It is a paradox of the Indian social and political scene that in a country where female infanticide is not uncommon, there have been women leaders who have attained the status of goddesses. Indira Gandhi was one of them, who still comes out on top in popular polls on Prime Ministers. Now, Jayalalithaa will join the ranks of those who are revered for their achievements for decades.
Although like Indira, the Puratchi Thalaivi or the revolutionary leader of Tamil Nadu, was also known for her authoritarianism and was not free of the taint of corruption, she was still seen as someone who had dedicated her political life to the welfare of the poor. A standard way of consolidating a person’s political position, populist schemes initiated by her had ensured her party, the AIADMK’s, electoral success.
It goes without saying that her successors will have no option but to follow her policies as diligently as possible. However, they will have to remember that these include not only freebies for the needy but were also aimed at ensuring Tamil Nadu’s development in the fields of industry and information technology.
Those who will now take the reins of power in their hands will have to see to it that this twin process of providing succour to the less affluent sections while continuing industrial growth does not falter in Jayalalithaa’s absence.
Obviously, this is a tall order and neither the present Chief Minister, O. Panneerselvam, nor anyone else who may succeed him may be up to the mark. But this is not the only reason why Tamil Nadu can be said to be entering a rocky period. For a start, it is not known how long Panneerselvam will last in his office, or whether he will feel totally secure during his tenure.
As long as it was assumed that he had Jayalalithaa’s approval, he was safe from other challengers. But they are bound to come to the fore after a few months. Among those about whom there is already some speculation is Jayalalithaa’s companion of many years, Sasikala Natarajan. Then, there is Munisamy Thambidurai, deputy leader of the Lok Sabha, who may assert his claim after a while.
Much depends, of course, on Panneerselvam’s talents in governance and in keeping other aspirants at bay. He will also be aware that the AIADMK’s arch-rival, the DMK, is waiting in the wings. It has to be remembered that with 89 seats and 31.6 per cent of the votes in the 234-member state Assembly, the DMK is not a pushover.
Its disadvantages are, first, the advanced age of its supreme leader, M. Karunanidhi (he is 92), and, secondly, the sibling rivalry between his two sons, M. K. Alagiri and M.K. Stalin. But if the party gets a sniff of power in the event of a factional strife in the AIADMK, the differences in the DMK might simmer down. After all, there is only a nine per cent difference between the two Kazaghams.
Whatever the outcome of these equations, there is little doubt that the period of two-party rule in Tamil Nadu politics is coming to an end. For one, the void in the AIADMK caused by Jayalalithaa’s death will not be easy to fill; and, for another, the DMK under an aged Karunanidhi and his sons who do not have their father’s traditional appeal will never be as dominant as before.
It is by default that the two parties will continue to play a significant role for some time because there is no other outfit which can challenge them. The Congress, which has played second fiddle to the two Kazhagams all these years, will be unable to rise to the occasion if only because it is in a sorry condition even at the national level and does not have either the leader or the ideology to make its presence felt.
The other minor local parties like Vaiko’s MDMK or Vijayakanth’s DMDK are likely to remain what they are with the likelihood of some of their cadres looking for fresh pastures in an unstable AIADMK and an equally shaky DMK. Overall, therefore, the political scene in Tamil Nadu will be wobbly in the foreseeable future.
To a considerable extent, Jayalalithaa can be held responsible for this unwholesome state of affairs because her autocratic and domineering style – she liked her followers to lie prostrate before her while paying their obeisance – ensured that there would neither be the second rung of leadership in her party, nor allow promising talented politicians to emerge elsewhere in the political field.
Just as Jawaharlal Nehru was sometimes described as a banyan tree under which nothing grew, Jayalalithaa, too, was someone whose presence had a stifling effect on others.
As for the rest of the country, the hope will be that there is no pause in Tamil Nadu’s industrial progress, for it is a matter of considerable interest all over India.
(The views expressed are strictly personal.)