Tamil Nadu may hold key to ruling India
THE politics of forming India's next government could come down to how many seats a 1960s matinee siren can wrest from her rival, Mr M. K. Stalin.
At stake are 39 parliamentary seats in the state of Tamil Nadu.
With pollsters predicting that no party will win a majority in the 543-seat Parliament, the caucus returned by India's sixth-largest state could hold the key to forming a government after the five-week general election that starts on April 7.
Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa Jayaram - or "Jaya" to her fans - is riding a wave of popularity that could take her AIADMK party's seat count to 27, according to one survey, potentially casting her in a new role as powerbroker.
Her party is one of many regional groups whose proliferation over the past two decades has made it impossible for national parties to rule alone in India. Two more are led by female firebrands, Ms Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal and Ms Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh.
The portly, fair-skinned Jayalalithaa bears little resemblance to the singing, dancing heroine of 1960s Tamil cinema. But, at 68, she is probably more popular than she has ever been.
Hopping around the state by helicopter, she addressed enthusiastic crowds, including one last week near Tiruvannamalai, a holy site where Hindu pilgrims, in an act of devotion, walk around a mountain barefoot at full moon.
Although the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is poised to emerge as the largest parliamentary party - with 195 seats according to this month's poll by the NDTV news channel - the Hindu nationalist opposition party has no base in Tamil Nadu.
Even with its allies, the BJP could fall some 40 seats short of the 272 needed for a majority in the national Parliament, according to the poll. That is where regional players like Ms Jayalalithaa come into the equation.
Her reluctance to criticise the BJP's candidate for prime minister, Mr Narendra Modi, and a past dalliance with his party, suggest she is positioning herself for power and influence in the next government.
"Within these different groups, anyone with 25-30 MPs is going to be a contender for the prime minister's position," said commentator Gnani Sankaran. "And if Jayalalithaa has 30 MPs from Tamil Nadu, she will be able to demand the prime ministership."