Fate smiled on both of them. They were in the shadows with no role in politics, and yet who would have thought they would be Chief Minster one day. Geographically they come from two opposite ends of the country, but there is much that seems strikingly familiar in the Sasikala and Rabri Devi story. Despite vociferous protests, sniggers, satires and charges of a blatant disregard for democracy, Sasikala is set to rule Tamil Nadu, just as Rabri Devi had once taken over Bihar.
Their spectacular rise to power had humble beginnings. Lalu Prasad Yadav and his fourteen-year-old bride Rabri, lived in a one-room tenement in Patna and Sasikala started off as the owner of a video cassette shop. Politically, they were both outsiders. Lalu rose to be a flamboyant politician always ready with witty one-liners, who ruled Bihar for many years, his wife was rarely seen or heard. For over thirty years Sasikala stood by Jayalalitha’s side, just as Rabri Devi was content managing Laloo Prasad’s house and looking after her brood of nine children. Till the end of last year, Sasikala had never held an official position within the AIADMK and had never been a part of the government. Their place was behind the Chief Minster looking over their shoulder, that was until unexpected circumstances propelled them into the spotlight.
Rabri had no choice in the matter, she was by her own admission dragged to the swearing in ceremony when arrest warrants were issued against her husband. He brazenly installed his wife on the chair, a tactical move to keep the seat of power within the family.
Jayalalitha’s demise last year opened up a window of opportunity for Sasikala, who would otherwise have never dreamt of replacing her ‘elder sister’.
It was a meteoric rise to the top, but it wasn’t a smooth one. Rabri Devi’s appointment as Chief Minster came under severe criticism.
‘Illiterate’, ‘unqualified’, ‘joke’ - there were many accusatory fingers pointed at her. There was much ridicule as a nervous Rabri haltingly tried to read out her very short acceptance speech, faltering three times in less than a minute. And although Sasikala looks much more composed, waving confidently from the balcony of the AIADMK headquarters, the road ahead will be a rocky one for her too.
The charges against her are the same. Sasikala’s elevation to the top post has led to an outburst of fury, especially on the social media platform, with a series of tweets, memes and facebook posts. In both cases there is a sense of disbelief that the CM’s chair will now be occupied by a political novice who has never contested or won an election, with absolutely no governance experience, a leader clearly not chosen by the people.
It wasn’t just public anger and opposition fury that they dealt with, both were entangled in legal cases. Although Rabri Devi was finally acquitted in the disproportionate assets case, the crucial verdict for Sasikala will be out in a few days. Family members on both sides also faced serious charges. Rabri’s controversial brothers Sadhu has criminal and corruption cases pending against him, so do Sasikala’s ‘Mannargudi’ family.
It is no surprise that questions are being asked and tongues being wagged, but in all of this, the two ladies are unfazed. When questioned about being in politics by a journalist, Rabri had retorted ‘why not’, saying that all her children will also naturally be introduced into politics. Although strictly not family, Chinnamma had been around Jayalalitha long enough to be considered one, and she clearly sees herself as a worthy successor to her legacy and her throne. They have no doubts about their place.
Their accession has been shocking, the charges leveled against them are similar, they were not chosen by the people, and the judicial cases cast a shadow over both. Yes, the story seems to be the same.
And yet, it isn’t.
Rabri Devi continues to dabble in politics, but there is no doubt about who is the boss. Lalu Prasad Yadav returned to claim his place and she stepped back. Sasikala on the other hand is not a reluctant housewife, being dragged into the political arena to keep the seat warm for her husband to return. Chinnamma might have been Jayalalitha’s aide, but over the years she became powerful in her own right, feared even by the top most AIADMK functionaries. She has carefully scripted her rise to power over the last few months, and will not be willing to give it up for anybody. It was always temporary in Rabri’s case, not so for Sasikala.
(The author is a Chartered Accountant and IIM graduate who is in the process of publishing her first book)