Following the death of Jayalalithaa Jayaram, the transition in Tamil Nadu and in the All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam has been fairly smooth. O. Panneerselvam, a veteran, who was number two in Jayalalithaa’s Cabinet — insofar as a number two mattered — has become chief minister. Sasikala Natarajan, the late politician’s personal and professional confidante, has taken charge of the AIADMK. She will run it with the help of her husband who as it happens began his career in the rival Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. The DMK itself is going through a change. Patriarch M. Karunanidhi is in his 90s but unwilling to let go. As recently as in 2016, when Tamil Nadu saw Assembly elections, Mr Karunanidhi was not ready to renounce chief ministerial candidacy and formally hand the baton to his son and party boss M.K. Stalin. Mr Stalin is 63, but still consigned to “youth leader” status.
Apart from his father’s ambitions, there is the issue of rivalry between the various factions of the Karunandhi clan. Mr Stalin is being opposed by M.K. Azhagiri, another son of Mr Karunanidhi’s. While Mr Azhagiri has a presence in the Madurai region, Mr Stalin is clearly the frontrunner to take over from his father. What all this means is Tamil Nadu is set for political fluidity. Nobody expects the calm in the AIADMK to last, at least as the 2019 Lok Sabha elections approach. A full-fledged shake up may be delayed because the next Assembly election is almost five years away, in April-May 2021. Yet, the breaking away of factions and the arrival of new, charismatic faces in the electoral arena — probably movie stars themselves, as Jayalalithaa was — can be foretold.
Indian political parties are not very good at succession planning, but the problem is most acute with regional parties. In some regional parties, a clear family successor is identified and takes charge, but here too it depends on the parent’s ability to clear the path. Different parties cope with this in different ways. The DMK case is there for all to see. In Uttar Pradesh, Mulayam Singh Yadav has engineered a show of factional and family struggle. The attempt is to delink his son Akhilesh Yadav from the negative aspects of the Samajwadi Party government that Akhilesh himself leads, and thrust that “anti-incumbency” legacy on others, including Mulayam’s brother. In Punjab, the Akali Dal is still lead by its ageing stalwart, Parkash Singh Badal. He has been unable to identify the right moment for a handover to his son and deputy chief minister, Sukhbir Singh Badal.
There are multiple ironies here because the Akali Dal was the rare regional party that was not founded as a family fiefdom. It had a collective leadership, though one rooted in the Jat Sikh peasantry. Over the years it converted itself into a Badal family preserve. In all the cases mentioned above — the Akali Dal, the SP and the DMK — the father has nominated his inheritor but the process of empowerment, transition and (in case of the outgoing generation) fading away continues to be a troubled one. Nobody can micromanage these events to a nicety. Even so, postponing hard decisions indefinitely doesn’t pay either. By now Sukhbir Badal should have taken over in Punjab and been allowed to run his ship. Likewise, in the summer of 2016, Mr Stalin should have been DMK’s formal, declared chief ministerial candidate.
Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party sees a variation of this situation. It is trapped between a nephew who has angularities but is in control of the party organisation and a daughter who is favoured but may not be up to the hard slog of politics. As a result, the older Pawar simply has to stay on and wait for time to offer its own solutions. The complications are greater in case of parties that are one-person rather than one-family bands, where the supreme leader has no child or even sibling in politics, no designated successor and where talk of a succession plan in the leader’s lifetime is sacrilegious. The AIADMK is one instance, but there are others. India’s regional parties are blessed with a remarkable abundance of political chiefs who are single. Mayawati and the Bahujan Samaj Party in Uttar Pradesh, Naveen Patnaik and the Biju Janata Dal in Odisha, and Mamata Banerjee and the Trinamul Congress in West Bengal offer examples.
Ms Banerjee sees her nephew Abhishek Banerjee as a future prospect. She has built the road for him by dealing with potential adversaries. Of course, Abhishek will still encounter challengers. A person like Suvendu Adhikari, to pluck but one name, has a rural base in south Bengal. If outflanked by a family succession, he may go his own way. There are precedents. Siddaramaiah, the current Congress chief minister of Karnataka, left the Janata Dal (Secular) after its leader H.D. Deve Gowda chose his son over other political lieutenants. In Ms Mayawati’s case, the dalit-led social coalition she successfully built to sweep the Uttar Pradesh election of 2007 is now crying out for renewal. The BSP may or may not be the platform for that renewal. As the state approaches elections in February-March 2017, Ms Mayawati is attempting to rebuild that coalition. If she succeeds, she will be back in office. If she loses a second successive Assembly election, the future of the BSP itself will be open to question. Unlike in more institutionalised parties, there are no alternative mascots and ideas. When Atal Behari Vajpayee failed in the 1984 election, the BJP could turn to L.K. Advani and a different mode of political mobilisation. The BSP, like other one-person parties, offers no such options. If Ms Mayawati is seen as vulnerable, her party’s space in the polity will inevitably be targeted by others. Indeed, the AIADMK and Tamil Nadu politics too are headed that way.