J Jayalalithaa, who was called the Empress of Tamil Nadu, is dead but can her party survive? She has been a player not only in Tamil Nadu but also at the national level, and her absence will have its impact both at the state as well as the national level.
Looking back, when her mentor and the late Chief Minister M.G. Ramachandran died in December 1987, there was chaos in the party, as he did not name his successor. He had dumped Jaya in his last days, and the then senior AIADMK leaders like R.M. Veerappan installed MGR’s wife Janaki, another film star as their Chief Minister. It was a government by proxy to keep Jayalalithaa out, who tried to stake claim to the political legacy of MGR by sitting on the gun carriage carrying MGR’s body but she was rudely pushed out by MGR’s nephew. But Janaki lasted just 24 days, the shortest ever in the history of Tamil Nadu, as she could not prove her majority. Jaya who split the party got 27 seats to Janaki’s two seats in 1989 Assembly polls. Soon Janaki stepped aside to pave the way for Jaya, and she became the first woman leader of opposition in the Assembly.
The turning point came when she combined with the Congress after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991. The Congress – AIADMK alliance swept to power. Since then she has been sworn in six times as Chief Minister and has seen ups and downs in the past 25 years. The last occasion was just six months ago when the party was swept to power.
Jaya, like her mentor, certainly did not develop the second rung of leaders nor did she nominate any political heir. Her close aide Sasikala was her shadow, but for some reason, she did not give Sasikala any position in her government or the party. However, Sasikala has manoeuvred to come to the centre stage now, and there had been a smooth transfer of power. O. Panneerselvam, who had been chosen twice by Jayalalithaa herself to become the Chief Minister when she had to step down facing court cases, is the new Chief Minister.
Will the new government be stable? Will the AIADMK survive the political tsunami caused by Jayalalithaa’s death? Will the two national parties – the BJP and the Congress – which are vying to fill up the vacuum created by Jaya’s absence - succeed in finding a foothold in Tamil Nadu? Can there be a new political realignment? These are some of the questions that need answers.
While Jaya came out successfully after MGR’s death to capture the party ultimately, the situation now is different. O. Panneerselvam has been anointed Chief Minister even when Jaya was lying unconscious in Apollo hospital. The party was guided by Sasikala.
There are no serious contenders to oppose Sasikala, as it is predicted that in time she would become the party General Secretary, a powerful post held by Jayalalithaa. This is in contrast to the MGR time when Jaya had been an established leader. Then her clout will increase within the party and outside. She knows the strengths and weaknesses of the senior leaders by remaining the shadow of Jayalalithaa. Going, by the way, Prime Minister Narendra Modi kept his hand on her head when he was in Chennai to pay his last respects to Jayalalithaa, it is presumed that the relationship between the BJP – AIADMK might prosper.
However, despite all these, it cannot be said that the future may be without any problems. Tamil Nadu has followed the Dravidian culture for many. Years. There are other splinter groups like PMK, DMDK, MDMK and also caste-based parties. The DMK is playing a wait and watch game. The DMK patriarch M. Karunanidhi is not in good health although he has named his son Stalin as his successor. The DMK needs another 30 or so seats to topple the AIADMK government, but they are not emboldened to upset the applecart as of now, going against the public mood.
The BJP too is willing to wait as it is content to work through Sasikala and Panneerselvam to run Tamil Nadu for the time being. Since the transition was smooth, there are no chances of imposing President’s rule like it happened in MGR’s time. Modi’s gesture of putting his hand on the head of Sasikala when he came to Chennai to pay his last respects, is seen as a signal that the two parties might have good relations.
The first test will be whether the new government supports the GST in Rajya Sabha, which Jaya had been opposing. Next year the presidential and vice presidential elections are due where the support of the AIADMK will be crucial for the Modi government. Even on the demonetisation issue, the AIADMK had joined the opposition in the demonstrations against the Modi government. Whether there is any change in Tamil Nadu stand will be known in the coming months.
The Congress, which has been riding piggy-back on either the DMK or the AIADMK since 1967, is also looking for an opportunity. The biggest problem for both the Congress and the BJP is that they do not have strong local leadership.
The sense one gets from the political scene right now is that Panneerselvam may go on for some time at least if he manages to take everybody along and make efforts to govern. Problems could emerge perhaps just before the next Lok Sabha elections.
(The views expressed are strictly personal.)