All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) general secretary, 59-year-old VK Sasikala was on Sunday unanimously elected as the legislature party leader by MLAs at a party meeting.
This means that she would become the next chief minister of Tamil Nadu. The swearing in ceremony is probably set to take place on Thursday.
The rise of Sasikala
Born in 1957 at Thiruthuraipoondi near Mannargudi, Sasikala was considered the shadow of former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, the late Jayalalithaa for over three decades.
A high school dropout, her family initially supported Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK). In 1974, Sasikala got married to M Natarajan who was working at the state information and PR department.
During her early days, Sasikala was running a video rental shop in Chennai. It was Natarajan who introduced her to Jayalalithaa.
In 1989, she had moved to Jayalalithaa’s residence at Poes Garden with handpicked servants from Mannargudi.
Though Sasikala was exiled from the party twice for anti-party activities, she stayed with Jayalalithaa at her house. She even refused to stay with her husband, Natarajan. They now share a strained relationship.
Jayalalithaa treated Sasikala like a sister, and she has been a backroom player in Jayalalithaa’s cabinet.
When Jayalalithaa was hospitalised, she stood by her side. After Jayalalithaa had died in December 2016, she returned to Poes Garden and continues to occupy the house that does not belong to her even today.
Under Jayalalithaa’s tutelage, Sasikala learnt all the political manoeuvring that is now on display in Tamil Nadu.
Sasikala also always travelled with Jayalalithaa. She was a quiet player. It was she who recommended the ex-CM, and many prominent candidates for the party posts. The present Chief Minister, O Panneerselvam himself was promoted by Sasikala.
Sasikala has also served the jail term along with Jayalalithaa in 2014 in the disproportionate asset case. She was accused of aiding the campaign.
Challenges ahead of Sasikala
Though Sasikala, also known as “Chinamma” (Choti Ma/Mother), has exercised authority in the last three decades under the shadow of Jayalalithaa, she has never taken control of the party independently. Hence, it is expected that she will face challenges from the other party members as well as the public.
She will have to win the support of the party cadres and also public acceptance. Her top priority would obviously be to get elected to the Assembly. The constitutional requirement is that this has to be done within six months of becoming the Chief Minister. Many blame Sasikala for Jayalalithaa’s downfall. After Jayalalithaa’s death, Sasikala’s posters were burned, and defaced placards were circulated across the state, which are not good signs for her popularity.
Previously we had seen Rabri Devi becoming the chief minister of Bihar when her husband Lalu Prasad Yadav had to step down on corruption charges. Rabri Devi acted as an interim to fill the gap, but the Sasikala’s position is different. She will be the supreme of the party with no one to answer to. She will now have to complete the daunting tasks of an executive, while earlier she was known to only be a close aide and caregiver of the Chief Minister. She has also never filed for a constituency before. Therefore, people don’t know anything about her acumen as she is preparing to step into the shoes of one of the most experienced politician-administrators in the country. This apprehension was also apparent in public, as many took to social media to voice their concerns.
There are many such instances where people rose to become the Chief Ministers or even Prime Ministers without winning elections. The list includes stalwarts like PV Narasimha Rao as PM, Rajiv Gandhi as PM, Narendra Modi as CM of Gujarat.
But the ascent of Sasikala has attracted many questions because of the secretive manner in which the two dramas unfolded. Jayalalithaa’s illness and her last days as CM have aroused suspicions, and the public is entitled to the truth. Conspiracy theorists questioned the secrecy over the medical treatment given to Jayalalithaa. Even some of the family members of Jayalalithaa were not allowed into the hospital. These questions will haunt Sasikala when she comes to power.
Opposition DMK leader MK Stalin said that the people of the state hadn’t voted for a government to be run by somebody from Jayalalithaa’s “household“, referring to Sasikala’s background.
Another major challenge for Sasikala would be the much-awaited judgement of the Supreme Court that name both her and Jayalalithaa over the disproportionate asset case. A trial court had alleged Jayalalithaa of corruption and amassing wealth and assets disproportionate to her known sources of income when she was the CM in an earlier term. The case was overturned in the Karnataka High Court, but if the Supreme Court reverses the acquittal, Sasikala would have to give up her new post.
On the administrative front, Sasikala has to prove her mettle and maintain a resilient stance in the backdrop of the several adversities in the state. The economy of Tamil Nadu will get affected by the severe drought conditions, the uncertainties brought by the newly introduced Goods and Services Tax (GST), demonetization, water crisis, etc. The Jallikattu protest would also trigger a big debate. The development indicators of the state are slipping down with a revenue deficit of over Rs 15,000 crore.
Sasikala’s leadership would be something entirely new for the people of Tamil Nadu. With so many woes to address, it would be interesting to watch how she manages to maintain her position in the cabinet that had earlier witnessed the charismatic leadership of Jayalalithaa.