Jaya has won battle, but many wars await

Jayalalithaa has made it to Fort St George yet again, proving many pollsters wrong. But, perhaps, they were wrong from the very beginning, may be even deliberately.

It was, indeed, a waveless election. People were neither swept off their feet by Amma nor were they burning with rage to oust her government, though many reporters on the field kept insisting they could sense a strong anti-incumbency mood. 

In the event, results showed there was too much wishful thinking in the field reports and some flawed methodology in the surveys, to put it charitably. Still, the AIADMK’s triumph should be seen in perspective. Its tally is just 134 seats out of 232. (Elections to two seats have been adjourned). 

In the very first elections in the then Madras Presidency after Independence, the Congress could win only 152 seats in the 375-member House. It had to indulge in a lot of horse-trading to form the government. But since then, at no point of time has the Opposition done so well as now, with as many as 98 seats.

That Jayalalithaa has won is remarkable too, in that she has broken the anti-incumbency jinx. Still, it is not a sweeping victory, but a rather narrow one. It is nowhere near Mamata Banerjee’s show in West Bengal.

What this will mean for governance is difficult to say. The AIADMK supremo is known for her bluster and swagger, whatever the circumstances. The on-all-fours parade by her flock, as she remained seated – as if on a throne – in front of her residence in full view of the cameras, was a clear demonstration that she had not changed one bit and would continue to reign as the queen and not as a chief minister in a democracy, leave alone being primus inter pares (first among equals).

Her vaulting ego is unlikely to be restrained by ground realities, and she will remain unfazed by the rather modest scale of her victory or by a strong Opposition presence in the legislature. One can expect her to ride rough-shod over every kind of dissent.

How did we arrive here in the first place though? Her governance in the previous five years was not all that outrageous. She had learnt her lessons from her 1996 debacle; she herself lost and the AIADMK bagged only four seats. Her cronies had run amok during 1991-96, and the people gave a befitting response at the first opportunity.  

Again during 2001-06, she sacked protesting government employees en masse, invoked the Prevention of Terrorism Act (since repealed) indiscriminately and acquired notoriety for whimsical and vengeful actions. 

When in 2004 Lok Sabha elections she was blanked out, she quickly rolled back. By the time the Assembly elections took place two years later, the hostility had considerably lessened and her front managed a respectable 69, while the DMK could form government only with the support of its ally, the Congress.

In her last stint, the governance was no good and there were also the usual charges of corruption. Besides, the death of a veteran anti-liquor activist Sasi Perumal, who fell off a cell phone tower during a protest, provoked widespread resentment. The government chose to ride out the storm, but during the campaign Jayalalithaa did promise prohibition in phases.

Multi-cornered contests
The point is, it was a mellowed ‘revolutionary leader’ (as she is hailed by her followers) that one saw in action. Even the power crisis, which was a key factor in the DMK’s defeat in 2011, was tweaked here and there with no major breakdown or prolonged disruption. Naturally, anti-incumbency was not overwhelming enough to vote her out. 

Multi-cornered contests, too, came to her rescue. In 50 to 60 constituencies, the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), a party of the intermediate caste Vanniars, and DMDK, a six-party front led by actor-turned-politician Vijayakanth, weaned away enough anti-AIADMK votes to cause the defeat of the DMK front. Also, in as many as 15 constituencies, the NOTA votes were more than the victory margin of the AIADMK.

So then, a variety of factors helped Amma extend her hold on power by another five years. Still, there are imponderables ahead. First is her health. She has some serious mobility problem; hence, her visits to the state secretariat will become progressively rare. Of course, she seldom tours the state, except during the elections and prefers to rule from within the confines of her Poes Garden fortress.
 What if this emboldens officials and her own minions to run amok or paralyse her governance altogether? When the opposition has good numbers in the House, there are many possibilities of ugly scenes. The power scenario is still fraught with problems, the state living from day to day, and no new project is slated to take off. This could hurt investment, employment and, thereby, her image.

Besides, the Supreme Court could pronounce its ruling on the appeal of the Karnataka government against her acquittal in the disproportionate assets case. While the reversal of the verdict is highly unlikely, there is still an element of uncertainty around the case. However, in the event of a conviction, her political future could be finished for good. Jayalalithaa may have won one battle, but there are a lot more to follow.

(The writer is a senior journalist based in Chennai)

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