Clad in a moss green sari with a maroon border, her matching blouse fitted with a collar, VK Sasikala emerged in her new avatar as the leader of All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), the third largest party in the Indian Parliament, on December 31.

Sasikala’s appearance may seem nondescript to anyone outside Tamil Nadu. Sixty-two years old, always a step behind her dazzling friend, confidante and political mentor, the late J Jayalalithaa, Sasikala has lived and breathed the southern State’s politics for 33 long years.

But to the discerning eye of the Tamil political observer, Sasikala’s transformation as ‘Chinnamma’ (or Little Amma) is complete. Her hair, gathered in a neat bun covered with a black cloth and a little black bow holding it in place, a pottu (bindi) with a small upward line and the refusal to meet with or speak to members of the media — Sasikala is being modelled in the likeness of the late chief minister and cult politician Jayalalithaa.

A teary-eyed Sasikala spoke with members of the AIADMK general body at the party headquarters in Chennai. Breaking down frequently, Sasikala spoke of how Jayalalithaa’s demise had orphaned the State and rendered her life meaningless. “Jayalalithaa was devoted to the people of Tamil Nadu, and for 33 years, ever since I was 29 years old, I have been devoted to her,” she said. “Not a day has gone by when I did not ask her — ‘ Akka (elder sister), are you going to Fort (St George, the Secretariat)?’ or ‘ Akka , have you eaten?’” she said. At pains to reiterate that she was ‘forced’ into becoming the general secretary of the party, the most powerful post within it, she thanked the 1.5-lakh cadre for their love and support, promising the same devotion that their Amma had displayed towards them.

Inside the hall of the general body meeting, the applause was loud. Outside the venue, where Sasikala’s speech was shown on a large LED screen, waiting cadre did not seem to be paying much attention. Applause broke out only when she mentioned ‘Amma’ and at another point when she said that the AIADMK was a party with “military-like discipline”.

Two days later, on January 2, party leader and deputy speaker of the Lok Sabha M Thambidurai issued a letter urging Sasikala to take over as the Chief Minister in place of O Panneerselvam. “I emphatically request that Respected Chinnamma has to immediately take over the leadership of the Government, as the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu,” he wrote.

Reconstructing Sasikala

On December 29, outside the Srivaaru Marriage Hall in Vanagaram, on the outskirts of Chennai, banners and party flags were on full display, ahead of the AIADMK general body meeting. Jayalalithaa’s familiar face beamed down at the party cadre and leaders who arrived at the session. Sasikala, a member of the party only since 2012 and hence not part of the general body, was absent. An LED screen at the entrance replayed old speeches of Jayalalithaa as well as songs in tribute to the late chief minister. Fifty-five-year-old Lalitha Anbazhagan was inconsolable as she laid flowers at the photo of the late leader. She and her husband, A Anbazhagan, have been selling pictures, envelopes, key rings and other memorabilia of Amma and her political mentor, the former chief minister MG Ramachandran, since 1988. “We were earning our living thanks to Thalaivi and Thalaivar (female and male leader, respectively),” said a teary Anbazhagan. “Now she is no more. We just want to wind up this business and do something else now,” he said.

Lalitha, between sobs, insisted that she won’t sell any pictures of ‘Chinnamma’. “We cannot accept her,” she said. “Only the leaders of the party who want to hold on to their posts will accept her. People like us, other party workers cannot accept her,” she continued.

Barely a few hours later, Sasikala was unanimously elected the next general secretary — but with a clause — “until elections are held for the post” under relevant party by-laws. This was a clever manoeuvre to avoid legal tangles, as the AIADMK constitution states that only those with a minimum of five years’ membership in the party can contest for the top post — something that Sasikala does not have.

By half past 10, Chief Minister O Panneerselvam walked out of the hall flanked by senior minister Edappadi Palanisamy and MP Thambidurai. “The party has unanimously decided that Chinnamma should be our next general secretary,” he told the waiting media. “I am going there (Jayalalithaa’s Poes Garden home where Sasikala lives) to convince her of our decision.”

