HER proximity to the chief minister catapulted her into the limelight. Ironically, it is this very intimacy that could prove to be her undoing. As enforcement agencies close in on the friends and relatives of Sasikala Natarajan, widely referred to as the confidante of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalitha Jayaram, the question on everyone's mind is, what is the real extent of Sasikala and family's wealth? According to sources in the Intelligence Bureau (IB), the agency has information about alleged property and benami deals worth Rs 500 crore. But going by anonymous tip-offs received by the investigating agencies, this figure could be much higher.
The heat is certainly on. The Income-Tax Department has issued a notice to the chief minister to explain the source of income for the extravaganza she organised in Madras for the wedding of her foster son V. Sudhakaran, a nephew of Sasikala's. Jayalalitha is yet to respond to the notice.
In fact, it was a much harassed chief minister who issued a statement accusing Delhi of motivating the investigations by the IT Department and the Directorate of Enforcement. Jayalalitha's allegation that the inquiries were politically motivated came two days after the Enforcement Directorate arrested Sudhakaran's brother, T.T.V. Bhaskaran, the managing director of JJ TV, for Foreign Exchange Regulation Act (FERA) violations to the tune of $500,000.
Till the arrest, Sasikala and her relatives seemed above the law. Even T.T.V. Dinakaran, Sudhakaran's older brother who has been evading an Enforcement Directorate summons since July this year for his involvement in hawala deals, turned up at the wedding of his brother with the full knowledge of the police. Now the Directorate has issued a FERA notice to another of Sasikala's nephews. Notices have also been served to Sasikala and Sudhakaran.
Prosecuting Sasikala or her family is like hitting at Jayalalitha directly. The chief minister's confidante, who allegedly functions as an extra-constitutional authority out of Jayalalitha's Poes Garden residence, is said to be the person to meet to influence state decisions. In the last four-and-a-half years, she and her family have set up a satellite channel, acquired large properties, set up prawn farms and have led a lifestyle belying their middle-class background.
According to sources in the IT Department, it is Sasikala, her sister Vanithamani's sons—Dinakaran, Bhaskaran and Sudhakaran—and their associates who form the core group which has been acquiring property at throwaway prices by blatantly flaunting their proximity to the chief minister. One such case involves the manner in which Sasikala and her nephews acquired a bungalow in an upmarket residential area in Mylapore, Madras. The house—Mahatma Gandhi used to stay here during his visits to the city—was owned by the granddaughter of the founder of the Amrutanjan company. The one-acre plot on which the bungalow stands is valued at Rs 4 crore but was sold for a song—Rs 54 lakh.
When the IT Department slapped a Rs 20-lakh gift tax on the owner for having sold the property at a value lower than the market price, she panicked and admitted that she was "pressurised" into selling by people with powerful political connections. The sale, which took place in April this year, was registered in the name of six buyers who put in Rs 9 lakh each, so that the transaction would not attract the notice of the IT Department which has to clear every property deal over Rs 10 lakh. Other than Sasikala, the five other buyers included her sister-in-law and three firms of which Jayalalitha's foster son Sudhakaran was the chairman. The addresses furnished by the three firms to the IT Department turned out to be incorrect and none of them had declared any taxable income.
The list of alleged property deals is endless. The IB has information about a 27-acre plot in the suburbs of Madras, acquired allegedly by a front company for one of Sasikala's nephews. The department is also collecting details of the sale of a 40-acre mango grove at Oothukotai in Thanjavur district where Sasikala and her nephews have acquired large properties. And there's more.
Intelligence agencies are also investigating allegations of benami transactions involving the purchase of land by Sasikala's relatives. These include:
But one of the most ambitious projects undertaken by Sasikala and her nephews has been the JJ TV and Super Duper ventures with a combined capital outlay of Rs 100 crore. JJ TV was slotted as a satellite channel in Tamil Nadu which would cut into the market of Sun TV owned by the grandson of DMK President, M. Karunanidhi. Super Duper, the cable networking arm of JJ TV, was set up with the express plan of forming a tie-up with cable operators to ensure that JJ TV was made available to viewers throughout the state. And, as revealed to cable operators, just the cost of laying cables in the cities was to be Rs 1,000 crore. But the huge costsinvolved invited the attention of IT offi-cials and JJ TV had to put its plans on hold.
Sasikala, who ran a video parlour patron-ised by Jayalalitha before she became chief minister, came into the limelight after it was revealed that she had floated Jaya Publications in partnership with the chief minister. The capital investment in the firm publishing text books was Rs 30 crore. The company proved to be a source of much embarrassment for Jayalalitha since she washard-pressed to explain how she could enter into a business partnership after assuming office.
Also, documentary evidence submitted to the Tamil Nadu Governor, Dr Channa Reddy, by Janata Party leader Subramanian Swamy points to how the chief minister, as a partner of the firm, had influenced the Tamil Nadu Small Industries Development Corporation to sell property worth Rs 4.42 crore for a mere Rs 1.82 crore. It is on the basis of this evidence that the Governor has given the go-ahead for the prosecution of the chief minister.
The real worth of Sasikala and her family and friends still continues to be shrouded in mystery. But with the enforcement agencies finally getting the clearance from Delhi to act, the family which prided itself on its political clout is suddenly on the defensive. Even Jayalalitha's outburst against the central agencies has not stopped them from continuing their investigations.
Maybe it's time for Sasikala herself to come forward and explain how her garden grows. Otherwise, being under the spotlight could cost her dearly.