The Taming of the Shrewd

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POLITICAL FRIENDSHIPS AREN’T SUPPOSED TO DIE

this abruptly, at least not ones of such long standing. The corridors of power in Chennai are agog with the sudden, inexplicable blood feud that has broken out between AIADMK supremo J Jayalalithaa, chief minister of Tamil Nadu, and Sasikala Natarajan, her closest friend and political lieutenant.

A little over a month ago, on 17 December 2011, in a dramatic and sweeping move, Jayalalithaa expelled Sasikala and her brood from her legendary 36 Poes Garden house in Chennai (The Posse is out of Poes Garden, by Sai Manish, 31 December 2011), triggering a Byzantine story of thwarted friendship, overweening ambition and political vendetta that perhaps has no equal in India. The sheer seismic nature of this rupture — and the huge political ramifications it is likely to have — can only be understood if one recalls the sheer depth and spread of the relationship.

Over the past 25 years, ever since the death in 1987 of her mentor MG Ramachandran — or MGR, as the late chief minister of Tamil Nadu was known — no one has been closer to the enigmatic Jayalalithaa than Sasikala. She has been everything: soulmate, housekeeper, political confidante. And a tremendous but unelected power centre.

In this time, Sasikala’s family — the ‘Mannargudi mafia’, as it is disparagingly called, the name referring to the small town in Tiruvarur district that Sasikala comes from — has become extremely controversial and influential. The family includes her husband M Natarajan, her brothers, nieces, nephews and brothers- in-law. In 1995, in one of the most flamboyant displays of their friendship, the wedding of V Sudhakaran, Sasikala’s nephew, was presided over by Jayalalithaa. It was a staggeringly ostentatious event, with tens of thousands of guests, and became an election issue the following year, when Jayalalithaa was voted out of office.

Trusted men: Chief Secretary Debendranath Sarangi (top) and DGP K Ramanujam

Much of this is part of Tamil Nadu folklore. The legendary friendship had even withstood the many dark cycles of political wilderness, when Jayalalithaa would lose power and stay largely out of public eye. This time round, when the AIADMK swept back to office in the summer of 2011, it seemed the good times were back for Sasikala and her family. They were in business again.

Yet, barely six months into power — and into the perceived good times — and the two are at daggers drawn. To many, it just doesn’t seem to make sense. Yet, in the intricate political circles of Chennai, there are some who know the story — or at least elements of the story. The result, as TEHELKA finds, is a fascinating mix of fact and myth, of conspiracy and unverifiable truths, and political rumours so bizarre, it’s almost as if they could only be true.

SINCE JAYALALITHAA’S sudden ambush on 17 December, Sasikala — once known to loyalists as Chinnamma or Little Mother — has had the police at her doorsteps. A case has been registered against her brother VK Divakaran (nickname: The Boss) and he is on the run, evading arrest. Rumours in the state say he is already in illegal custody. The case against Divakaran relates to a complaint by one Kasthuri Balasubramanian of Rishiyur village in Tiruvarur district.

Kasthuri has alleged that her house was demolished on 28 November 2011, by seven persons and some local officials, at the behest of Divakaran. In response, the police raided Divarakan’s house in Mannargudi as well as his office in the nearby Sengamala Thayar Arts and Science College that he runs

That’s not all. Ravanan RP, married to Sasikala’s cousin, has apparently been tortured by the police in the course of anti-corruption investigations. The Tamil Nadu Directorate of Vigilance is believed to be preparing to act against many members of the Sasikala clan. The long queues of favour-seekers and hangers-on have disappeared. Ousted by Jayalalithaa, the Mannargudi mafia is in deep trouble.

There is a perception the mafia was hoping to replace Amma (Jayalalithaa) with Chinnamma, and install Sasikala as the CM

Why did this happen? The grapevine is hyperactive. There is a perception that Sasikala, 55, is guilty of planning a palace coup, and of the Mannargudi mafia hoping to replaceAmma (Jayalalithaa) with Chinnamma, and install Sasikala as chief minister. Allegedly, the disproportionate assets case that Jayalalithaa has been travelling to Bengaluru for — she is being questioned by a special trial court there — gave the Mannargudi group ideas. An unfavourable judgment or remark by the court and an orchestrated political campaign, it was felt, would have put pressure on Jayalalithaa to resign and hand over the government to somebody she could trust.

