Jayalalithaa’s death has plunged Tamil Nadu into a state of political flux. Since Monday night, when the “iron lady” of southern politics passed away, there has been much talk about the future of the AIADMK and how politics in the state will realign itself.
For now, O Panneerselvam — the number two in Jayalalithaa’s Cabinet — has taken over as chief minister. He may be a good administrator but lacks the charisma of a leader that the AIADMK needs to navigate into the future. Many within the party are looking to Sasikala Natarajan, the departed leader’s most trusted aide, but she lacks political experience and a wider acceptance among AIADMK members. She also carries baggage, being named in the disproportionate assets case against Jayalalithaa. The case, which involves a probe into allegations that Jayalalithaa had amassed wealth valued Rs 64 crore in disproportion to her known sources of income, is being heard by the Supreme Court. Legal experts have said the case would continue as the other accused are alive.
Unlike its main rival, the DMK, which is a strong cadre-based party, the AIADMK has always leaned on the charisma and mass appeal of its leader. First, it was actor-turned-politician MGR, or MG Ramachandran, who broke away from the DMK to form his party in 1972, and then Jayalalithaa, who took over the reins after her mentor’s death in 1987. In the three decades that the latter was at the helm, the AIADMK came to be a party of sycophants that rarely encouraged cultivating new leaders. What also makes its state somewhat precarious is that, with 135 MLAs, the ruling party has just about a majority in the 235-seat assembly. Several of them are first-time MLAs who could be vulnerable to poaching by the DMK. Thankfully though, the DMK has its own challenges to overcome. The health of its 92-year-old leader and patriarch M Karunanidhi has been a subject of speculation in recent times. Members of his family, including daughter Kanimozhi and grand nephew Dayanidhi Maran, are facing serious corruption charges. Stalin, seen as Karunanidhi’s successor, would rather want to stay focused on sorting out internal squabbles and reviving the party.
Hence, there is an opportunity for both the Congress and the BJP in the southern state, which sends 39 MPs to the Lok Sabha and often decides who gets to form the government in New Delhi. The Congress will seek to revive its fortunes in the southern state that it once ruled and commanded a respectable vote share until the 1990s. The BJP will try to fill the political vacuum created in the state, where it worked hard to gain a foothold in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. The party and its government at the Centre have moved swiftly, promising to help the new leader of the AIADMK tide over challenges he faces and tightening the noose around scam-tainted leaders of the DMK.
BJP leaders do not see any immediate possibility of growing into a big size party in the state, but do see possibilities of an eventual and formal tie-up with the AIADMK, a move that did not see the light of the day during the 2014 Lok Sabha election. “The last thing we want is a split in the AIADMK,” a senior BJP functionary told Hindustan Times.
But breaking fresh ground in Tamil Nadu for a national party is easier said than done. For all these years, politics in the southern state has revolved around the twin issues of identity and caste. The primacy of identity politics and caste is what guided the rise of Dravidian parties through the 1960s and 1970s alongside a decline of the Congress.
Anti-Hindi and anti-Brahmin agitations may have become a thing of the past, but the linguistic pride of the Tamils and the centrality of caste in electoral mobilisation still influence political outcomes. That is why whenever a section or group of Tamil society has felt abandoned by the dominant Dravidian parties, it hasn’t been appropriated by a national party. Instead, we have seen newer regional formations such as the PMK, Vijayakanth-led DMDK or Vaiko-led MDMK, which continue to be influencers.
Also, the contradictions between national-level policy making and local imperatives — manifest in disputes such as the distribution of the Cauvery waters — have often constrained national parties in winning the support of the Tamil people.
What held true for the Congress will apply to the BJP as it seeks to cash in on the opportunity in the post-Jaya Tamil Nadu. Will Prime Minister Narendra Modi be able to buck the trend, and script a different story?
The author is Chief Content Officer, Hindustan Times
He tweets as @rajeshmahapatra