The transition to a new leader after the death of J. Jayalalithaa was smooth in the AIADMK. It has a comfortable majority in the state assembly. Elections are due only in 2021 and there ought to be no reason for any disruption in governance. But beneath the calm, there is anxiety about whether O. Panneerselvam can hold the party and government together. He is a non-controversial leader with reasonable administrative experience and competence. That Jayalalithaa chose him to stand in for her when she had to step down as chief minister twice should help him establish his authority over the party and the government. However, in the absence of Jayalalithaa, can he hold the flock together? There is a possibility that vaulting ambitions among MLAs could destablise the government.
The AIADMK was held together by the persona of Jayalalithaa; her charisma ensured the victory of many of its MLAs. She was the glue that kept supporters drawn from different communities and regions together. To party supporters, Jayalalithaa was the only leader, the legatee of MGR, the founder of the party. What she spoke and did constituted party ideology. She transcended the faultlines that could have caused the party to implode. In her absence, the AIADMK will need to reinvent itself as a collective with OPS as the first among the many leaders. The political capital left behind by MGR and Jayalalithaa, identified in the many welfare schemes both had launched during their tenures as CM, could stand in for ideology and attract votes.
Any implosion in the AIADMK could open up the political space in Tamil Nadu. The DMK, which has the organisational muscle and a focused leadership, is likely to retain its position as one pole of state politics. But multiple players are likely to cannibalise the space currently occupied by the AIADMK, if it weakens. Jayalalithaa’s dalliance with Hindu right agendas in the past — a contradiction considering that the AIADMK claims to be an offshoot of the Dravidian Movement, which privileged Tamil subnationalism, atheism and linguistic pride over notions of Indian nationalism — has led to speculation that the party may move closer, or its supporters may shift allegiance, to the BJP. The last two decades have seen the rise of many smaller parties in Tamil Nadu, representing niche identities and offering a critique of the Dravidian parties. Clearly, the political situation in the state is set for a churn. For AIADMK leaders, the best bet is to stay above the pulls and pressures and offer a stable government for the rest of the term.