Vivekanandan Krishnaveni Sasikala, V.K. Sasikala, was born in Mannargudi in 1957 to the farmer couple Vivekanandam and Krishnaveni. She had four brothers—Sundaravadanam, Jayaraman, Dr Vinodhagan and Dhivaharan—and a sister Vanithamani. They were not rich, but belonged to the influential Kallar community. Sasikala and her husband M. Natarajan had humble beginnings but went on to form what was called the Mannargudi Mafia using their proximity to J. Jayalalithaa, former chief minister of Tamil Nadu. Sasikala became the extra-constitutional authority and Tamil Nadu her fiefdom.
The Sasikala saga began immediately after Jayalalithaa was drafted into the ruling AIADMK by late chief minister M.G. Ramachandran (MGR) in 1982. In January 1983, she became the propaganda secretary. Around this time, when Jayalalithaa addressed a rally in Cuddalore, the relationship had begun. Natarajan was a public relations officer of the state government serving in Cuddalore. He put his wife in touch with Jayalalithaa, through IAS officer V.S. Chandralekha. Sasikala soon broke into Jaya’s inner circle.
The ties between the two women grew stronger as Sasikala, who was running a video parlour firm, and provided Jayalalithaa VCDs of films, also arranged for videography of Jayalalithaa’s programmes, including wedding functions and political events. MGR, realizing that Jayalalithaa had confidence in Sasikala, asked Sasikala to take care of Jaya and the house. Since then, Sasi became part and parcel of the Poes Garden residence.
An Iron Grip over Administration
After MGR’s death in December 1987, Jayalalithaa launched a bid for chief ministership in the 1989 Assembly elections, aided by Sasikala’s (Natarajan) advice. While Sasi’s domination of the house was complete, Jaya asked Natarajan to leave the house in 1990, following differences with him. Sasi continued to stay with Jaya, while pretending to keep away from Natarajan. Jaya was not aware that Natarajan was the brain behind Sasikala’s inputs and political decisions. Even nearly 30 years later, Jaya believed that the couple was not in touch.
However, it was Natarajan who established ties with national leaders like Mulayam Singh, Lalu Prasad Yadav, L. K. Advani, Kanshi Ram, Mayawati among others. Natarajan was said to have opened a college in Uttar Pradesh with the blessings of Kanshi Ram. Sasi and Natarajan prepared candidates list for Jayalalithaa’s party, controlled the entire AIADMK, and when Jaya became the chief minister in 1991 established a firm grip over the administration.
As Sasikala’s friendship with Jayalalithaa bloomed, so did the fortunes of the Kallar community, which gained a foothold in every layer of the government. Jayalalithaa sought to benefit from the consolidation of the community’s vote bank.
Over the years, the family network spread its wings across Tamil Nadu, and had a vice-like grip over the government. All appointments and deals had to be vetted by Sasi who became the de facto chief minister and leader of the party as all decisions of the party and the government were conveyed through her. The family controlled the IAS and IPS officers through a network of private secretaries and police officers, largely drawn from the Kallar community, to have an iron grip over ministers, secretaries and police officers.
Every minister was watched over by a private secretary who reported to Sasikala on every act of the minister. Nothing could move without her consent. If a minister raised a doubt whether or not Jaya approved Sasi’s decision, he would be dropped from the cabinet within 24 hours. That would be enough to tell everyone in the party not to question Sasi’s decisions. None could meet Jaya.
Every land deal which came to the state registration department for approval came under the Sasi microscope. If the Sasikala family found the property interesting, the prospective buyer was asked to keep off, and the Sasikala family would take it over paying much less than what the seller had proposed. Large chunks of assets came Sasi’s way, with instructions coming from the official residence of the CM. Industrialists wanting to set up factories had to pay huge amounts upfront if they wanted the deal to go through. If some IAS officers questioned these transactions, they would be shunted out and replaced by willing IAS men.
Jaya and Sasi set up Sasi Enterprises and a couple of other firms and took orders of the state-run corporation—the Tamil Nadu Text Book and Educational Services Corporation (TNTBESC). Charges were levelled against this deal, as also the TANSI land deal case, by opposition parties and Subramanian Swamy. Problems for the Jaya-Sasi combine began when then Governor Dr M. Channa Reddy granted sanction to prosecute the sitting chief minister, apparently with the approval of then PM P.V. Narasimha Rao who wanted a check on Jaya.
Ups and Downs in Sasi-Jaya Ties
In her first term in office from 1991-96, Jaya faced several charges including a cremation sheds scam, free sari and dhoti scam, even as Jaya and the Sasi family cornered vast chunks of property in Tamil Nadu, in places like Kodaikanal and in suburban Chennai, with the companies registered by government registrars at the residence. Many of these companies had Jaya and Sasi as directors. Investments made in India and abroad, (a hotel in London) including assets bought with payments from Jaya’s bank account, came into question in the Disproportionate Assets case. (Apart from the TANSI land case due to which she had to step down from office, the DA case proved crucial as she and Sasi were found guilty by the trial court in Bengaluru several years later). Remember Jayalalithaa had then chosen to take only Rupee one as chief minister’s salary. It was what you would call an open-and-shut case of assets disproportionate to known sources of income. I-T returns had not been filed for several years.
Meanwhile, Jaya decided to adopt Sasikala’s nephew V.N. Sudhakaran as her son. His wedding with the grand-daughter of thespian Sivaji Ganesan in September 1995 created a fresh round of controversy as crores of rupees were spent on an extravagant wedding. Videos of Jaya, Sasi and members of her family wearing enormous amount of gold jewellery alienated Jaya and the Sasi family from the people, leading to defeat of the AIADMK and Jaya, and loss of power in 1996. After the elections, on the advice of a few senior party colleagues, Jaya asked Sasi to leave her house and told partymen to stay away from Sasi.
Sudhakaran had in 1996 started JJ TV on behalf of Jaya and Sasi, and went on to manage it for some years, and formed a small outfit called the “Chinna MGR Narpani Manram” (Junior MGR Fan Club). However, charges were pressed against him by central agencies regarding hawala transactions during the launch of JJ TV. Charges relating to FERA and hawala transactions were also filed against Natarajan and Sasi’s nephew TTV Dinakaran. When Jaya came back to power in 2001, police launched a crackdown against Sudhakaran (there were reports that Jaya demanded the return of thousands of crores said to be with Sudhakaran for safe-keeping during the period of her arrest in 1996), leading to his arrest and a jail sentence for possession of drugs. Jaya rejected Sivaji Ganesan’s pleas to spare him in the interest of his grand-daughter. Sivaji Ganesan died an unhappy man.
After a brief period of separation from Jaya in 1996, Jaya asked Sasi to return to the house and the duo went on to dominate the AIADMK again, from 1996 till 2011.
This is the first in a two-part series on the ‘Rise of Sasikala’ in Tamil Nadu politics.