IT SOUNDS like a wild conspiracy, but worse has happened in Tamil Nadu politics. Also, though Jayalalithaa has been so dependent on Sasikala all these years, she may have been smelling something fishy. Till a month ago, her Poes Garden residence was full of Sasikala’s men. (When Sasikala had first moved in with her in 1989, she had brought 40 servants from Mannargudi to Poes Garden to run Jayalalithaa’s house. All maids, cooks, securitymen, drivers and messengers at Poes Garden were hired from Sasikala’s hometown.)

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For a decade, nobody had access to Jayalalithaa without Sasikala’s permission. All independent assistants had been slowly but systematically moved out. It had reached such a stage that ministers were discussing policy issues with Sasikala. Civil servants were briefing their chief minister in the presence of Sasikala. Her words were considered Jayalalithaa’s command. She was the unstated deputy chief minister.

She also had a grip on the party structure. The AIADMK organisation is divided into regions, and most of the regional directors were Sasikala’s relatives. As such, MLAs were either chosen by the Mannargudi mafia or tried to ingratiate themselves to it.

Jayalalithaa had created a Frankenstein’s monster. It was she who had initially told party workers to meet Sasikala if they wanted to bring issues to her notice. Sasikala grabbed the opportunity and began to filter what information went up to the chief minister. Jayalalithaa became a prisoner of the Sasikala coterie.

So how did Jayalalithaa find out? According to an AIADMK insider, it was Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi who alerted the lady in Poes Garden and warned her about the Mannargudi mafia. Modi apparently told Jayalalithaa to keep a watch on her inner ring. He is believed to have indicated to her that big investors were avoiding Tamil Nadu because of the extortionate demands of Sasikala and her family.

Specifically, an NRI businessman who came to Tamil Nadu with a project had to shift to Gujarat because the Mannargudi mafia had sought a 15 percent cut.

Jayalalithaa was allegedly given sedatives and chemical substances that had small quantities of poison by a nurse appointed by Sasikala

The degree and brazenness of Sasikala’s operations were a shock for Jayalalithaa. She could not have been unaware that members of the Mannargudi mafia were taking money for transfers and postings in the state bureaucracy and from local business groups — for party affairs, among other things — but Modi’s cautionary story told her of corruption of a far higher order: she was being kept out of the loop by Sasikala.

Shortly after the conversation with Modi, there came the episode of the Chennai monorail project. The chief minister was keen to put it on the fast track and favoured awarding it to a Singapore company that she felt was best equipped. She told Chief Secretary Debendranath Sarangi to begin the paperwork. At the end of the process, when the file reached the chief minister, she found a Malaysian company had been put on top and the Singapore company downgraded. She called Sarangi and questioned him.

It was Sarangi’s turn to be surprised. He told her he had received the file with a note from her saying the Malaysian company was potentially the best choice. Jayalalithaa asked for the entire correspondence related to the monorail project and was surprised to find her signature on a note favouring the Malaysian company. It was forged. Furious, Jayalalithaa summoned Sasikala, who denied any involvement.

Following another tip-off, Jayalalithaa sought independent medical opinion on the medicines she was being given. Without telling Sasikala, Jayalalithaa apparently went to see a well-known doctor. Her tests revealed, the story goes, that she was being given sedatives and chemical substances that had small quantities of poison. Her nurse at home had been appointed by Sasikala, and served the chief minister fruits and medicines at regular intervals.

By now Jayalalithaa had realised she had to act fast. She was also beginning to sense the unease in the bureaucracy and picking up murmurs of protest against the Mannargudi mafia. For instance, ever since re-election, she had planned to charge senior DMK leaders in land-grab cases. Several senior DMK leaders had been arrested and a case filed against MK Stalin, son of former chief minister M Karunanidhi.

Jayalalithaa had told the Directorate of Vigilance and Anti-Corruption (DVAC) to implicate the Karunanidhi family only when it had solid evidence. Nevertheless, the case against Stalin was a weak one. When Jayalalithaa asked Pon Manickavel, the then Inspector General (IG), Intelligence, he told her the case had been filed following consent from Sasikala. Jayalalithaa could smell trouble and a secret deal between the Mannargudi mafia and the DMK family.

