It isn’t Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa alone who is the centre of attention at the city’s Apollo Hospital. Somewhere on the second floor where the ailing chief minister is being treated by a team of top doctors, another lady holds court these days with top officials queuing up for instructions.
Retired IAS officer, Sheela Balakrishnan, 62, is credited with running the state administration while the chief minister is battling her illness. “Even ministers are taking instructions from her,” pointed out a top official who did not wish to be named.
“Jayalalithaa has implicit trust in Sheela Balakrishnan, both for her abilities and attitude, which is why she has become the most important person in the state today. Nothing moves without her consent,” he added.
Read | Even from hospital bed, CM Jayalalithaa keeps reins firmly in hand
Few in Tamil Nadu are willing to come on record on how the administration is being run in absence of Jayalalithaa who has been hospitalised for more than 10 days. There has always been an element of secrecy shrouding both the chief minister and the top-rung of her AIADMK party and no one is willing to invite her wrath by sharing details.
Even her illness and the current state of her health have been the subject of speculation. On Tuesday, the Madras high court ordered the state government to inform the court about her health within two days after an activist filed a petition seeking clarity.
Top officials visiting the Apollo hospital say their visits are for twin purposes: To check on the chief minister’s health and to also seek guidance from the bespectacled Balakrishnan.
The 1976-batch IAS officer hailing from Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala is said to be operating from a room close to that of Jayalalithaa. Another room on the same floor is occupied by Sasikala, a long time aide of the chief minister.
But Balakrishnan is the person whom top officials such as chief secretary P Rama Mohan Rao and director general of police TK Rajendran actively seek out. Balakrishnan retired in 2014, but was appointed as the CM’s official adviser soon after.
Read | Jayalalithaa is recovering, there is no need for photographs: AIADMK
It is in her capacity as Jayalalithaa’s most-trusted advisor that Balakrishnan is calling all the shots, insiders say. Influential ministers including O Panneerselvam, who became the chief minister twice when Jayalalithaa had to step down because of legal troubles, play marginal roles.
Though no major policy decisions are being taken in Jayalalithaa’s absence, officials say Balakrishnan is ensuring the administration runs smoothly, giving an impression of being on ‘auto pilot’.
Orders dictated from the hospital are being implemented and overseen by another retired IAS officer, Santha Sheela Nair, who sits in the chief minister’s office in the state secretariat. She has been appointed as Officer on Special Duty (OSD) in the CM’s office.
“It is good that Tamil Nadu has a strong and efficient bureaucracy to keep the momentum going without guidance from the political leadership,” insisted Ganapati Ramachandran, vice-president of the South Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
MG Devasahayam, a former top bureaucrat, pointed out that Balakrishnan, with more than three decades of administrative experience, has the required acumen to run the state. She first got into Jayalalithaa’s good books while serving in the chief minister’s secretariat in 2002.
When the DMK came to power, she was sidelined. But she staged a comeback when Jayalalithaa stormed back to power in 2011. Her bond with the chief minister grew further, and in 2012 when the chief secretary’s post fell vacant, she even superseded her IAS-husband R Balakrishnan to occupy the top administrative position.