Barely five minutes after the convoy had left, banners began to be changed outside the venue — pictures of Sasikala with Jayalalithaa appeared quickly. Selected party cadre quickly assembled at the entrance and began giving interviews to the media. “She (Sasikala) will definitely become Chief Minister. She will bring better rule than Amma. She will follow Amma’s way,” screamed R Venkatraman, a party worker from Coimbatore.

“If Chinnamma takes over the party, it will definitely benefit women because she has been with Amma for 33 years,” said M Dhanam, another worker from Chepauk in Chennai. T Vellaisamy, who had travelled from Perambalur, said, “We are Amma’s disciples. Now we are Chinnamma’s disciples too.”

The LED screen that was earlier blaring songs of tribute to Jayalalithaa was, by then, playing newly composed songs hailing Chinnamma, welcoming her to the party. At Poes Garden, after many tears, Sasikala accepted the decision of the party.

Why Sasikala needs Jaya

Experts say that it is now crucial for Sasikala to at least emulate, if not transform into her political mentor. “If you really look at Sasikala, her entire claim to fame rests on the fact that she has been the alter ego of Jayalalithaa, in the sense that she lived in the same house as her for a very long time,” said Harish Bijoor, brand strategist. “Sasikala has said that Jayalalithaa was devoted to the common man and she was devoted to Jayalalithaa. By extension, it means that she too is devoted to the common man.”

“She is positioning herself as Jayalalithaa version 2.0,” continued Bijoor. “Every step she takes in reminding people of what she (Jaya) ate, what she wore, can only help her. She understands that the more she does that, the more she will benefit. It works for Sasikala because Panneerselvam will not be able to emulate Jayalalithaa.”

Bijoor also feels that the road ahead is likely to be rough for the new leader. “That measured way of speaking, the real action that Jayalalithaa brought to the party, the quiet administrative strength of Tamil Nadu, that is what Sasikala is trying to replicate... Governance is not about the way you eat or dress or speak. I think Jayalalithaa was stronger in that arena, stronger even than her mentor MGR. Replicating that is going to be very difficult,” he said.

Political hawks, too, agree that a desperate, headless AIADMK is doing everything it can to keep its flock together. “I wouldn’t say stage-managed. I would say the whole thing is very well-choreographed,” said N Sathiya Moorthy, political analyst with the Observer Research Foundation. “The cadres and second-rung leaders, including Sasikala, will try to respond the same way. For 55 years, every DMK leader tried to imitate Annadurai. In a way, Jayalalithaa also tried to recapture the imagery of MGR. It is inevitable that some of this will be done consciously and some of it unconsciously,” he said.

But the distinct rift between the leadership of the party and its cadre who do not want Sasikala at the helm, is evident. This situation, says Sathiya Moorthy, is likely to continue until a mass leader rises from within the AIADMK. “There is some kind of disenchantment among certain sections of the cadre. But this happened even when MGR died. There was the Janaki faction and the Jayalalithaa faction, and there was a third section that stayed away from the politics of it. Today there is a leadership that has visibly accepted Sasikala as the leader. There is no person to lead the disenchanted cadre. For a party like the AIADMK, there needs to be a group of four-five leaders from various regions who have cadre and caste backing. But this does not appear possible in the foreseeable future,” he said.

Retired bureaucrat VS Chandralekha, who once introduced Sasikala to Jayalalithaa and subsequently found herself in Jayalalithaa’s disfavour and the victim of an acid attack allegedly by Sasikala’s henchmen, said that it would be business as usual for the Tamil Nadu government. “Let us wait and see what she (Sasikala) does,” said Chandralekha. “She has been with Jayalalithaa for over 30 years and it is no secret that most decisions in the past two years have been taken by Sasikala when Jayalalithaa was unwell. Sasikala is capable of handling administration, and I think she will follow Jaya’s style of functioning,” she added.

As Tamil Nadu enters an era in which cult Dravidian leaders no longer loom over the State’s politics, uncertainty reigns. But with another four-and-a-half years of power vested in a majority government, intra-party squabbles and discontent are likely to be snuffed out, at least until the next elections.