Tamil Nadu faces political vacuum after Jayalalitha's death

Jayaram Jayalalitha, leader of the Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) state political party, gestures during a campaign rally in Chennai on 9 April, 2016 Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The 68-year-old chief minister of Tamil Nadu died after suffering a heart attack

Jayaram Jayalalitha was the undisputed leader of the governing party in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, but her sudden death has raised questions over who will replace her and what direction the party will take.

It will take a while for supporters and other leaders of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam party, or AIADMK, to come to terms with the huge void created by the death of Jayalalitha, one of India's most flamboyant and controversial leaders.

The party, founded in 1972 by the charismatic MG Ramachandran, known as MGR, a film star turned politician, has been playing a crucial role in providing political stability in Tamil Nadu, which is among the most important Indian states economically and politically.

Jayalalitha's death has triggered an air of uncertainty among the 75 million Tamils who have been used to seeing the AIADMK either as a governing party or as the main opposition for nearly four decades.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Jayalalitha seen visiting a portrait of party founder MG Ramachandran in May

Political stability has played a key role in Tamil Nadu's development over the years. Its economy has been growing at a rate of around 12% in the past 10 years, much higher than the national average of around 8%.

Tamil Nadu is also the second largest economy among Indian states, next only to Maharashtra. Its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2015 was estimated to be around $150bn (£119bn). And as a whole, GDP per person in Tamil Nadu is 68% higher than the national average of $1,390 (£1,102) a year.

'No popular leader'

For the moment, one of Jayalalitha's trusted lieutenants, O Panneerselvam, has taken over as chief minister. The smooth transition of power has surprised everyone. But there are challenges ahead.

"The party does not have any other leader who is similarly charismatic or popular. That is a vacuum. Right from its inception, the AIADMK has had popular leadership. For the first time, the party does not have a popular figure," says Gnani, a veteran political analyst.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption O Panneerselvam (right), seen here with Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu, has taken over as Tamil Nadu's chief minister

It is well known that there is no second - or even third - line of leadership in the party. The AIADMK flourished and succeeded mainly because of the charisma of Jayalalitha after she took over the party in 1990. At the helm, she never allowed anyone to challenge her and those who showed signs of rebellion were summarily dismissed.

As a woman leader in a male-dominated society, she stamped her authority to instil respect or even fear among her party's men. Her autocratic style led to her ministers and senior party members prostrating in front of her in public, sometimes even in front of her car, to get her blessing or attention.

The AIADMK leadership - both MGR and Jayalalitha - appealed directly to its supporters, mostly in rural and semi-urban areas. The middle-level leaders were usually hand-picked and most of them had no political base of their own.

The winning formula was achieved by offering free tablets, bicycles, televisions and money, and also by striking alliance with smaller or caste-based political parties. The party's election symbol, Two Leaves, introduced by MGR, is still a powerful tool to attract votes.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The party's election symbol is still strong among voters (File photo)

There is speculation that Jayalalitha's long-time friend and confidante Sasikala Natarajan is likely to play a crucial role in the party's affairs and establish a power structure around her.

Though she was close to the former leader, Mrs Natarajan was never given any official position by Jayalalitha. Mrs Natarajan and her family members are influential within the party, but they do not have any political base of their own.

Risk of infighting?

If there is any trouble within the party over the growing influence of Mrs Natarajan, that will work to the advantage of the main opposition in Tamil Nadu, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK). It is not uncommon in Tamil Nadu politics to engineer a split in the rival camp to bring down the government.

Some regional leaders of the AIADMK, who were sidelined by Jayalalitha, may use the opportunity to stage a comeback and demand ministerial berths.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Sasikala Natarajan (left) could play an important role in the party's new chapter

Any infighting within the AIADMK is also likely to have an impact at the national level politics. In the past two decades, India's political direction has been dictated by powerful regional parties and the AIADMK was one of them.

It took 30 years for a single party to achieve an outright majority in the Indian parliament, in 2014. Support of the regional parties was crucial in the formation of a national coalition government.

But the political equation changed after Narendra Modi led the BJP to power two years ago.

Whether in a coalition or not, an assertive Jayalalitha never hesitated for a moment to take on the central government, even eclipsing her mentor MGR. She castigated the federal government over their stance on the Sri Lankan Tamil issue or the Cauvery river water sharing dispute with neighbouring Karnataka state.

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Media caption'She was our lighthouse, our God - why has she left us?'

There are concerns now that a weak AIADMK beset by internal squabbles will reduce the party's influence in central policies affecting the state.

"Regional parties have already lost their influence after the BJP got an absolute majority in parliament. If infighting erupts within the AIADMK, it will diminish the power and political leverage of the AIADMK. But the BJP still needs their support in the Rajya Sabha (Upper House) to pass crucial bills and laws," says AR Venkatachalapathy, historian and professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies.

Twists and turns

If nothing goes wrong, the present AIADMK government is expected to complete its full term and the next state assembly elections are scheduled for 2021. The challenge for the AIADMK will be how it will face the electorate if there is any election in the interim period.

The two Dravidian parties - AIADMK and DMK - have been ruling the state for nearly five decades. The national parties, like Congress and the BJP, have been waiting for decades to make inroads in Tamil Nadu. Is it the right moment?

"It AIADMK weakens, then the main opposition DMK will benefit. I don't think any national party (like Congress or the BJP) will benefit from the situation. The DMK will move into the space," says N Ram, former editor-in-chief of the Hindu newspaper.

Tamil Nadu has witnessed lots of political drama over the years, but it is now entering a new phase and getting used to a life without Ms Jayalalitha for the first time in 35 years. More twists and turns are on the cards.

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