The party of Jayalalithaa Jayaram, a powerful Indian politician who died earlier this month, picked one of the former leader’s closest aides to succeed her on Thursday, ending weeks of speculation.
The death of Jayalalithaa ─ a former film star popularly known as “Amma” or mother to her followers ─ aged 68 on December 5 sparked a massive outpouring of grief across southern Tamil Nadu state, with huge crowds lining the streets to pay tribute to her coffin.
It also plunged the state into political uncertainty, leaving observers in doubt over whether potential successors to the leadership of the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) party could command the mass loyalty she enjoyed.
On Thursday, the AIADMK announced on Twitter that it had elected her close friend, VK Sasikala, a 59-year-old former video cassette seller, as its new chief.
Although Sasikala has never held any official position in the AIADMK or the state government before her election, she has long been known as ‘Chinnamma’ (aunt) to the party because of her friendship with Jayalalithaa.
The two women met in the 1980s, kicking off a decades-long friendship dogged by corruption scandals and intermittent spells of bad blood.
They fell out briefly after Jayalalithaa lost power in 1996 when both were arrested on massive graft charges.
But Sasikala rejoined the party later to become an influential confidante of Jayalalithaa when she returned to power in 2002. In 2014, both were jailed for four years for corruption but were later acquitted by court.
Sasikala’s ascent is said to mirror Jayalalithaa’s own rise in Tamil politics when she declared herself as the political heir to her mentor and popular film actor M. G. Ramachandran following his death in 1987.
She became the state’s first female chief minister in 1991.
But unlike Jayalalithaa, a three-time chief minister who inspired a devotion that verged on the religious, Sasikala lacks popular support in Tamil Nadu where critics say she has yet to prove her mettle.