On the warpath Sasikala’s husband Natarajan is inching closer to the DMK,
On the warpath Sasikala’s husband Natarajan is inching closer to the DMK, Photo: A Shankar

It was K Ramanujam, Director-General of Police (DGP), Tamil Nadu, who put the last nail in the coffin. Ramanujam was alerted by Shanker Bidari, DGP Karnataka, about a secret meeting of the Sasikala family in Bengaluru in the first week of December. Apparently, intelligence officials in Karnataka had bugged the room where the meeting took place and the tapes made their way from the state police HQ in Bengaluru to its counterpart office in Chennai.

According to police sources in Tamil Nadu, the tapes revealed details of the conspiracy against Jayalalithaa. The meeting in Bengaluru is believed to have been attended by Sasikala, Natarajan, Ravanan (married to Sasikala’s first cousin), Midas Mohan (Natarajan’s business partner), VK Sudhakaran, TTV Dinakaran (Sasikala’s nephews) and M Ramachandran (Natarajan’s brother). At the meeting, Jayalalithaa’s troubles relating to the disproportionate assets case were discussed, and names of potential successor chief ministers thrown about.

After listening to the tapes, Jayalalithaa decided to get going. For five days, the state police kept a close watch on individual members of the Mannargudi mafia. Ravanan — his father-in-law and Sasikala’s father were brothers — was tracked in Singapore, where he had gone for a business meeting.

It was a meticulous operation. The DGP was tasked with gathering evidence against the Sasikala cabal. A private detective agency was hired. Phones of the Sasikala family members and their close associates were allegedly tapped. Daily reports were sent to the chief minister directly.

Nobody had access to Jaya without Sasikala’s nod. It had reached such a stage that ministers were talking about policy issues with Sasikala

At the end of it all, Jayalalithaa had a thick dossier on the Mannargudi mafia but also realised its tentacles were all over her party and government. They had the men and resources to seriously challenge her. It was not going to be easy to strip away their influence. Changes were made in the state police’s intelligence wing, which was believed to be a hotbed of Sasikala loyalists. Jayalalithaa posted Thamarai Kannan as the Inspector General (IG), Intelligence, as she wanted an officer who had no links with the Mannargudi mafia.

Next, the chief minister made changes in her personal security. Her personal security officer (PSO), Thirumalai Swami, had been serving her for the past 10 years, brought into the job from the state police in 2001. It is believed Sasikala used him to monitor the chief minister’s movements. Swami too has been transferred.

Finally at a Cabinet meeting, Jayalalithaa made it clear ministers would receive instructions from her alone and should not act on messages delivered, allegedly on her behalf, by Sasikala or others.

Many ministers took this lightly, presuming Sasikala and Amma had had a temporary tiff. The Mannargudi mafia, however, was alarmed. It was beginning to see a pattern.

On her part, Sasikala was confident that she could win back Jayalalithaa through emotional blackmail, and that the chief minister needed her around in Poes Garden. It was a fatal miscalculation. The ground had shifted.

On 17 December came the moment of truth. Jayalalithaa asked the Mannargudi clan to pack up and leave her house. Some of these people had been staying in Poes Garden since 1989, when Jayalalithaa became Leader of the Opposition. No amount of pleading would get her to change her mind. Meanwhile, police and legal teams, as well as chartered accountants, began investigating the Sasikala family’s investments and started the process of recovering money.

Ravanan was picked up as soon as he landed from Singapore. A raid at his house recovered Rs 50 crore in cash. Ravanan — or Ravanan Ratnaswami Pichai, to give his full name — heads the Coimbatore-based Midas Golden Distilleries, which supplies liquor to the Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation. Sasikala set up the distillery in 2002 when Jayalalithaa was in power, but it is understood that the company continued to get lucrative contracts through the DMK years as well.

Chief adviser Modi alerted Jayalalithaa that Sasikala was extorting money from businessmen
Chief adviser: Modi alerted Jayalalithaa that Sasikala was extorting money from businessmen

Ravanan holds the key to Sasikala’s business empire. It is estimated to be worth at least Rs 5,000 crore. “That is certainly not an overestimation,” says a senior politician, “in fact, it may be an undervaluation. The chief minister doesn’t have much money with her. Her household, government and party were run by the Mannargudi group.”

Even tickets for the 2011 Assembly election were sold, and Sasikala is alleged to have collected 300 crore in this manner. Of course, the tickets were sold to Mannargudi sympathisers, and thereby the deal was doubly beneficial.

One example cited is that of Sivarajaman