Jayalalithaa’s health cause for larger concerns, more political than administrative
Even as southern Tamil Nadu received a fresh shock of a setback in the condition of long-hospitalised Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa, larger questions of politics and political administration beg medium and long-term answers
Chennai: Even as southern Tamil Nadu received a fresh shock of a setback in the condition of long-hospitalised Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa, larger questions of politics and political administration beg medium and long-term answers. Applicable to similar situations in other states and governments, it could well imply a fresh look at the constitutional and governmental provisions in such cases.
Both at the social and administrative levels, the state was recovering from the shock of Jaya’s hospitalisation on the night of 22 September, and settling down to business as usual despite the physical absence and personal contribution of the chief minister when the Sunday setback seemingly put back the clock. Despite protests to the contrary, especially pertaining to the cooperatives, the state government had a relative smooth-sail on the demonetisation front.
If anything, Tamil Nadu is possibly the only state where the chief minister and also the ruling party did not have anything to say, officially, on demonetisation. The terms of reference of Acting Governor C Vidyasagar Rao for Finance Minister O Panneerselvam to chair Cabinet meetings clearly indicated that Jaya continued to be chief minister. Through the three Assembly by-elections that her AIADMK won during the past weeks, the AIADMK too acted as if ‘Amma’ was still around. Barring the early candidates’ lists for the court-postponed local body elections, the party’s candidates’ list for the Assembly by-polls even carried her signature.
The mandatory ‘Form-B’ for the allocation of registered party symbol to the three by-poll candidates, carried Jaya’s thumb-impression, duly attested as per Election Commission rules. All criticism on this front died a natural death when the party romped home in all three constituencies with huge margins. The Madras High Court also duly pooh-poohed claims and contestations to the contrary.
Having taken up the challenge of restoring the chief minister’s health to its normal self following multi-organ issues, Apollo Hospitals would have been the happiest for Jaya to return home.
Chairman Pratap C Reddy had expressed his happiness and hope of Jaya being able to choose the time for returning home meant that she had come back in control of her faculties. The Sunday evening setback now raises questions of both political and administrative nature. First, the AIADMK cadres who had felt relaxed after hospital reports indicated that Amma was recovering are now back to a revived period of uncertainty. Party ministers and senior officials gathered and conferred at Apollo after the setback, and cadres started gathering outside the hospital.
For the second time after Jaya’s hospitalisation, ruling party MLAs met to take stock of the new situation; the first such meeting took place before the governor asked Panneerselvam to chair Cabinet meetings and look after the Home and other portfolios, under the chief minister's care. The Monday morning meeting was held on the Apollo premises — possibly the first time that any political party conclave of the size has been held in a hospital in contemporary history.
For all the questions attending on the state government’s functioning in the absence of the chief minister effectively in charge, Tamil Nadu has not lagged behind. Nor is it the first time that it has been happening in the state — possibly the only state in the country to have both a contemporary episode of the kind and also a precedent of sorts. Before Jaya, her political mentor and then chief minister, the late MG Ramachandran, was hospitalised for a long time. Then governor SL Khurana, a veteran civil servant himself, readily nominated the finance minister, the late VR Nedunchezhiyan, to chair Cabinet meetings and also take care of the portfolios under the chief minister’s care. Later, when MGR returned home after a long period of hospitalisation — but with impaired speech, the government continued to function.
Before MGR, his own political mentor, the late DMK founder, CN Annadurai, died of cancer while serving as chief minister. The state government did function. Ahead of the 2009 Lok Sabha polls, then chief minister, the DMK’s M Karunanidhi was in hospital for a spinal surgery, for close to a month. It’s another matter that in the case of Annadurai and Karunanidhi, their ministerial colleagues enjoyed greater freedom of action and decision-making than under MGR or Jaya. Yet, over the years, the state bureaucracy has learnt to work on its own, more to guide the ministries and ministers than is the other way round. If efficiency or even decision-making has suffered, it again seems to be status quo.
Through Jaya’s hospitalisation and the demonetisation and other Opposition protests of whatever kind, the law and order situation has remained relatively peaceful, at times more peaceful than in some other states with a functioning and more communicative chief minister, even otherwise.
Although the Cauvery water dispute with neighbouring Karnataka caused very many tense moments, it was nothing more, nor less, than many other years in the past, whoever was the chief minister and wherever he or she was.
The issue pertains more to the political aspect than government functioning. OPS, as Panneerselvam, is popularly known, had settled down to running the government without ‘Amma’ around, more than on the past two occasions, when he was chief minister reporting to Jaya – owing to her ‘disqualification’ by the Supreme Court in the first instance, and imprisonment in the ‘disproportionate assets case’, a second time in over a decade.
For starters, the Supreme Court that reserved the final verdict in the ‘DA case’ has not fixed any date for the purpose, what with Jaya being the first accused, followed by her live-in confidante Sasikala Natarajan, and the latter’s kin, Illavarasi and VN Sudhagaran. Even without the DA case and her present health condition, AIADMK after Jaya had been a question hanging in the air for long.
Unlike mentor MGR, Jaya did not develop a serious second-line. For now, OPS has come to be accepted as a de facto deputy, but the party would look afresh if it came to he or anyone else being able to win future elections. A presidium of senior leaders from time to time could be a possible option at the time, but given the history of political factionalism without a strong and stern leader, this question begs an answer.
The question would also arise if the BJP as the ruling party at the Centre and Narendra Modi as prime minister would want to get involved in AIADMK politics, now or ahead of the 2019 parliamentary polls. It’s not unlikely that at the appropriate time and space, the AIADMK may be encouraged to sign in onto the NDA at the Centre.
With Jaya hospitalised for some time now, and medical advice not unlikely to go in favour of her campaigning in the future, as and when she returns home, the question would remain if the AIADMK too could do with a strong campaigner like Modi. For the BJP and Modi, too, the performance in the 2014 parliamentary polls and more recently in the 2016 Assembly elections is a pointer that they could not hope to replace one or the other of the two Dravidian majors, namely, the AIADMK and the DMK.
In between, the party and the government could do with the AIADMK’s very own 37-member backing in the Lok Sabha, whenever required, and even more so in the Rajya Sabha. But such issues and related support to the Centre and the BJP-Modi leadership, could also prove to be a point of dissent within the AIADMK, if only in the absence of a strong leader.
After all, there are enough issues, such as the Cauvery water dispute, Sri Lankan ethnic and fishermen's concerns, among others, that have an inherent divisive quality to them. Independent of all this, DMK’s Karunanidhi had openly declared that only 20 MLAs made a difference to government-formation in the State. That was just only days after Amma had won the Assembly polls for her AIADMK in May.
Today, when Jaya continues to be in a critical condition and the AIADMK too is seeking divine intervention, going beyond medical miracles one after another, DMK’s Karunanidhi, 93, has been hospitalised — reportedly for clinical tests pertaining to some skin allergy. Karunanidhi’s heir-apparent and former deputy chief minister, MK Stalin, seems to be in less of a hurry than his father, but then, there is no fourth leader worth the name in the state, after these three, and in that order — Jaya, Karunanidhi and Stalin.
The other two have been tweeting, like the rest of the state’s and nation’s polity, for Jaya’s early return to normalcy — a rare fete in the Dravidian political history over the past 50 years and more. Stalin, again in an unprecedented move, visited the Apollo Hospital to enquire about Jaya’s health in the earlier phase, and so did his half-sister and DMK’s Rajya Sabha member, Kanimozhi. At the time, Karunanidhi issued a statement for Jaya’s early recovery.
The author is director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, a multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi
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