Chief Minister Jayalalithaa's extended stay in Apollo hospital for recuperation has put her Government rudderless in tackling major policy issues, as Parliament opened its winter session amid storms over demonetisation.
The authentic voice of AIADMK, the third largest political force in Parliament, has been missing on raging controversies like demonetisation and other crucial issues at both federal and state levels.
The ruling party is looking for victory in three Tamil Nadu assembly by-elections on November 19, on the strength of an appeal to voters by the supreme leader from the hospital.
Ms Jayalalithaa was perhaps impelled to issue the call, citing all her welfare schemes, given the growing challenge from rival DMK, which had bagged 89 seats in the May Assembly elections. Both Dravidian majors have put up candidates for the contest likely to be close. The campaigning DMK Leader of Opposition Mr M K Stalin expects some gain from the by-elections to make it a “turning point" for future political developments.
The by-elections, two in Cauvery delta region including Thanjavur, and one near the temple city of Madurai take place in a politically uneasy atmosphere that has prevailed since Ms Jayalalithaa entered the hospital on September 22. DMK has tried to champion farmer distress in the Cauvery region, severely hit by lack of river water flow from Karnataka.
In her first direct communication, some fifty days after intensive care treatment in hospital, Ms Jayalalithaa said she had taken "rebirth because of people's prayers" and urged them to vote for the AIADMK in the November 19 polls. "By God's grace, very soon, by recovering fully, I am waiting to resume work".
The by-elections in two constituencies had been deferred in May last because of serious corruption allegations while the third by-poll near Madurai was caused by the death of the winning AIADMK candidate. Other parties in the contests include BJP, PMK of Dr Ramadoss and DMDK of Mr Vijaykant
The ruling party has rarely failed to retain the seats in Assembly by-elections. But the prolonged illness of the Chief Minister and lack of critical policy pronouncements from the Government created a situation of expectations for DMK as well as some of the smaller parties.
Another by-election is also due in the Union Territory of Puducherry where AIADMK and Congress are the leading candidates. Mr Stalin has extended DMK's support for the Congress candidate, Chief Minister Mr V Narayanaswamy to oppose the AIADMK candidate.
Mr O Panneerselvam, Finance Minister, had, as in the past, been designated to look after the Chief Minister's portfolios and preside over Cabinet meetings during the period of Ms. Jayalalithaa's absence. But little has been heard on the stand of Tamil Nadu in the ongoing discussions in GST Council or on other day-to-day matters.
Ms Jayalalithaa had earlier raised issues of state's autonomy and adequacy of compensation for loss-making states when the GST goes into operation. Nor the party has reacted to cash chaos in front of banks for the exchange of new notes for the demonetised ones.
Certain follow-up measures have no doubt been taken by the state government such as the implementation of the Food Security Act in a modified form while continuing with its PDS. Apart from welfare programmes, Tamil Nadu has slowed down on investment and manufacturing front, with businesspeople complaining of tedious procedures.
Tamil Nadu no longer enjoys a commanding status it had among the industrially advanced states in the country. In the latest World Bank Doing Business Report 2017, Tamil Nadu has been dragged down from 12th rank to 18th place. Apparently, the development momentum has slowed down without reforms even as welfare schemes with political dividend have been making headway.
More worryingly, the State's finances have run into growing deficits, and lack of expenditure growth in some areas of infrastructure and maintenance has come into public domain. The Madras High Court referred to poor allocations for judiciary infrastructure and asked whether the State was nearing a situation of declaring a financial emergency. Already there are calls from opposition parties for White Paper on the financial condition.
Although Chief Minister Jayalalithaa has fully recovered from serious illnesses for which she underwent treatment, she continues to remain in a special room in the Apollo Hospital for further recovery before moving to the residence and resuming her responsibilities.
(The views expressed are strictly personal.)