With better clarity emerging on Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa's health condition, it's rather apparent that both the ruling AIADMK and the state administration have to get an interim administrative system going till she gets back to work. According to information from the hospital, Jayalalithaa's health is not as bleak as rumours make them out to be, but she would certainly need prolonged treatment.
Her absence from the Chief Minister's office definitely raises both constitutional and administrative questions and her party and the government, or probably people close to her, seemed to have woken up to the situation. Two senior ministers, O. Panneerselvam, who had filled in for her twice when she had to step aside for legal reasons, and Edappadi K. Palanisamy, a party veteran, met Governor C. Vidyasagar Rao on Friday along with the chief secretary and briefed him about the "day-to-day" administrative affairs". It's not clear if the governor called for them or they volunteered.
Whatever the party, her advisors, and the administration decide will be surely known in a few days because Jayalalithaa is unlikely to return to her office any time soon. And justifiably, people are speculating as to what that arrangement could be. Inevitably, one tends to compare the present impasse with the past, when party founder, Jaya's mentor and former Chief Minister MG Ramachandran (MGR) took ill in 1984. Strange enough, some situations - then and now - are strikingly similar.
MGR too was admitted at the same hospital past midnight with breathlessness, almost at the same age, and nothing was known on his condition for two weeks. In fact, even the number of days at the hospital before MGR showed improvement was almost the same as in Jaya's case, and there were ups and downs in both the cases. The man who coordinated the medical teams at the hospital in both the cases also was the same - Apollo Hospitals chairman Dr PC Reddy.
"Jayalalithaa's health is not as bleak as rumours make them out to be, but she would certainly need prolonged treatment."
Forget this trivia, the throwback to MGR's hospital days clearly provides some concrete options to AIADMK and Jaya's advisors. When MGR's treatment appeared prolonged, and his rivals whispered about a constitutional crisis, there was no major pressure from Indira Gandhi's central government mostly because she was keen to align with the AIADMK in the parliament and assembly elections that were round the corner. Modi's government also doesn't seem to be in any hurry and hence there is no threat from Governor Rao and Article 356.
The most tricky stalemate that followed MGR's ill-health, which was far more serious than that of Jayalalithaa because he also had suffered a stroke in the hospital and his kidneys had packed up, was that any interim arrangement that the Governor could authorise could only be based on the advise of the council of ministers headed by the Chief Minister. With no constitutional clarity as to what to do when the Chief Minister is incommunicado for prolonged periods of time, the Governor agreed to an arrangement in which the cabinet would meet, but wouldn't take any policy decisions till MGR, the Chief Minister, was back.
The situation then was more problematic because MGR's absence exposed the factional rivalry within the party. Although Jayalalithaa had been openly mentored by MGR as her successor, the party veterans wanted to isolate her. In fact, she was not even allowed to visit MGR at the hospital. The desire for power also caused fissures among the veterans as well.
"In the AIADMK books, there's no room for an interim Chief Minister."
However, in about a month, VR Nedunchezhiyan, the then finance minister who incidentally had met the governor alone earlier to stake his claim, was assigned the portfolios handled by MGR, pending his return. This enabled him to head cabinet meetings and act as the de facto Chief Minister.
In the present situation, there doesn't seem to be any apparent power struggle within the party, or between people close to her and the party. Whether on somebody's advice or not, Panneerselvam didn't meet the governor alone, but was accompanied by Palanisamy. Unlike MGR, who had unequivocally had projected her as his successor, Jaya hasn't indicated preference for anybody. All that Panneerselvam could claim is that he had been chosen by her as the interim Chief Minister whenever she had to take a break.
Nedunchezhiyan's claim for the interim leadership was based on an "oral" instruction that he quoted to the Governor and others: according to him, before he suffered the stroke, MGR had orally instructed him to hold the fort down during his absence. Although there was no written note from MGR, the governor had to take a decision because he couldn't have allowed the stalemate to continue. Probably because of the compulsions of the situation, his claim was also endorsed by the then chief secretary, MGR's private secretary and the Advocate General.
So, the question now is if a similar formula will be followed this time as well in which the Chief Minister's portfolios will be assigned to either Panneerselvam or Palanisamy and one of them is asked to chair the cabinet meetings.
For the time being, it's the most logical solution in sight. In the AIADMK books, there's no room for an interim Chief Minister. Unlike in MGR's time, this arrangement can be put in place more easily because there is no apparent power struggle within the party. Similarly, unlike in 1984, there is no political urgency because there are no impending elections. All that the party needs do is to fill the administrative vacuum. However, if the stalemate continues for long, it will certainly lead to serious power struggle among many aspirants that will threaten the future of AIADMK.
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