The story that is unfolding right now in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu is more lurid than any movie script. It involves friendship, betrayal, power, greediness, corruption, money and manipulation—and in the end, it could be damning to the political progress achieved by women in India.
This is the story of J. Jayalalitha, chief minister and head of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, who over the weekend was convicted of corruption, removed from power and put in prison. Her friend is Sasikala Natarajan, once described as "video parlour operator turned confidante turned 'sister in spirit' turned albatross around the political neck of . . . Jayalalitha."
That is, sadly, an apt description.
The Backstory Of A Fateful Friendship
Jayalalithaa was a leading actress in Tamil cinema before entering politics. Sasikala Natarajan was the wife of a public relations officer who rented out videos to earn some extra cash for the family. When the two were introduced via an IAS officer, they instantly bonded.
Things first took an auspicious turn when, after becoming chief minister, Jayalalitha allowed Sasikala to move into her home and bring over 40 servants from her hometown to help run it. By 1996, making use the powerful position of her best friend, Sasikala helped all her family members become very rich, and her entire family came to be known as the "Mannargudi Mafia," a nod to her hometown of Mannargudi.
Sasikala's lust for money drove her to increasingly rely on her well-connected friend—and in turn, her friend's reputation declined.
Jayalalitha conducted the wedding of one of Sasikala's relatives in a ostentatiously grand manner that earned her media disrepute. Soon, opponents filed legal cases against both women on account of power abuse and financial corruption.
The backlash cost Jayalalitha the elections in 2006, and soon after, Sasikala was arrested and for a time detained. But while Jayalalithaa initially shunned her friend in the wake of the controversies, she ultimately welcomed her back into her life.
An Unhappy Ending
In 2011, Jayalalitha roared back to power. Soon, there were rumors that Sasikala was trying to poison Jayalalitha by giving her sedatives and small quantities of arsenic, which Jayalalitha's political contacts tipped her off about. However, by this time, Jayalalitha was caught in the web spun by her friend, and it was not going to be easy for her to retreat.
By December 2011, when she ordered the Mannargudi gang to get out of her house, it was too late. Jayalalitha, Sasikala and some of Sasikala's relatives had to face the court of law for acquiring assets disproportionate to income, and Jayalalitha—due to her associations with the family—was also given a prison sentence.
Jayalalitha, an able administrator, who is currently riding a wave of popularity through good governance and welfare measures in Tamil Nadu, has been stripped of power and faces a bleak future—all because of a friend, who she trusted, blindly letting her control her life, not to mention the political power vested in her through democratic elections.
It's a sordid story, but also a significant one. Jayalalitha was one of just four women to serve as chief minister of one of India's 29 states and two union territories—and one of only 15 women to ever hold this powerful political post. And so it is that what should have been a success story for women in India has turned into a story of downfall mired in the stereotype of female betrayal.
And that narrative is a shame for more than the women caught up in this very high-profile political scandal.