One of Sri Lanka’s main antagonists, Jayaram Jayalalithaa passed away a few days ago. At the time of her demise, she was the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, India’s southern most state which is home to a population of 78 million Tamils with close ethnic and cultural links to the Tamil community in Sri Lanka.
Jayalalithaa had been ailing for some time. However, her death came as a surprise because the hospital where she was undergoing treatment for over two months had announced days earlier that she had recovered fully and that she would be returning home. Hence her passing caught the political establishments in Chennai, New Delhi and even in Colombo by surprise.
Jayalalithaa, a Tamil movie actress turned politician who was elected Chief Minister several times in a political career spanning nearly three decades was disliked in Sri Lanka because of her constant anti-Sri Lankan sentiments and her tacit support for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
Jayalalithaa’s political nemesis in Tamil Nadu was Muthuvelu Karunanidhi, the ninety-two-year-old leader of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK). The DMK and Jayalalithaa’s All India Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) have been taking turns at governing Tamil Nadu over several decades.
It is in this political tussle that the Sri Lankan ethnic issue had become a pawn. Both the DMK and the AIADMK would often try to outdo each other in appealing to popular communal sympathies in Tamil Nadu to win votes for themselves. This they would do by offering support to issues relating to Sri Lankan Tamils, often beyond the realms of reason,
A case in point is the moral and material support extended by successive Tamil Nadu governments to the LTTE. Often, the Indian central government is compelled to take into consideration the whims and fancies of the Tamil Nadu administration because of its own domestic political considerations.
At the last Indian general elections, Jayalalithaa was expected to become a kingmaker. That did not happen. That was because the Bharathiya Janatha Party (BJP) succeeded in securing an overall majority in the Indian Lok Sabha and did not have to rely on smaller parties for their support in Parliament.
Therefore, even though the AIADMK led by Jayalalithaa emerged as the third largest party behind the BJP and the Congress Party with 37 seats, her role was relegated to that of a mere observer. The pre-election speculation about the AIADMK being part and parcel of the Indian central government did not eventuate. As such, at the time of Jayalalithaa’s demise, her political clout had waned somewhat.
With Jayalalithaa’s passing away, there has been a degree of complacency in the corridors of power in Colombo. The expectation is that whoever replaced her in the long term will not have the charisma and determination she had to espouse ant-Sri Lankan causes and lobby for them in New Delhi.
This though is hardly the case. Although Jayalalithaa has been succeeded as Chief Minister by Ottakara Paneerselvam, her trusted aide, this is expected to be a temporary measure. Waiting in the wings to assume real power in the AIADMK is Shashikala Natarajan, Jayalalithaa’s long-term confidant and de-facto second in command of the party.
Natarajan is known to be a LTTE sympathiser. If she does assume power in the AIADMK, it will lead to another era of shrill verbal sabre rattling between Colombo and Chennai even though the LTTE is no more, at least in Sri Lanka.
The issues that are likely to be raised are the constant straying of Tamil Nadu fishermen into Sri Lankan waters, remaining Sri Lankan Tamil refugees in Tamil Nadu and ownership of the Kachchativu island.
So, now is not the time for the Foreign Ministry mandarins in Colombo to relax and be smug about the political equation in Chennai because Jayalalithaa is no more. Instead, it is the time to be even more vigilant and observe the changing political landscape across the Palk Strait.