Among the lasting images of J Jayalalithaa’s funeral – the sea of supporters bound together by grief, the glass casket moving slowly in an open-air truck to Chennai’s Marina Beach – the one that carries the maximum political weight is that of Sasikala Natarajan, dressed in a black sari, performing the last rites.
Ms Natarajan, 59, who lived with Ms Jayalalithaa in a palatial home valued at nearly 50 crores, has no official position in the AIADMK. And yet, her 24X7 access to the party chief, including in her last hours alive, allowed Ms Natarajan, who once sold video cassettes for a living, to ensure that Tamil Nadu’s ruling party bent to her will.
Sources within the AIADMK, who asked not to be named, laid out how Ms Natarajan may have maneuvered the party’s transitioning away from Ms Jayalalithaa to a new leadership that has her approval.
On Sunday at 7:30 pm, the Chief Minister had the massive cardiac arrest that she would not recover from.
About three hours later, all legislators and ministers, including O Panneerselvam, were told that Ms Jayalalithaa was undergoing “a minor procedure.” At 4 am, they were told she was being taken to the Intensive Care Unit for post-surgery care, but specially set-up screens blocked visitors from any view of the Chief Minister. Only Ms Natarajan and core advisors like former bureaucrat Sheela Balakrishnan were allowed near Ms Jayalalithaa.
It was only later that the legislators learnt that the procedure that lasted almost all night was to install an ECMO or Extracorporeal membrane oxygenation device, which takes over the functions of the heart and lungs.
The next morning, all ministers and legislators were summoned to a meeting in the basement of the Apollo Hospital, where Ms Jayalalithaa had been admitted nearly 70 days earlier.
They were each ordered, allegedly by Ms Natarajan, to sign three blank A-4 pages that had no information other than a list of their names. Each signed next to their name. No information was provided on how the signatures would be used. They were also made to sign a register that would establish that a party conclave had been held.
At 2 pm, word arrived that the Chief Minister had died. Several legislators dissolved into tears. They were then told to meet at the party office at 6 pm. When they got there, the five most senior ministers, including Mr Panneerselvam, were missing. Those who attended the party meeting believe that this is when Ms Natarajan negotiated the transfer of power with the five heavyweights in the AIADMK.
News channels mistakenly reported at about 5 pm that Ms Jayalalithaa had died. Though the hospital clarified that was not the case, the legislators were not allowed to leave the party office for the hospital. Shortly after 11 pm, the five missing ministers arrived, grim-faced. The party chairman, Madhusudhanan, was handed a one-line statement to read out – it established that Mr Panneerselvam would be the next Chief Minister.
The ministers – nearly 30 of them – were packed into buses to travel to Raj Bhavan or the Governor’s mansion, which was entirely ready for the new government to take oath. All officials needed for the formalities had been organised. Ms Jayalalithaa was declared dead about 30 minutes later, at 12:40 am. The news was broken to the ministers at Raj Bhavan; many sobbed openly.
However, V Maitreyan, Rajya Sabha MP from AIADMK, denied that the meeting at the Apollo Hospital took place. “I deny it. I deny it… You probably you won’t know the system of the AIADMK. Our party runs on loyalty, our party runs on true obedience and discipline. And obviously when Panneerselvam is going to be the chief ministerial nominee, I don’t think there is going to be any discussion or any… all sort of things.”
Ms Natarajan never held any government or party post but derived power from being Ms Jayalalithaa’s longtime companion since the 1980s. She is from the same community as Mr Panneerselvam, who emerged as Ms Jayalalithaa’s most important lieutenant with Ms Natarajan’s support.