Jayalalithaa death: Amid Modi's sharing of grief with Sasikala, a signal of TN's political future

The passing away of J Jayalalithaa (her name is sometimes spelled Jayalalitha) will force a coercive realignment of the pieces on the chessboard of Tamil Nadu and even national politics. Much has already been written about the cult status that Puratchi Thalaivi (revolutionary leader) enjoyed among the masses. But Jayalalithaa's influence wasn't restricted to the south of Vindhyas.

The days leading from her resolute battle with illness to eventual demise have shaken not just Chennai, but also the power centre in New Delhi. Ever since the AIADMK supremo was admitted to the hospital on 22 September with complaints of fever and dehydration, Tamil Nadu, which reelected her for the fourth time as chief minister on 23 May this year, had held its breath.

The administration was on autopilot and so was the opposition. Even as Jayalalithaa lay in the hospital with doctors reporting slow but steady progress, DMK was battling own demons with nonagenarian patriarch M Karunanidhi also getting treated in another hospital. Caught between the two illnesses, the state was frozen in animated suspension. The stasis exploded into a frenzy of anxiety when on Sunday, Jayalalithaa suffered a "massive cardiac arrest" just hours after AIADMK had claimed that their Iron Lady had "completely recovered" and would soon return home. The events that unfolded indicated the true nature of Amma's power.

Even as the state shut itself down amid insecurities of uncontrolled emotion triggering large-scale violence, the Centre took control. In the intervening hours between Jayalalithaa's cardiac arrest and demise, governor C Vidyasagar Rao sprung into action, cutting short his other engagements and rushing to the Apollo Hospital. The Centre dispatched a team of Aiims specialists, Union Minister Venkaiah Naidu flew down to Chennai and reportedly gave the prime minister minute-to-minute updates.

The flurry of activity — that intensified as it became clear that Jayalalithaa might be the state's third chief minister to die while in office (after MG Ramachandran and CN Annadurai) — gave an idea about the Centre's eagerness to remain a stakeholder in Tamil Nadu's altered power structure amid extreme volatility that would inevitably be triggered.

 Jayalalithaa death: Amid Modis sharing of grief with Sasikala, a signal of TNs political future

Prime Minister Narendra Modi pays his last respects to Tamil Nadu's former chief minister Jayaram Jayalalithaa at Rajaji Hall in Chennai on Tuesday. PTI

And not just the Centre. As Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrived in Chennai to pay his last respects, so did several political leaders and chief ministers including Naveen Patnaik, Chandrababu Naidu, Shivraj Chouhan, Arvind Kejriwal, Pinarayi Vijayan, Narayanaswamy (Puducherry), Rahul Gandhi and President Pranab Mukherjee. Mamata Banerjee sent two emissaries to Chennai. The list of attendees at the funeral signals — beyond the obvious formalities — the alignment and realignment of political axis that would now take shape.

For the Modi government, Amma's death comes at a time when the federal-state relationship is under huge strain. The implementation of one big bang reform in demonetisation has unleashed disruptive forces in the economy that may still intensify with the onset of GST. In this crucial juncture, Jayalalithaa's departure will force the Centre, which is still locked in a battle with states over executing the single-biggest tax reform, to rethink strategies and redraw its plans.

With the ruling AIADMK commanding a major chunk of the Lok Sabha with 37 seats along with 14 members in the Upper House, the chief minister's death brings both threats and opportunities for the NDA government. As politics in Tamil Nadu turns unpredictable and fluid, the Centre may try to angle for a greater leverage by pulling the strings of players who have emerged the strongest.

But it won't be easy.

Jayalalithaa's considerable political capital may provide interim chief minister O Panneerselvam the necessary breathing space — precluding any possibility of split in the near term — and the Modi government may even get singed if it is seen trying too hard to instigate an Uttarakhand or Arunachal Pradesh-type machination.

There is also a personal dimension in the power calculation. For Modi, Amma's death is a loss.

The two mass leaders shared a rare affinity and the prime minister, who arrived at Rajaji Hall in Chennai to pay his last respects, wasn't just being gracious when he mourned his "key ally and long-term friend".

In a moment of poignancy as also utter political significance, Modi spent a few fleeting minutes consoling Amma's closest aide Sasikala Natarajan just after laying a wreath on the leader's mortal remains, offering the black-clad, weeping Sasikala a sympathetic pat of assurance. The prime minister was also seen engaging with her in a brief discussion just before departure. With Sasikala emerging as the kingmaker, amid the sharing of personal grief, the moments also gave us an indication of how the future may shape up in post-Amma era.

As CL Manoj writes in The Economic Times on the aftershocks of Jayalalitha's death,

"Given the rift within AIADMK and the fact DMK too is looking for an fishing in the muddied waters, Centre's supporting role, many think, will be a strategic requirement for Sasikala faction to ensure a smooth transition. Political circles attribute AIADMK's recent softening of its stand — in the GST council and the 'Uday' electricity reforms scheme — to Sasikala camp's way of humouring the Centre. AIADMK's ongoing opposition to demonetisation is seen as a bargaining chip. Given Sasikala herself figures in the disproportional assets case, some argue, she would be prone to pushes from Centre to ensure a 'convenient' transition."

The BJP, unlike the Congress during MGR's death, has no seat in the Tamil Nadu Assembly. In the recently concluded bypolls, however, the party has done reasonably well, even showing a 2.5 percent vote share and relegating DMDK to the fourth spot. Although it may not have any grand plans for the southern state with elections in Uttar Pradesh on the anvil, Amma's death and DMK's succession woes present BJP with the chance to gain a foothold. The AIADMK, rudderless and it would seem, leaderless (with Jayalalithaa's cult-based politics leaving no space for a second or even third-rung leader to gain prominence), may increasingly veer towards the Centre for survival.

If the BJP plays its cards right in the post-Jayalalithaa era and backs the right horses, Tamil Nadu politics might be altered for good.

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Updated Date: Dec 07, 2016 14:55:29 IST