The transfer of Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa’s portfolios to Finance Minister O Panneerselvam, as announced by Governor C Vidyasagar Rao on Tuesday, is completely on expected lines and is consistent with the status of her health that’s publicly known.
This development also makes it clear that Jaya will certainly take some time to recuperate and that there is no contesting the fact that she herself has nominated Panneerselvam because that’s what the Raj Bhavan said. Besides holding her portfolios till she resumes work, the finance minister will also head the cabinet meetings. With the governor completely on board, there is no threat to either the government or the interim arrangement.
When Panneerselvam met the governor last Wednesday along with another senior leader and minister Edappadi K Palanisamy, it had led to some speculation that the interim role could go to either of them. However, it was always Panneerselvam who stood a better chance because he had filled in for Jaya twice in the past. On both the occasions, he was in not a minister-in-charge, but the chief minister himself: first in 2001, when Jaya was barred by the Supreme Court from holding the office; and the second time, in 2014, when she had to step aside following her conviction by a trial court in the disproportionate assets case. On both the occasions, she returned to her office in a few months.
Much has been written about the parallel between the health crisis of former chief minister MG Ramachandran (MGR) in 1984 and the present situation faced by Jaya. In fact, the similarities are so remarkable that it appeared to have helped the AIADMK and Jaya’s advisors find an interim solution as well. In MGR’s case, when it was clear to both the party and the doctors that he would take much longer to recover than they initially expected, because he suffered a stroke during treatment, the immediate challenge before then governor SL Khurana was to plug the constitutional gap by putting somebody in charge. But, to assign somebody, he needed something in writing. MGR by then had become incommunicado.
However, the then finance minister VR Nedunchezhian staked his claim ahead of other hopefuls stating that MGR had orally instructed him to take charge in his absence. Questions were indeed raised about this claim, but the then chief secretary and MGR’s private secretary supported him. The advocate-general also gave his concurrence to Neduchezhian’s case.
The governor could have played difficult, but he didn’t because the Central government of Indira Gandhi was amenable. Had he refused to accede to the claims of Nedunchezhian and put in place an interim arrangement without a written communication from MGR himself, the cabinet could have been dismissed and President’s Rule could have been imposed. Indira had her eyes on the Parliament and Assembly elections that were round the corner and wanted to align with MGR and so, didn’t play politics.
Almost the same situation exists even now.
Vidyasagar Rao has also been quite amenable to the Jaya government, possibly because he was also under no pressure from the Centre. In fact, it was he who originally threw cold water on the plans of the Opposition — particularly the DMK — that wanted an interim chief minister. His statement that Jaya was well and was on the road to recovery helped to partially quell adverse rumours in the initial days of her treatment.
Although the immediate constitutional challenge is over, if Jaya’s recovery takes unduly longer it can lead to some power struggle within the AIADMK and also between the party and people close to her, because there is no official second-line leadership. If she doesn’t return to her office soon enough, some elements around her — both within the party and outside — might start proxy rule. In MGR’s case, what held the veterans together was the resolve to keep Jayalalithaa, his natural successor, at bay and the impending elections.
How long can Jaya stay away from the office without creating opportunistic aspirations among the people close to her? It's hard to tell, because on both the previous occasions when she had to abdicate her title, she was completely in control. In 2001, she was out of office for about five months and in 2014, about eight months, but on both the occasions, she was the de facto chief minister.
Going by the statements of all the VIPs who visited her — from the governor to the Kerala chief minister — she is recovering well. Even the Opposition has stopped fuelling suspicions and rumours. Therefore, it could be smooth sailing the third time too.
Meanwhile, one thing is certain — that in the contemporary political folklore of Tamil Nadu, there will be one more chapter added to Jaya’s legend.