News analysis

Jayalalithaa's death gives Modi an opportunity

Tamil Nadu leader's party now in weakened state, opens door for BJP to boost influence there

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has an opportunity to increase his political clout in Tamil Nadu, following the  death of Ms Jayalalithaa Jayaram, analysts said.

The southern state's ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam party (AIADMK) - the third-largest in Parliament - is expected to be weakened by the death of its charismatic leader.

National parties hold little sway in Tamil Nadu, where politics has been dominated by Ms Jayalalithaa and another personality, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) leader M. Karunanidhi, who is 93 years old, and is now ill in hospital.

Ms Jayalalithaa died on Monday night after suffering a massive cardiac arrest, leaving a leadership vacuum in her party.

She helped it return to power this year, when it won 134 of 232 assembly seats, compared with 89 seats for the DMK, eight for Congress and none for Mr Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (with hands clasped), paying his respects to the late Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayalalithaa on Tuesday. Analysts believe Mr Modi has an early advantage in winning over a weakened AIADMK. 
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (with hands clasped), paying his respects to the late Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayalalithaa on Tuesday. Analysts believe Mr Modi has an early advantage in winning over a weakened AIADMK. PHOTO: REUTERS

The death of Ms Jayalalithaa has raised questions about the future of the state. Many wonder whether her successor Mr O. Pannerselvam - a quiet, low-key politician - will be able to provide the kind of decisive leadership to push growth, and continue Ms Jayalalithaa's legacy of giving prominence to social welfare schemes.

Analysts believe Mr Modi - who flew to Chennai on Tuesday to pay his respects to Ms Jayalalithaa and pledge his help to her successor - has an early advantage in winning over a weakened AIADMK.

Chennai-based political commentator Gnani Shankaran said: "The two national parties - the BJP and Congress - are likely to woo AIADMK in the coming months. And BJP is in a more comfortable position to get the support of AIADMK, since it is presently in power at the centre."

A number of decisions taken by Ms Jayalalithaa before she was hospitalised have been reversed, including a total opposition to the goods and services tax, he said.

The southern state of Tamil Nadu is one of India's most prosperous and best governed states. It has enjoyed an average growth rate of between 6 per cent and 7 per cent annually for the last five years.

 
 
 

The death of Ms Jayalalithaa has raised questions about the future of the state. Many wonder whether her successor, Mr O. Pannerselvam - a quiet, low-key politician - will be able to provide the kind of decisive leadership to push growth, and continue Ms Jayalalithaa's legacy of giving prominence to social welfare schemes.

Observers said Mr Pannerselvam will continue to invoke Ms Jayalalithaa's name but added that her death is also likely to lead to the emergence of new leaders and equations in Tamil politics.

Columnist and political commentator Neerja Chowdhury said: "It is a very open situation in Tamil Nadu. However, one thing is clear - Tamil Nadu is moving into a new phase of politics.

"The era of Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa is over. We will see new leaders being thrown up but not of the kind seen in the last 20 years to 30 years. Mass leaders are not created in a day."

For now, the AIADMK is expected to cement its support for its leadership, which includes Ms Jayalalithaa's close friend, Ms Sasikala Natarajan, who has emerged as a force working to maintain unity.

A split would also benefit the DMK which, unlike its rival, has a clear successor in Mr M. K. Stalin, Mr Karunanidhi's 63-year-old son.

Said Mr Shankaran: "The only glue that could hold the AIADMK together is the lure of holding power for the next 41/2 years. Any infighting would upset the apple cart, and a split in the party could only help the next big party - the DMK - capture power.

"The real test for them would be the 2019 general elections, when the party has to face the electorate. A repeat of getting 37 MPs elected, a feat achieved by Jayalaithaa in 2014, would be an impossibility."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 08, 2016, with the headline 'Jayalalithaa's death gives Modi an opportunity'. Print Edition | Subscribe