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WhyItMatters

Jayalalithaa's fate at stake in Tamil Nadu polls

The assembly elections in Tamil Nadu next Monday will not just shape the political future of a key Indian state, but also decide the fate of one of the country's most powerful women politicians: J. Jayalalithaa.

Tamil Nadu, home to 72 million Tamils, has one of the highest gross domestic products in India, growing around 7 per cent annually over the past five years. Political power there has alternated between the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) led by Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa, 68, and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) led by Mr M. Karunanidhi, 92.

The state sends 57 MPs to Parliament and its leaders always have a voice in national politics. But national parties like the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress have little influence in the state.

Still, the spotlight is firmly on Ms Jayalalithaa, who is fighting for a second term in power even as she battles rumoured poor health. Popularly known as "Amma" (Mother), the actress turned politician is worshipped by her supporters and has survived many political and legal challenges.

 
 

Last year, she was convicted of corruption and stepped down as chief minister briefly, but returned within months after being cleared by a high court.

Most opinion polls predict a majority win for Ms Jayalalithaa, but analysts say the results could be closer than expected. She is facing criticism for her government's poor handling of the floods in Chennai and nearby areas, and the DMK has mounted a spirited campaign led by Mr Karunanidhi's 63-year-old son, Stalin. The emergence of smaller parties is also providing voters with an alternative.

Unlike other states where issues are important, politics in Tamil Nadu continues to be driven by the personalities of the politicians, caste affiliations and, most importantly, election freebies. The DMK and AIADMK have promised everything from free laptops to loan waivers. Yet as the voting day nears, Tamil Nadu could just produce a surprise.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 14, 2016, with the headline 'Amma's fate at stake in polls'. Print Edition | Subscribe