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OPS's Big Gamble in Tamil Nadu Polls: Thevar Strongman's Bid to Stay Relevant in Party and Polity

File photo of AIADMK leader and Tamil Nadu Deputy Chief Minister O Panneerselvam.

File photo of AIADMK leader and Tamil Nadu Deputy Chief Minister O Panneerselvam.

As AIADMK's chief coordinator, he has to get together the traditional support base effectively or end up losing control over the party soon after the elections.

Ottakarathevar Panneerselvam had always been quietly confident of the backing that he had from his community men over the last two decades that he has been in politics. The deputy chief minister of Tamil Nadu, however, is a worried man this time. The big question on his mind: will elections 2021 render him irrelevant?

The Thevars, his community, are among the most dominant communities in Tamil Nadu. But this community is today divided over its loyalties to the party that OPS is heading— the AIADMK. For one, OPS is challenged on his home turf by another Thevar fielded by the DMK; it is also a Thevar who used to be with the AIADMK till two years ago.

Secondly, it is not just important for OPS to save his seat in Bodinayakanur. It is imperative that he manages to get his community’s backing en masse — and that remains the biggest challenge for him with the AIADMK vote bank split and with the general anger of the community against him.

As the party’s chief coordinator — the highest post in the AIADMK currently — he has to get together the traditional support base effectively or end up losing control over the party soon after the elections.

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The community is largely concentrated in the Mannargudi region (the Cauvery Delta region), where former chief minister J Jayalalithaa’s aide VK Sasikala hails from. She too belongs to this community. Last month, she was projected by her nephew TTV Dhinakaran as the ‘Thyaga Thalaivi’ (the leader who is the epitome of sacrifice). Dhinakaran, who founded the Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam in 2018, is out to split the AIADMK’s vote bank in the middle.

Added to all this, the anti-incumbency wave that the AIADMK faces after ten years in power is another factor going against OPS.

“Victory depends not on the candidate, it depends on the party. The leader of the DMK (MK Stalin) will tomorrow be the CM, everyone knows this. So they will vote for me here,” says Thanga Tamil Selvan, the DMK candidate in Bodi.

Tamil Selvan had taken on OPS’s son in the Lok Sabha election in 2019 — at the time, he was in the AMMK. He lost, but has now joined the DMK and is keyed up to defeat Panneerselvam on home turf.

Selvan and OPS were both MLAs in the 2016 assembly from the AIADMK and had Jayalalithaa’s ear. However, they fell had a falling out after Jaya’s death.

“All over Tamil Nadu, people know it’s a corrupt government. And that they are slaves to the central government. Tamil Nadu’s rights are not getting protected. We are not getting any benefits. So people will all want to send away this government,” Selvan told News18 amid a campaign in Bodinayakanur.

OPS himself has shied away from giving interviews, focussing instead on getting his caste base and cadre base together: members of the Forward Bloc, primarily Thevars from the local area, and of the Desiya Chettiars, another prominent community who have traditionally been traders.

His campaigns have not been overly critical of Sasikala either, though he was the one who so famously rebelled against her after meditating near Jaya’s grave and proclaiming that Jaya’s voice spoke to him back in 2017. He realises that any aggressive campaign could pit the community against him.

The other drawback that OPS faces is that he cannot criticise the DMK for dynastic politics: his own son OP Raveendranath is the MP from his home district Theni, and his second son had even applied for a ticket to contest the assembly polls this time. So any criticism of DMK leader Stalin for being a dynast may not be bought by the voter and may well boomerang on OPS.

The highest criticism that team OPS could muster up against Tamil Selvan was his son OPR’s campaign on Tuesday: “The people of Bodinayakanur must teach the right lesson to Thanga Tamil Selvan who is contesting this election from the DMK, the party that put Jaya in jail.”

The family is hoping that loyal workers and community men would still stick with them this election in Bodi.

While he may just about sail through, that loyalty is wavering in the rest of the Thevar-dominant areas — not just because of the emergence of AMMK but also because of an undercurrent against OPS for, to some extent, allowing himself and his party to be overshadowed by the chief minister, Edappadi Palaniswami. Voters, in effect, are judging him for being subservient to EPS’s diktats and not speaking out against him.

“Both EPS and OPS had the image of not having a backbone; they either bent before Jayalalithaa or Sasikala, and now OPS seems to have given in to EPS,” says Sociology professor Semmalar Selvi of the Loyola College.

“The effect of it is it has got the Mukkulathor (Thevar) community angry because everywhere on social media also you see is the Edappadi government has ditched the Mukkulathors. So they are really angry and I’m sure this will have an impact on the AIADMK getting the same number of Mukkulathor votes as earlier,” she told News18.

If OPS, as the party’s best-known Thevar face and the party’s chief coordinator, loses his grip on this vote bank, his relevance in the party is bound to be questioned after the elections. EPS, if he fares well in the northern region that’s populated more by people of his Gounder community, may take complete control of the party.

Then again, if both don’t do well, there is always the possibility that Sasikala could stake claim to the party leadership — though she has vowed to stay out of politics for now, her case challenging the AIADMK’s current leadership continues in a Chennai civil court.

This Assembly election will not just decide the future of Tamil Nadu’s next government but also the future of who will take over the party founded by MGR and nurtured by Jayalalithaa.