AIADMK's powerful mystery man, a.k.a. Sasikala's husband.

When the slightly stocky man, possibly close to 40, sat with us in a journalism class 25 years ago, we noticed nothing remarkable about him except that he was much older than the rest of us fresh graduates. He seldom spoke, except to one or two classmates. We gathered he was a government information department official. The year went by and some of us became reporters and got to cover the political scene in Tamil Nadu in the aftermath of M.G. Ramachandran's death.

Early in 1989, after the Assembly elections that brought back M. Karunanidhi as Chief Minister, there was a buzz in media circles when a man said to have been in charge of choosing candidates for the Jayalalithaa faction of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) was accused of cheating a ticket aspirant by collecting money but not getting him a poll nomination. That man was M. Natarajan.

In a search of Natarajan's premises, the police stumbled on a “resignation letter” purportedly written by Ms. Jayalalithaa, who had by then emerged leader of the unified party. The contents were leaked and papers carried reports that she had “quit” her Assembly seat. The fallout was an unprecedented fracas in the legislative assembly on March 25, 1989 that saw Chief Minister Karunanidhi's glasses broken and Ms. Jayalalithaa being manhandled.

I received a call from a former classmate in the journalism course. “Do you remember Natarajan?” It took me some time to recall the name and the thick-set man who answered to it. The silent classmate had turned out to be the mystery man of Tamil Nadu politics, one seen as a behind-the-scenes figure manipulating developments in the AIADMK. We learnt that Natarajan, once a DMK activist, was the husband of Sasikala, barely known then to the outside world as a close aide of Ms. Jayalalithaa.

Natarajan is once again in the news after being arrested last week on a charge of land grabbing, an action seen as part of an ongoing political purge following the expulsion of Ms. Sasikala from the Jayalalithaa household and the party, along with a host of family members.

Over the years, it has been a fascinating pastime for journalists to follow the fortunes of this couple, their rise in influence and power, and the eternal mystery of how Natarajan retained his sway over sections of the party and the bureaucracy, even though repeatedly disowned by Ms. Jayalalithaa.

Public appeals by Ms. Jayalalithaa to her party men not to have any truck with Natarajan did not deter many of them from being loyal to him, as they saw him as a power centre whenever the AIADMK was in power. He donned many caps, running a couple of magazines, travelling abroad to address expatriate Tamil communities. An overseas group even conferred on him the remarkable title ‘World's Greatest Man'!

Not many knew what his business was, but he counted among his friends Kanshi Ram and Chandra Shekhar. Intelligence agencies had their own suspicions about his overseas activities but so far only one charge has stuck. Natarajan was convicted of customs duty evasion in the import of a Lexus car; the sentence was stayed by the High Court.

Given his low profile, it was not long before relatives of Ms. Sasikala overshadowed him. Her nephew, V.N. Sudhagaran, was declared one day by the Chief Minister as her foster-son. His grand wedding in September 1995 and vivid television coverage of all details of its ostentation and extravagance contributed immensely to the AIADMK rout in the 1996 election.

With the DMK in the saddle came a dramatic spell of arrests of members of the family. Sudhagaran's brothers, V. Bhaskaran and T.T.V. Dinakaran, were both held by the Enforcement Directorate on different charges, and the latter was detained under COFEPOSA.

In 1996, when Ms. Sasikala was arrested, Natarajan provided an element of drama by pushing aside reporters and photographers in the guise of shielding his wife from the media. He was arrested that day on a complaint from mediapersons, providing some diversion from the day's events that ended with the late night remand of Ms. Sasikala at a magistrate's residence.

Natarajan was also once booked for assaulting an intelligence constable. It was quite a spectacle when policemen foiled his attempt to escape arrest by surrendering in the Saidapet magistrate court by closing the gate just before his car entered the campus and taking him into custody.

The latest arrest of Natarajan is unlikely to end speculation on what his real role is in the political drama playing out partially before the public eye and largely behind it. Elsewhere, there may be a mystery behind every crime; in Tamil Nadu, the mystery is more in the arrest than in the offence.

venkataramanan.k@thehindu.co.in

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