Charismatic Leader’s Death Opens a Door for Modi

  • Modi’s BJP a likely winner amid the state’s political turmoil
  • Some companies shut local offices as state mourns Jayalalithaa

The death of popular Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayaram Jayalalithaa presents a political opening for Prime Minister Narendra Modi in one of India’s most industrialized states.

Jayalalithaa, a movie star turned iconic and controversial politician, personified the disruptive rise of powerful regional leaders who seized control of several Indian states at the expense of national parties such as Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party and the Indian National Congress. Modi tweeted that her passing “left a huge void in Indian politics,” and flew to the southern state on Tuesday to pay his respects.

Jayalalithaa’s death at 68 following a cardiac arrest could spur a reemergence of national parties in Tamil Nadu -- a politically important and economically vital state of nearly 80 million people. Her powerful regional party will attempt to use her legacy to its advantage, but doesn’t have anyone capable of replicating her popularity, said Sandeep Shastri, a political analyst and pro vice chancellor of Jain University in Bangalore. 

People react to the death of Jayalalithaa Jayaram in Chennai on Dec. 5.

Photographer: Arun Sankar/AFP via Getty Images

“In the short run, you may see a mask of stability, but in the long term I think there’s going to be a reconfiguration in state politics," Shastri said. “The primary beneficiary will be the BJP.”

Jayalalithaa was synonymous with her party and her death may change political equations in a state long dominated by local parties, he said. Her All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) appointed as successor state Finance Minister O.P. Panneerselvam.

Political Opening

Jayalalithaa was first elected Tamil Nadu chief minister in 1991. She won four more elections, including in 2016, despite being forced to step down twice -- most recently in 2014, when she spent three weeks in prison on corruption charges, triggering violence, before a high court cleared her.

Jayalalithaa Jayaram

Photographer: Arun Sankar/AFP via Getty Images

Parts of state capital Chennai resembled a ghost town Tuesday, with shops, petrol pumps and pharmacies shut. In the area where her body was kept for viewing, a heavy police presence kept thousands upon thousands of mourners in check.

K Selvi, a Chennai resident in the crowd, said Jayalalithaa had done a lot for the welfare of women and children. “Tamil Nadu will struggle without her,” she said. “No one can replace her.”

The AIADMK started a number of popular welfare programs under Jayalalithaa, many named after her, that distributed cheap food and medicines to the poor. Because the AIADMK won elections in May, there won’t be a state election until 2021. 

State Politics

However, the BJP could see gains in the state during federal elections in 2019. To do well, a dramatic reshaping of the BJP’s local party operations is needed, said N. Sathiya Moorthy, director of the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation think-tank’s Chennai chapter. “They have to put their house in order,” he said. “They don’t have candidates or organization in the state.”

Her passing also represents a “short-term opportunity” for rival Tamil party, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, said Milan Vaishnav, a senior fellow for South Asia at the Washington, D.C.-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Over the medium-to-long-term, he said, the major beneficiary will be Modi and his BJP.

A.R. Venkatachalapathy, a professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies, said the BJP likely smells an opportunity and has been working over the past two months to capitalize on the situation. “Whether they will win the elections in 2021 is not the question. They will try to become a player,” he said.

Economic Impact

Ford Motor Co., Infosys Ltd. and New Jersey-based Cognizant Technology Solutions Corp., which all have significant operations in the state, said they closed local offices on Tuesday. Cognizant has over 70,000 employees in Tamil Nadu, which hosts many global auto manufacturers and technology outsourcing companies. 

Despite the crowds of emotional supporters, analysts don’t anticipate significant disruptions, partly because Jayalalithaa had struggled with health problems in recent months and her death was not a surprise.

The state may see political instability over the next few years as parties jostle for position, said M.R. Venkatesh, a New Delhi-based independent policy analyst. Economic growth could be stunted, corruption will definitely go up and foreign investors might even begin avoiding the state, he said.

"The state is headed towards political vacuum," Venkatesh said. “How it will be filled up is a critical question.”

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