city’s Rajaji Hall, one person who stood motionless close by was Sasikala Natarajan.
The former Tamil Nadu chief minister’s closest companion during the last 20 years of her life was by her side even after death. Having stood by Jayalalithaa through thick and thin, Sasikala, clad in a black saree, continued to stand her ground on Tuesday.
She had come in contact with Jayalalithaa following the Emergency. As Jayalalithaa rose up the AIADMK ranks, Sasikala became a regular by her side. In late 2011, however, she was expelled from the AIADMK, but reinstated three months later, in March 2012.
Described by many as ‘Amma’s’ conscience keeper, the question now is whether Sasikala will emerge as a central figure for the rudderless party workers to rally around? There is also speculation over whether she will be able to hold the party and guide it like Jayalalithaa?
The jury is still out on what role she will play. While some see her as a positive force that will rise in rank and popularity just as Jayalalithaa did after the demise of MGR in 1987, others are not very hopeful. Some even see her as a negative force.
“The party is in her hands for some time now. Ever since she came back to the party in 2012, she has grown in power and it is even said that all decisions, administrative and political, have her stamp on it,” a senior Tamil media journalist, who did not want to be identified, said.
“Wait and watch. For the moment, Sasikala seems to be in control. The images from Rajaji Hall prove that her family is in control. In six months there could be some change.
“To me it now appears that O Panneerselvam – sworn in as the chief minister hours after Jayalalithaa’s death - is an interim arrangement,” AR Venkatachalapathy, a historian of the Dravidian movement, said.
V Srinivasan, a human rights activist in Chennai, is of the view that it might not be that easy for Sasikala to take over the mantle of the party. “She is weighed down by the DA (disproportionate assets) case in the Supreme Court, and that might be why she has not taken over as CM. Her next aim might be to become the party general secretary.”
There are also some who question her acceptability.
“All the MLAs are with her, but the cadre is not. This will be a challenge for her. She can run the show till the next election, but it will be difficult after that,” says a retired professor in Chennai, who did not want to be named.
Interestingly, MA Kalam, the former chairperson of the School of Social Sciences, Madras University, sees a parallel in Sasikala’s position and the position of Jayalalithaa when MGR died. “Jayalalithaa was seen as an ‘outsider’ in the AIADMK when MGR died. Sasikala, in many ways, is in a similar spot now.”
Views on the role Sasikala may play in the future vary. For the moment though, she is standing stoically by the side of her dead leader.