J Jayalalithaa's absence in Tamil Nadu politics is an eventuality that nobody in the state would have anticipated so soon and it's going to be the biggest challenge to the ruling AIADMK (All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) because the party has absolutely no second line leadership.
The two big existential questions before the party now will be who will replace Jayalalithaa as the party's political magnet, and how uneventfully can the government reconcile to an AIADMK rule without her. Since 1991, Jaya has been the only face of the party and nobody knows if there's a political heir because she never indicated any preference for anybody. In fact, whenever favourites seemed to rise, they came down sooner than later.
In all likelihood, the choice to succeed Jayalalithaa as the chief minister would be State Finance Minister O Panneerselvam, not because he was a favourite, but because he had stood in for her thrice in the past--first in 2001, when Jaya was barred by the Supreme Court from holding the office; the second time in 2014, when she had to step aside following her conviction by a trial court in the disproportionate assets case; and finally when she was in hospital recently.
On all the three occasions, he was a low-key, ultra-loyal caretaker who tried his best to underplay himself. In the first two occasions, he was a shadow chief minister because Jaya's absence was only procedural while on the last occasion, he continued to be the finance minister, holding additional portfolios while she was sick. Although there were no major policies or programmes announced during the last stint, nobody knows who gave him political orders from the party because other than Jaya, no leader was authorised to control the party.
Was it Jaya's long-term associate and friend Sasikala? Or was he just going through the motions? Anyway, there weren't any situations within the government that required political decisions in the last two months.
The coming days will be extremely crucial because that will decide how the party takes Jaya's legacy forward in her absence. There was indeed a similar vacuum when the founder of AIADMK and three-time chief minister MG Ramachandran (MGR) died in 1987, incidentally in the same month of December; but it was soon filled in by Jaya because he had openly mentored her and wanted her to be his political heir.
Everybody knew it, but the well-entrenched cliques within the party wanted to block her. They backed MGR's wife, who ended up becoming the chief minister for a little more than three weeks. That delayed Jaya's entry. The party, which had an uninterrupted run for three terms, lost the next assembly elections (1989) to the DMK, but returned to power in 1991 under Jaya. Since then, she had alternated in the chief minister's office with DMK's M Karunanidhi till 2011. After 2011, she won two elections back to back.
An otherwise unassailable AIADMK lost immediately after MGR's death mainly because of the disruption in his legacy and its inability to stay together despite having a known and charismatic heir apparent. But from the moment Jaya wrested control of the party, its run continued. However, post-Jaya, there is nobody. More than anywhere else in India, Dravidian politics is all about charisma and larger-than-life allure. MGR was a classic example, and Jaya, an equally formidable match. In the opposition, both Karunanidhi and Stalin of the DMK are also charismatic leaders.
The party certainly needs a titular head to keep its flock together and to maintain discipline. The speculation in Chennai is that it would be Sasikala. She has been with Jaya ever since the latter became the chief minister in 1991 and possibly has direct knowledge of the workings of the party and the government. Except when Jaya expelled her for a brief period in 2011, she has been a member of the AIADMK general council for a long time (Sasikala was expelled from the Jaya household in 1996 too, but at that time, she had no role in the party). There are different unverified accounts that show how influential she is with both the party and the government. In fact, many of the AIADMK MLAs are reportedly her nominees. Sources at Apollo Hospitals also say that she was indeed quite formidable in her authority over things around Jaya when she was unwell.
This authority may help her run the party and the government in the short run. Reportedly, hours before Jaya's passing was announced, all the MLAs were asked to meet at the Apollo Hospital and give their written consent to support Panneerselvam as the next chief minister. It's safe to assume that Sasikala would have ordered such a move because nobody in the party had the authority to do that. Neither would anybody listen to any other leader.
But would it work in the long run? That would be difficult, because she has no support-base at the grassroots.
Similarly, the government may not face any immediate threat because the same support system led by Jaya's confidante and former chief secretary Sheela Balakrishnan would continue to advise Panneerselvam. But in the long run, there would be problems, particularly when it has to take critical decisions on policies, MoUs, contracts etc. Tamil Nadu is the second largest economy in India and hence there's a lot at stake in terms of such decisions. In Jaya's absence, who will have the final say? The notion of instability itself can be disruptive.
In all likelihood, Sasikala would step in because there is absolutely no trace of anybody else. Perhaps she had done sufficient groundwork, especially in recent times, to derive maximum loyalty from the party MLAs, but it will be impossible to replace the overbearing authority of Jaya. This will be a vulnerability that the rival DMK will be waiting to exploit.
Sooner than later, the DMK might make its bid to break the AIADMK. With 98 MLAs, it's tantalisingly close to power. All that it requires is a group of AIADMK MLAs that's big enough not to attract the anti-defection law. Luring such a block with the right inducements may not be very difficult. That's when the party will feel the real absence of Jaya if it's still together.
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