Why Jayalalithaa Is India's Next Prime Minister

02/28/2013 11:33 am ET | Updated Apr 30, 2013

India's next federal elections are slated for 2014, but can happen sooner. Two obvious candidates for prime ministership are emerging. On the one side is Rahul Gandhi, whose family has been ruling India for the last nine years.

Ranged against him is Narendra Modi of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Gandhi starts with obvious advantages, but his Congress party's government has been so plagued with corruption that reelection is improbable. Rahul seems resigned to sitting in the opposition.

Which brings us to Modi. He started off his rule in the Indian state of Gujarat disastrously, presiding over a horrid massacre of Muslims after a train carrying Hindus was allegedly set on fire by a Muslim mob. Whether he was a detached Nero, or he actively encouraged the pogrom is still hotly debated across India and being decided in the courts. Suffice it to say that he went on to become a symbol of Hindu supremacy. He also justified the rioting as a reaction to the train burning.

India's strident liberals hounded him, but he focused on making his already-prosperous state the benchmark for development in India. The West boycotted him. The U.S. refused to grant him a visa, displaying an element of hypocrisy, because George W. Bush, whose regime barred Modi, was feted in India despite what many believe to be his culpability in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan. Modi in contrast stands accused of being responsible for about two thousand.

Over the preceding decade, Modi has made himself over. He has won three state elections in a row, making himself a top contender to be India's prime minister. The European Union has taken notice and is now courting him. Modi has toned down his anti-Muslim rhetoric, and won the endorsement of noted Indian industrialists like Ratan Tata, a non-Hindu. Many an Indian sick of corruption, stagnation, and weak leadership looks to him to turbo-charge the country.

Modi has also lost much of his abrasive style, at least in public. He dresses in designer clothing, and speaks like a savant. He runs his state like a dictator though, brooking no challengers. A few henchmen, whom he protects at all costs, unless they become extreme political liabilities, do his every bidding. Key English media, whom India's chatterati follow, root for him. His party's cadre see him as a savior, but its leadership squirms because they fear being sidelined by him.

The BJP runs as a collective, with no paramount leader, unlike the Congress. It forgets that despite having a parliamentary system, India votes for the leader over the party. It therefore has unwittingly confined itself as a permanent opposition.

If Modi has a friend in the BJP, it is the erudite lawyer, Arun Jaitley, who evokes India's prime minister, Manmohan Singh. Jaitley is popular among the middle class, just as Singh was when Sonia Gandhi appointed him PM. He is a member of the upper house of parliament, for which the common man doesn't vote, just like Singh is. They both lack the mass base of Modi or of the Gandhi family.

None of the two national parties, the Congress and the BJP, are expected to get a majority of delegates in the 550-seater parliament in the coming election. Whichever one that wins between 150-200 seats is positioned to cobble a ruling coalition. If the BJP agrees upon Modi as its prime ministerial candidate, he could very well get the requisite number of seats from his Hindu base. But some key party allies have made clear their refusal to have him as prime minister because of his anti-Muslim credentials.

An ally with no such qualms is the chief minister of the 70-million state of Tamil Nadu, Jayalalithaa Jayaram. She is close to Modi. Just as she was getting tagged with being pro-Hindu, she burnished her secular credentials by banning a film with anti-Muslim overtones. Two scenarios emerge in case the BJP wins 150 seats or more. One is that Modi blesses Jaitley as prime minister, which would make it easier to attract allies.

But Modi knows from the Sonia Gandhi-Manmohan Singh experience that once a party colleague is appointed PM, it is hard to dislodge him. Being prime minister confers spine even to the pliable. And India would not like him to backstab one of his own. So the choice then falls on an outsider. If Jayalalithaa wins over 30 parliamentary seats, she can lay claim to being prime minister. Every Indian state craves that a homegrown person becomes the PM, the country's diversity being such that having one of your own ruling Delhi is a matter of self-pride.

Jayalalithaa is articulate and telegenic. Two years ago, she became her state's chief minister for the third time with a thumping majority. She clearly harbors national ambitions. And she has a friend in Modi.

For Modi, there is an advantage in promoting Jayalalithaa to premiership. India's history is replete with a bigger party supporting a smaller party's candidate as PM, and pulling the plug soon thereafter. It then calls for general elections, citing how only a big party can provide durable leadership.

Jayalalithaa's English is excellent, which should be sufficient to make her PM. She needs to brush up on her Hindi though so that she can endear herself to the 400 million Indians who speak the language. That in itself will provide her more longevity of tenure than anything else. That is, until Modi pulls the plug.