Just after the death of party chief J Jayalalithaa in 2016, senior AIADMK ministers began projecting VK Sasikala as the only able candidate to unite the rank and file amid turbulent times. Now, in a repeat of history albeit in different circumstances, there is a chain of opinions from senior ministers about the party’s chief ministerial candidate for the 2021 elections. The speculation again comes out of the blue, with no apparent trigger.
It started with a seemingly innocuous statement from AIADMK’s Madurai strongman Sellur Raju a few days ago -- a statement that the chief minister in 2021 would be chosen from among the winning MLAs of the party, or the alliance, that crosses the 117-mark in the Assembly.
While Raju was simply stating the procedural way of choosing a chief minister, his markedly dispassionate tone, which did not project current chief minister Edappadi K Palaniswami as a sure-shot victor, was not lost on Palaniswami loyalists like Dairy Minister Rajendhra Bhalaji. Soon after Raju’s statement, Bhalaji threw his hat into the ring, stating that Palaniswami remains a strong hope for the AIADMK to the get back to power.
What began as a kind of shadow-boxing between the loyalists and internal detractors of Palaniswami ballooned into a full-blown speculation campaign, with each leader voicing his/her opinion as to who should be the chief ministerial candidate. On Thursday, the chain reached Deputy CM O Panneerselvam who had rebelled against Sasikala in February 2017 and kickstarted a prolonged period of factionalism in the party.
In a tweet on Thursday, Panneerselvam said the cadre should set aside differences and unite to work for the party's third consecutive victory. “With duty, dignity and discipline, every cadre should work with responsibility of realising Amma’s dream,” he had said in the tweet.
But the fault lines between the EPS and the OPS factions were evident on Saturday with senior AIADMK ministers holding back-to-back meetings at the residence of the deputy chief minister and the chief ministers respectively.
Add to that the mushrooming of posters all over Theni district (home town of Panneerselvam) hailing him as the chief minister in 2021 blessed by Jayalalithaa.
A poster said Panneerselvam "is the one and only Chief Minister blessed by Puratchi Thalaivi" (revolutionary leader, a reference to Jayalalithaa), apparently indicating he should be the chief ministerial candidate and that he was chosen by the late leader to be the CM twice (2001 and 2014). Another said he was the CM for the “ordinary people and the poor and blessed by Amma”. Another one hailed him as the "permanent CM".
The slogans in the posters were attributed to the "Kenjampatti village people" in Bodinayakanur union in Theni and were found in locations, including Periyakulam (home town of Panneerselvam) and Theni in the district. Images of Palaniswami, party icons, Jayalalithaa and AIADMK founder MG Ramachandran were displayed in the posters.
When asked, party office-bearers in Chennai said: "This has got nothing to do with Panneerselvam. Some functionaries may have done this at a personal level.”
A party functionary asked: "Why were some ministers not questioned when they said Palaniswami should be the Chief Minister in 2021? When that is the case why should they take exception to such posters now?"
AIADMK insiders say the meetings at the residences of the chief minister and his deputy were held to instruct senior ministers to avoid talking about internal party issues in public, particularly to the press. The AIADMK on Saturday warned of action against party officials airing personal views to the media without the leadership's approval. In a joint statement, Panneerselvam and Palaniswami said nothing is going to be gained by the party by airing of such personal views in public.
At the Independence Day celebrations at Fort St George on Saturday, Palaniswami also asserted that he has the love and support of the people and vowed to continue to work for them with their well being as his only goal.
However, political observers say the AIADMK leadership, since Jayalalithaa's death, does not have the aspect of unquestionability.
In comparison, DMK chief MK Stalin has managed to fortify his position as the numero uno after a brief period of testing from elder brother MK Alagiri. In the run-up to the polls, the behaviour of the Dravidian top order will mirror the underlying stability of both parties. As though to add more uncertainty to the proceedings in the AIADMK, Sasikala is likely to complete her sentence and be released from prison soon. For the AIADMK, it is surely a tricky 2020.
(With inputs from agencies)