M Natarajan, the mystery man who influenced Jayalalithaa's AIADMK from behind the scenes
Natarajan Maruthappa, the late husband of former AIADMK general secretary VK Sasikala, was a mysterious figure seen as an astute, behind-the-scenes operator in Jayalalithaa's AIADMK, analysts say.
"One thing about Natarajan is that people around him built up this image of him as a Machiavellian, politically cunning, smart backroom operator," said senior journalist TS Sudhir." They bragged that OPS (Tamil Nadu's deputy chief minister O Panneerselvam, who briefly led the government after Jayalalithaa's death) will remain chief minister till such time that he does not disobey Natarajan's diktat."
Sudhir remembered how a Natarajan aide had bragged to him that, "The day he crosses the line, Panneerselvam will become Kanneerselvam." In Tamil, kanneer means "tears."
"He always operated from behind the scenes, and mystery always shrouded this man," said R Mani, a political analyst. "When Jayalalithaa was chief minister between 2011 and 2016, he was arrested many times on land grabbing issues. The irony of the situation is when Natarajan was in jail, his legal wife was living with Jayalalithaa in her Poes Garden residence. One can't find this sort of an irony anywhere else in India."
In one of his last interviews, Natarajan told Thanthi TV that in the mid-nineties, the then-Tamil Nadu governor had asked him to become chief minister. At the time, Jayalalithaa and Reddy were not on good terms.
"(Former Prime Minister) Narasimha Rao had asked me, why don't you take the lead? The then-Governor, Channa Reddy, had asked me take up the CM's post," he said.
In fact, he claimed that he could have become chief minister on the night Jayalalithaa died if he'd wanted to.
"I am only an observer. I can be a participant, but I have never claimed appreciation for that," he said in Network 18 Tamil interview. I can be both an observer and a participant but right now I am an observer only, just like you."
THE RISE, THEN FALL, THEN RETURN OF NATARAJAN
Beginning his career as a student politician, Natarajan participated in the anti-Hindi agitation. It was then that he met M Karunanidhi, the DMK patriarch, with whom he later fell out. By that time, Natarajan was an assistant public relations officer.
The rift with Karunanidhi didn't spell the end of his political influence, for he soon met Jayalalithaa. He and his wife, who then ran a video-recording and cassette lending shop, grew close to the young leader after Sasikala was given a contract to record an event.
Soon after Jayalalithaa died in December 2016, Natarajan claimed in an interview that it was he who had groomed the AIADMK supremo.
"It is well known that I helped Jayalalithaa after the death of MGR. She took me along with her. I was the one who wrote her first press release after MGR's death," he said.
And what about Jayalalithaa's decision to expel Natarjan, Sasikala and others from her party?
Natarajan said there had been a misunderstanding based on a police intelligence report which said he, Sasikala, and others plotted against Jayalalithaa at a funeral.
"How could we have plotted at a funeral? But he (former Tamil Nadu DGP K Ramanujam) wrote that and made her (Jayalalithaa) believe it. There was massive misunderstanding because of it. Sasikala was sent out after that. The damage that incident did could not be undone till the end."
Sasikala alone managed to obtain Jayalalithaa's forgiveness.
She told her friend and leader in a letter, "Only after coming out of Poes Garden, I became aware of the machinations of my relatives who have misused my proximity and brought disrepute to Akka (elder sister) and the party. I have no role whatsoever in that. Hereafter, any relative, whosoever it might be, who had conspired against Akka, will remain a persona non grata for me as well."
AFTER JAYALALITHAA'S DEATH
Sasikala maintained this "persona non grata" approach towards Natarajan until the chief minister's death. But her family, especially her nephew TTV Dhinakaran (the current RK Nagar MLA), returned to the political forefront afterwards.
Natarajan and others stood close to Jayalalaithaa's mortal remains when they were displayed at Chennai's Rajaji Hall, the same place where she had once mourned her mentor MGR's death.
They are said to have regained influence over the AIADMK's inner workings in no time.
"It was quite a surprise to see him during Jayalalithaa's funeral, and I remember a number of AIADMK supporters openly abusing the Mannargudi (Sasikala's) family and Natarajan - specifically at Rajaji hall, where her body was kept for people to pay their last respects," said TS Sudhir.
Natarjan, for so long considered to be the man operating in the shadows, pulling the strings for Sasikala, wasn't in the best shape this past year. He was sick, and underwent a multiple transplant surgery in November. He was also given a two-year prison sentence in a duty evasion case.
He died early Tuesday morning of multiple organ failure in Chennai, aged 75.