It is not easy to fill the vacuum caused by the departure of a popular and charismatic leader. However, this vacuum is not a permanent state. If personalities of equal or even slightly less stature are unavailable, significant political space opens up for other players, principally political rivals or those of a similar ideological persuasion, to capitalise on the situation. Or, as a temporary phenomenon, pretenders claiming to be true legatees of the departed leader, or those claiming to espouse the same causes as her, could emerge as key players.
Bargaining power with the Centre
In Tamil Nadu, the unexpected demise of Jayalalithaa hardly six months into her fourth substantive term as Chief Minister seems to have created such a vacuum. There is no second-line leadership, none with a stature even remotely akin to hers within her All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK). However, the question of filling the vacuum is only academic as O. Panneerselvam has become Chief Minister , this being his third stint.
On two earlier occasions, he saw himself as a a stand-in until Jayalalithaa got rid of her legal disability to hold office. However, this time, it is a substantive innings. He cannot afford to display the reticence of a substitute. It was, of course, inevitable that someone who is familiar and reliable and has been the second in command in her Cabinet has been sworn in her successor. Waiting in the wings is the principal opposition party with a sizeable presence in the Legislative Assembly. Therefore, right now, the question of succession or the availability of an electoral alternative is not an issue. What matters in the aftermath of Jayalalithaa’s departure from the scene is the ideological and political challenge faced by a State that has repeatedly elected regional parties to power for nearly half a century. The principal challenge lies in retaining their relevance in the national scheme of things and their bargaining power with the Centre.
This is an era of a return to centralisation. The economy is on the verge of being united by a common taxation system that was seen by Jayalalithaa as a serious compromise of federalism. After about two decades of dependence on regional parties for support, the Centre now is being manned by a regime which has its own majority in the Lok Sabha and is in a position to assert itself. A common market and a common political economy are emerging. The character of the Upper House as a chamber that represents the interests of the States has already undergone a change with the electoral system that now allows one to represent a State that is not one’s home turf. There are voices advocating Constitution amendments to curtail the role of the Rajya Sabha in enacting legislation.
The emerging dynamic in Centre-State relations is unquestionably going to be a new order. States will be under great pressure to conform to a national narrative, lest they be seen as derailing an emerging national consensus or institutional framework. It is here that the need for a strong political personality helming the States assumes significance. This need not immediately conjure up the image of an angry Mamata Banerjee or an acerbic Arvind Kejriwal hurling accusations at the Centre. On the contrary, there are, and ought to be, Chief Ministers who argue for their States and their interests in a rational and reasonable manner, and articulate genuine problems arising from questions that impinge on the federal features of the Constitution.
The role Jayalalithaa played
Jayalalithaa was undoubtedly one such leader. She vigorously questioned the impact of the introduction of the Goods and Services Tax on the taxation and fiscal powers of the States and the composition of the GST Council . She has voiced similar opposition to the National Counter Terrorism Centre, and had reservations about implementing the National Food Security Act and joining UDAY or the Ujwal DISCOM Assurance Yojna in the power sector. During her prolonged hospitalisation of over two months, the State government decided to join the power sector scheme as well as implement the food security law. This is not to suggest that Jayalalithaa would not have shown accommodation with the Centre, as she has since 1991 embraced the positive aspects of economic reforms. However, these two examples show that those running the administration in her absence are likely to be seen as being more amenable to Central pressure.
In the last two months and more of Jayalalithaa’s hospitalisation , a visible phenomenon was the gradual effacement of the State administration. The Tamil Nadu government appeared to have no presence or voice in the scheme of things, as none in the Cabinet or the bureaucracy stepped forward to give an official update on her health, or utter a word of reassurance to the public. In the couple of days after Jayalalithaa suffered a cardiac arrest, the administration became completely invisible, as the spectre of a law and order situation among the restive party cadre arose. It was left to the Centre to step in by asking the Governor to rush to the State and inquire about her health status. Updates were given and rumours were scotched only by the hospital. The Centre hinted that its forces were ready to assist in the event of a need, but none in the State government either said it would manage the situation on its own or that it would ask for help, if needed. Of course, the administration and the police were quietly doing their job, but the political executive was unfortunately silent. Ultimately, it was after the hospital announced her death that the ruling party’s decision to elect Mr. Panneerselvam as its leader in the legislature was made public. The atmosphere was thick with speculation that a Union Minister had expressed the Centre’s opinion on who it favoured as a successor, a subject that is surely not in the Union government’s domain. If this is true, it could be an indication of what is to come: the Centre or its representatives actively guiding the State government in its functioning.
The Bharatiya Janata Party is undoubtedly justified in looking for political space in Tamil Nadu. However, this should be achieved by overt political activity rather than the use of the Centre’s power to bear down on the State administration. Both the regional party and the national party are free to forge a formal or informal alliance, but the State cannot afford to lose its independent voice, and it is the AIADMK’s duty to dispel the impression that it may be arm-twisted or pressured into submission on any significant question. The ruling party in the State is now particularly vulnerable to the charge that the Sasikala family is an extra-constitutional power centre. Avoiding this impression is in the hands of Mr. Panneerselvam’s ministry.
Causes peculiar to Tamil Nadu
A notable feature after Jayalalithaa’s demise is the manner in which leaders of the opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) joined the ruling party supporters and the public in paying homage to her. No one can doubt that the level of personal animosity between Jayalalithaa and DMK leader M. Karunanidhi played a serious role in the State’s political culture lacking the sort of bonhomie seen between rival party leaders in other parts of the country. With the former’s departure and the impending emergence of the next generation in the DMK, there is a clear opportunity to usher in a new political culture marked by cooperation on key issues. Both the AIADMK and the DMK have a shared legacy of social reform, commitment to State autonomy and fiscal federalism, and the vigorous espousal of causes peculiar to Tamil Nadu such as backward class reservation and the abolition of entrance tests. They would be better off, as would the State be, if they dealt with these matters jointly, shedding the vexed propensity of the past to look for opportunities to score political points over each other.