In Jayalalithaa’s TN, It Is Sasikala’s Family That Runs the State
Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa, a popular leader who showered the poor with populist programmes and a pole in state politics for three decades, died in Chennai on 5 November, after being hospitalised 75 days. This article on her close aides was published hours before her death.
As Jayalalithaa’s health status remains uncertain after a cardiac arrest on Sunday and months of hospitalisation, her close aides Sasikala Natarajan and Sheela Balakrishnan have been camping at Chennai’s Apollo hospital overnight. The two, along with Finance Minister O Panneerselvam, are seen as the AIADMK’s power centres.
In the 1980s, as the Jayalalithaa-Sasikala relationship was blossoming into a strong friendship, members of Sasikala’s family were still trying to make a life for themselves. “Her brother Dhivaharan’s address was known as ‘care of platform’,” says long-time Mannargudi resident and businessman Krishnan*. “He would not have a place to even sit. He was friendly with the son of the owner of Vijayalakshmi Sack Mandi in the town, and they would sit outside the shop and while the time away. They were jobless.”
Like several others in rural TN, Dhivaharan went abroad as well to try and make a living. “I think he went to Singapore for some odd job, but returned soon,” adds Krishnan.
Today, Dr V Dhivaharan, known in Mannargudi as “Boss”, is one of the most influential individuals in the Cauvery-delta region, which includes Thanjavur and its surrounding districts. He owns and runs the all-girls Sengamla Thayaar Educational Trust Women’s College, lives on a massive property opposite the STET College at Sundarakottai near Mannargudi town and is said to be a power centre in the politics, economy and social fabric of the Delta region.
His ascendancy from “care of platform” Dhivaharan to “Boss” Dr V Dhivaharan coincides with the rise of what has come to be called the ‘Mannargudi Mafia’ – the extended family of VK Sasikala believed to literally run Tamil Nadu when the AIADMK is in power.
Who is the Mannargudi Cartel?
Dhivaharan is but a small part of the Mannargudi family, with his geographical boundaries and job well-defined. Over the years, the family network has spread its wings across Tamil Nadu, and is believed to have penetrated every layer of the government. They allegedly run the state with an iron-grip but behind the shield of secrecy, and not many risk talking about them on-record.
“And that’s the reason they have succeeded so far,’’ says a long-time DMK member from Mannargudi.
He adds that his admiration for the way the network operates is shared by many in the DMK as well.
“They are everywhere,” says a seasoned IPS officer requesting anonymity. “(They are) very manipulative, and try to manage everything. Their men are everywhere from Jaya TV to ministers’ offices, and have stooges in police and IAS top to bottom. The system got weakened after the fall of Sasikala in 2012, but once she was back, they were too. And they don’t leave out anything, even the cycle-stand contracts in bus-stands are taken in by them.”
Even the party is tacitly controlled by the cartel, with key posts and election tickets apparently being influenced by the Sasikala family.
An insider says that to monitor the entire operation, Sasikala’s family has its men – mostly from the Kallar community – placed at strategic positions, including all cabinet ministers’ offices. Further, they have their eyes and ears among the bureaucrats and the state cadre too.
In places like Thanjavur, men are easily marked as those working with the cartel.
The Key Players
Different parts of the Sasikala family operate in different geographies across the state now.
While Sasikala and Ilavarasi live in Poes Garden, Jayalalithaa’s residence, the Delta-districts are taken care of by Dhivaharan. Ilavarasi is the wife of Jayaraman, Sasikala’s brother who is no more.
The TTV brothers – Dhinakaran, Sudhakaran and Bhaskaran – are based out of Theni and take care of operations in south Tamil Nadu. The TTV brothers were born to Sasikala’s sister Vanithamani. Sudhakaran is the son who was adopted, and later disowned, by Jayalalithaa, whose lavish wedding in 1995 created a major furore.
TV Mahadevan, who is the son of Sasikala’s late brother Dr Vinodagan is powerful in the Trichy region. Dr Vinodagan was said to have taken care of Jayalalithaa by keeping her safe at his house in Kutanallur near Mannargudi during the troubled times after MGR’s death.
