The conviction of AIADMK boss J Jayalalithaa in the disproportionate assets case may prove a game-changer for Tamil Nadu politics by triggering a realignment of forces on the ground and opening up space for national parties.
There is no immediate danger to the government, given its brute majority in the assembly (152 out of 234 seats). But much would depend on how it copes in the changed situation in the absence of it leader.
Personally though, the verdict is a huge setback for the 66-year-old movie star-turned-politician, coming as it does at the height of her popularity.
Jayalalithaa swept to power in 2011 and followed it up with an impressive show in the summer Lok Sabha polls, winning all but two of the state’s 39 seats.
But with polls due in 2016, she faces the prospect of being out of electoral politics for 10 years — her four-year jail sentence followed by a six-year disqualification period.
The immediate task for the AIADMK is to find a replacement CM. Jalalithaa was seen conferring with finance minister O Panneerselvam outside the court premises.
By all indications, Panneerselvam may well be the chosen one to keep the seat warm till, as the party hopes, Jayalalithaa clears her name and returns to office.
The formula had worked in 2001, when she was disqualified from holding office in a corruption case and Panneerselvam stepped in, only to step back the next year after the Supreme Court cleared her. There are other names doing the rounds but it is widely believed that Panneerselvam will get the chance again.
On the other side of the political divide, the ruling gives a fresh lease of life to the DMK. Though considerably weakened and divided due to the sibling rivalry between MK Stalin and MK Alagiri, the M Karunanidhi-led party now has a level playing field on the corruption issue vis-à-vis Jayalalithaa, who had used the 2G scam effectively against the DMK in the general elections.
The DMK can take credit for her conviction since it was party leader K Anbazhagan who filed the original case against her along with the BJP’s Subramanian Swamy (then with the Janata Party).
But the DMK needs to put its house in order first and patiently work for the 2016 elections. It has taken some steps towards this by talking to smaller parties. PMK chief S Ramadoss, a BJP ally, called on Karunanidhi earlier this week, though he said it was to invite him to a wedding.
Then there is the BJP, which won the two Lok Sabha seats the AIADMK could not and sees a real chance to make inroads into the southern state.
According to a political analyst who did not wish to be named, if the party plays its cards right, the AIADMK rank and file could gravitate towards it. For example, if the BJP manages to get devolution of powers to Tamils in Sri Lanka — an emotional issue for Tamil Nadu — then it would score big.
But some observers also say Jaya could turn the setback to her advantage by whipping up a sympathy wave.
During her third stint as chief minister, she has built on her image as the ‘Amma’ who cares for all. Brand Amma — with its subsidised vegetables, groceries, medicines, drinking water and even cement — is a household name. Her low-cost tiffin canteens have fans in India and abroad.
The DMK’s TKS Elangovan, though, says there will be no sympathy wave as “the conviction is for corruption. People will see through her”.
The AIADMK’s C Ponnaian maintains “it is a false case foisted by the DMK and Amma will come out clean as she did in 11 other cases”.