The demise of charismatic Jayalalithaa, at the height of her glorious stewardship of Tamil Nadu, cast a gloom for her adored millions while her compelling national stature equally raised concerns for political stability in this front-line state.
There are no signs of any threat to the ruling AIDMK headed by O Pannerselvam, which with its comfortable majority, should be able to last its full term (2016/21). But the political scene in Tamil Nadu post-Jaya has indeed undergone a dramatic transformation, pointing to other parties, chiefly DMK, 89-member opposition, to begin angling for openings.
Even more ambitious in gaining political influence in Tamil Nadu is the BJP having no presence in the state Assembly. It lost badly after putting up candidates for all the 234 seats in May despite citing Modi Government's achievements. Now, Venkiah Naidu, Union I&B Minister, claims proximity between AIDMK and BJP.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, given his cordial relations with the late AIDMK leader, offered homage to her and joined the mass of mourners at her funeral, also attended by President Pranab Mukherjee, several Chief Ministers and Congress leader Rahul Gandhi. In this visit for condolence, the Prime Minister hugged tearful Chief Minister Panneerselvam and assured him of any help required.
The week-old Panneerselvam Government, sworn in at the dying moments of "Amma", around midnight on December 5, has stood its first major test, creditably handling one of the worst cyclones to hit Chennai and coastal areas on December 12, showing alertness and reaching relief to distressed pockets. This was in stark contrast to the Jayalalithaa Government's adjudged failure to tackle the Chennai deluge of December 2015 when many habitats had gone under water, leaving lakhs homeless and a few hundred deaths. This indeed cost AIDMK a dozen seats in the metropolitan areas in the May 2016 Assembly elections. The magnitude of devastation left behind by the rare storm 'Vardah", in Chennai and coastal districts is still unfolding with gruesome casualties with 16 deaths reported so far, and tens of thousands of trees uprooted all over on its windy path. Chennai lost a major part of its green cover.
Life was at a standstill for 24 hours as the city shut down its transport and large parts left without power. Chennai itself is still limping back to normalcy and Government, in the midst of making a detailed assessment of damage to infrastructure in Chennai and adjoining districts, has sought the Central assistance of Rs.1000 crore from the National Disaster Relief Fund. Panneeselvam had enjoyed the confidence of the late Chief Minister and had been asked to hold her portfolios temporarily on a few occasions in her absence - in jail during a trial or when she had lost a byelection in the past. He had also held charge of CM's portfolios during her illness, at the behest of Governor Vidyasagar Rao. The midnight swearing in of the new Government headed by Panneerselvam with all ministers of the outgoing Cabinet had averted a leadership vacuum.The name of senior leader M Thambidurai, Deputy Speaker of the Lok Sabha, had also been mentioned.
These were the moments when the considerable influence that Amma's longtime aide, Sasikala Natarajan, has wielded while staying in the shadows of the departed leader, were brought into play. Sasikala favoured the existing arrangement to continue as a whole, making Panneerselvam, who had enjoyed the de facto status, the Chief Minister. AIDMK had been a party tightly held by Ms.Jayalalithaa, with her mass popularity, during her 25 years of intermittent reigns. Amma also had managed all along to keep the two prominent communities represented in her Cabinet in harmony with no dissonant voice. Unlike Panneerselvam, belonging to "Thevar", Thambidurai, a "Gounder" from the other equally influential community, had enjoyed Amma's trust and was relied upon to manage the party in Parliament, with its strongest contingent of 37 in Lok Sabha and 11 in Rajya Sabha.
Primarily, it is this strength that even the majoritarian Modi Government desperately needs for crucial votes, especially in Rajya Sabha where BJP has no majority. But AIDMK has stood its ground on issues vital to the interests of Tamil Nadu such as safeguarding the state's autonomy from Federal interference in policies as well as on GST-related issues. Perhaps Mr Modi would be looking for AIDMK support, alliance or otherwise, in his seeking second mandate in 2019.
AIDMK without Ms. Jayalalithaa may find it tough to retain its winning record of 2014 or even in future state elections achievable under Amma. Consecutively voted a second time in May, the 134-member AIDMK has a relatively narrow majority over the 98-strong alliance led by DMK (89) with a highly vocal M K Stalin as the Leader of Opposition. It has many first-time MLAs vulnerable to probing by DMK, a cadre-based party unlike AIDMK, the rival Dravidian majors which have alternately ruled Tamil Nadu since 1967. After the present period of mourning, the General Council of AIDMK will meet to name the successor for the highest party post of General Secretary held all along by Ms.Jayalalithaa.
The consensus among leaders belonging to both major community constituents of AIDMK Government appears to favour Sasikala Natarajan being named the General Secretary of the party. Already, Panneerselvam along with four Ministers had a meeting with Ms. Sasaikala at former Chief Minister's Poes Garden residence'. Her association with Amma for over three decades and thorough knowledge of party affairs and being known to most of the partymen are her strong points. She was styled by Thambidurai as "Chinnamma" who followed “Amma's footsteps" and knew how best to conduct the party.
(Views are strictly personal.)