The western region of Kongu-land is where RP Ravanan is based out of and wields control. Also responsible for affairs at Kodanadu and real estate holdings, Ravanan is the son-in-law of one of Sasikala’s father’s brothers.
Sasikala’s husband Natarajan is now believed to be completely out of the system with no links to Sasikala, at least publicly. He was once the alleged kingpin of the entire operation.
In Chennai, Sasikala's brother Sundaravadanam’s progenies and their spouses, Prabha, Dr Sivakumar, Dr Venkatesh, Anuradha, Karthikeyan and others are the powerful family members.
It is believed that Ilavarasi’s son Vivek is now increasingly involved in both the politics and the management of the network, and of late their cinema ventures. Some of these names have popped up in recent media reports showing the growth of their business empire.
Several ministers are also said to be propped up by different sections of the Sasikala cartel.
The Sasikala Backstory
Sasikala was born in 1957 at Mannargudi to the agriculturalist couple of Vivekanandam and Krishnaveni. She had four brothers – Sundaravadanam, Jayaraman, Dr Vinodhagan and Dhivaharan – and a sister Vanithamani. They were not rich, but they belonged to the influential Kallar community.
The story of ups and downs between Jayalalithaa and Sasikala is well known. Sasikala’s husband, Natarajan, was a government Public Relations Officer in the 1970s. He put his wife in touch with Jayalalithaa, then a growing leader in the AIADMK, through IAS officer VS Chandralekha. Sasikala was running a video-tape shop and used to record weddings attended by Jayalalithaa, and soon broke into her inner circles.
Both the AIADMK, with Jayalalithaa as its chief, and the Kallars benefited from the political relationship with each other, and Sasikala was the one who facilitated it. As Sasikala’s friendship with Jayalalithaa bloomed, so did the fortunes of the Kallar community, which now has a foothold in every layer of government. And the AIADMK and Jayalalithaa benefited from the consolidation of the community’s vote bank.
In 2012, a fallout between Sasikala and Jayalalithaa shook Tamil Nadu. In a coordinated move, Sasikala was ousted from Poes Garden and members of the cartel were either arrested or forced to go into hiding. Several party workers known to be close to them were expelled. But in just about 100 days, she was back, and closer to the 2016 polls, it is clearer than ever that she is in control.
Take for instance the sudden change of candidates in Kumbakonam and Mannargudi. Initially, AIADMK’s Sudha and Ramanathan were announced as the party’s candidates for the Mannargudi and Kumbakonam seats respectively. But sources in the AIADMK say that it was at the behest of Sasikala and Dhivaharan that they were replaced with S Kamaraj and Sekaran.
“The AIADMK district secretary R Kamaraj does not get along with Dhivaharan. Sudha was believed to be R Kamaraj’s choice, and Ramanathan was Amma’s choice. But both were changed, Mannargudi’s S Kamaraj and Kumbakonam’s Sekaran are Dhivaharan backed,” points out the political operator. Also indicative of the cartel’s influence is the exclusion of PH Pandian’s family and retention of Nainar Nagendran for the electoral battle in Tirunelveli, he further points out.
Despite their infamy, the family has its admirers.
Sitting at his sixty-year-old brass-metal shop in Mannargudi town, businessman R Vishwanathan says that he will not blame the family for making money, and believes they are good people.
“What I truly admire about Sasikala is her political maturity. She was thrown out of Poes Garden, did she utter a single word? Has she ever spoken out against Jayalalithaa or publicly shown the power she wields? That’s what makes her successful,” says a DMK politician based in Mannargudi.
And not everyone agrees that the Sasikala family ‘controls’ Jayalalithaa as it is widely believed. “They run things yes, but they are just enablers of greed,” says the political operator.
*Name changed on request to maintain anonymity
(This article was originally published on 6 December 2016 in an arrangement with The News Minute. It has been republished following the appointment of Sasikala Natarajan as the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu.)
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