A mixture of the 1950 classic “All About Eve”, “The Godfather”, and “Macbeth” minus any remorse is now being played out live in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu.
The role of the aging Broadway star played by Bette Davis should have gone to the erstwhile movie star and more recently grand dame of Tamilian politics, Jayalalitha – only she died in December 2016 under mysterious circumstances. Instead the role of this protagonist has gone to her right-hand man of many years, Panneerselvam. Humble, reserved, civil, and quietly competent, he was Jayalalitha’s loyal and trusted colleague. Since joining the AIADMK party as one of its founding members in 1973, he has held a variety of positions including minister of public works, head of the revenue department, and even chief minister of the state on two occasions when Jayalalitha was barred from the post by the Supreme Court due to cases against her and she therefore appointed him.
The role of the fawning fan who has ambitions to usurp her idol’s place, originally played by Anne Baxter, has been more than ably assumed by Sasikala, Jayalalitha’s personal companion of more than two decades. Living in Jayalalitha’s home, the luxurious Poes Garden, Sasikala had time to learn, scheme, and build her own power base. She also brought in her family into her dealings and soon they were known as the Mannargudi Mafia (named after her hometown). She acquired substantial informal political clout and a huge personal fortune.
In 2011, Jayalalitha threw Sasikala and her family out of her home and political party for apparently scheming to depose her. There is a theory that Sasikala was trying to poison Jayalalitha (http://archive.tehelka.com/story_main51.asp?filename=Ne040212Coverstory.asp ) and it was then Gujarat state minister and now prime minister Narendra Modi who alerted her about Sasikala (http://www.indiatvnews.com/news/india/was-sasikala-giving-slow-poison-to-jayalalithaa-tehelka-report-says-so-13994.html ). Within months though, after profusely apologizing and supposedly disowning bad elements in her family (including her husband Natarajan), Sasikala was back at Poes Garden, making many wonder what hold Sasikala had over Jayalalitha.
Party members didn’t call Jayalalitha by name, but rather ‘Amma’, meaning Mother. Soon they began calling Sasikala ‘Chinna-Amma’, or Little Mother, showing not only a heightened respect but establishing a link between the two and what some party members interpret as an unspoken line of succession. However, over the many years of their association, Jayalalitha tellingly never gave Sasikala an official political post.
On December 5th, Jayalalitha died, after a supposed illness and long hospitalization during which no one – apart from Sasikala and her family – was allowed to see her. Not Jayalalitha’s own family, nor her acting chief minister Panneerselvam, nor even the state governor. Rumours abound that Jayalalitha was intentionally being given the wrong medication by Sasikala’s doctor (https://www.thequint.com/jayalalithaa/2016/12/15/jayalalithaa-was-given-wrong-medicine-at-apollo-says-leaked-email-barkha-dutt-ndtv-o-panneerselvam-amma-tamil-nadu ) while at home and finally pushed down the stairs (http://www.thenewsminute.com/article/jayalalithaa-s-death-unnatural-poisoned-pushed-stairs-alleges-aiadmk-leader-pandian-56894 ) before being brought to Chennai’s Apollo Hospital.
After Jayalalitha’s death, things moved rapidly. Panneerselvam was made chief minister of Tamil Nadu and Modi promised him his support. Within days, Sasikala’s brother approached Panneerselvam and insisted that he make Sasikala the general secretary of the party in reward for her many years of service to ‘Amma’. Since this idea had the support of many MLAs, Panneerselvam agreed.
A few weeks later, Sasikala called Panneerselvam to her home (i.e., to Poes Garden, Jayalalitha’s home which Sasikala and her family now fully occupy). He arrived to find all the party MLAs gathered and demanding that he resign and offer his post of chief minister to Sasikala. In all this, the party MLAs’ unquestioning following of Sasikala is inexplicable, unless a Godfather-like mode of persuasion – “either your brains or your signature will be on the contract” – has drawn them amorally to her side.
Last Sunday, Panneerselvam submitted a terse letter of resignation to the state governor, saying he was resigning for ‘personal reasons’. Then Tuesday, deeply disturbed, he came to Jayalalitha’s gravesite at about 9pm, sat down, and meditated for some forty minutes. In the meantime, hearing of his presence there, the public and press gathered. When he stood up, he spoke to the crowd and revealed that he had been forced to resign by Sasikala and her supporters. Undeterred and in retaliation, Wednesday Sasikala denounced Panneerselvam as a traitor and is pressing ahead to ensure she is sworn in quickly as chief minister. Thursday, she barricaded her MLAs at various luxury hotels to prevent them from communicating with outsiders or defecting to Panneerselvam. In spite of that, at last count some six had escaped her clutches and were seen by Panneerselvam’s side.
Unlike the movie “All About Eve”, where only two people’s careers were at stake, here the welfare of an entire state and its 77 million people is in the balance.
Over the years, Sasikala and her Mannargudi Mafia have been rumoured to be involved in many instances of coercion and extortion – such as forcing owners of attractive properties to sell for a fraction of the market value, taking expensive jewelry without paying, and demanding bribes on government contracts – not to mention the possible murder of Jayalalitha, the prior chief minister of the state of Tamil Nadu. Thus far, she has managed to escape all charges because of the police and judges she carries in her pocket – as Sollozzo said – “like so many nickels and dimes”. Sasikala is said to have ownership in over 30 companies and her personal wealth is estimated to be in the millions. And she managed all this before she had any formal position of power. Now as general secretary of the political party in office and perhaps soon the chief minister of the state as well, her influence becomes frighteningly large, uncontrollable, and likely destructive. While this may be the happy ending Sasikala has hoped for, it will be a tragedy for democracy and Tamil Nadu.
*Ranjani Iyer Mohanty is a writer, editor, and commentator. She has contributed to several publications, including the International Herald Tribune, the New York Times, the WSJ, the Financial Times, the Globe & Mail, and the Atlantic. She divides her time between Canada and India.