There is a moving dynamic in Tamil Nadu’s politics that is a hard act to follow.
Following the death of J Jayalalithaa in December 2016, the AIADMK has been constantly buffeted by internal challenges. One after other — in a constant thrum of discontent — senior leaders of the party have been at war with one another. At any given point after her death, Jayalalithaa’s party had two factions; when VK Sasikala’s nephew was up and about in the daily news cycle, AIADMK had three factions: one led by himself, and the other two by O Panneerselvam and Edappadi Palaniswami.
After a series of side-switching, the AIADMK has now settled into a new power dynamic. Palaniswami has managed to get the General Council of the party, which has close to 2,300 members, to back him as the Numero Uno. The man from Erode has consolidated power significantly, and for all practical purposes, calls the shots in party affairs. Panneerselvam, meanwhile, has played a deft game of political legitimacy Vs legal legitimacy to scuttle Palaniswami’s plans to take total control of the party. While in spirit Palaniswami reigns, Panneerselvam has managed to take the letter.
On Wednesday, the Madras High Court delivered a verdict that dismissed the legitimacy of the General Council proceedings that all but gave total power to Palaniswami. With that, Panneerselvam has got a toehold in AIADMK’s top order politics.
A day later, Panneerselvam extended an olive branch, not just to Palaniswami, but also to VK Sasikala and TTV Dhinakaran, urging them to work for the larger cause of “uniting the AIADMK”. At a press conference on Thursday, Panneerselvam referred to Palaniswami as his “beloved brother”. Palaniswami appeared before the news media microphones an hour later to accuse Panneerselvam of “being close” to the DMK, and wondered why Panneerselvam couldn’t prove his popularity at the AIADMK General Council meetings. Dhinakaran, meanwhile, has put out a statement accepting Panneerselvam’s olive branch.
One thing is clear: the more things appear to change at the AIADMK, the more they remain the same as the politics always circles back to square one. This is true at least as far the OPS-EPS relationship is concerned. Since September 2017, when Panneerselvam merged his faction with Palaniswami’s, he’s been an uneasy member of the AIADMK bandwagon, reluctant to totally support Palaniswami but largely unempowered to conduct fresh revolts within the party.
With what appears to be a fresh breakout of crossfire between factions, it looks like the AIADMK is set to have another long, drawn-out battle, which will definitely be legal too.
What are the implications of this?
The political dynamic in the state is changing while the AIADMK appears to be totally engrossed in its internal problems. A strident BJP has often tried to take hold of the political narrative in the state, from opposing ‘beef biryani’ festivals to launching ‘scam unearthed’ reports against the ruling DMK. State BJP president K Annamalai even took out a large rally in Chennai towards the state secretariat urging the state to slash fuel prices.
The DMK, too, has willingly taken the BJP’s opposition head-on. For instance, recently, the Madurai district BJP had taken a strong and standoffish position to the visit of DMK leader and Finance Minister Palanivel Thiagarajan to honour a slain soldier from the district. A BJP member had thrown a slipper at the minister’s car. The minister refused to wade into a debate on it, choosing, instead, to stay away from what he termed mixing politics and the Army.
Nevertheless, the takeaway here is that the BJP is taking the shifting dynamic to its own advantage in Tamil Nadu. Consider another example: Just ahead of the 44th Chess Olympiad in Chennai recently, the politics was all about who should receive the adulations for the conduct of the event, the DMK government at the state or the BJP-led government at the Centre. The DMK, understandably, threw its weight behind its leader and Chief Minister MK Stalin while the local unit of the BJP had taken exception to the exclusion of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pictures on the billboards in public areas publicising the event.
To the full favour and the absolute delight of the BJP, the debates around the start of the event were around the exclusion of PM Modi’s pictures and the contribution of the Centre to the conduct of the event vis-a-vis the Tamil Nadu government’s efforts to make the event a grand success.
Political observers feel it might be too late before the leaders of the principal opposition party in Tamil Nadu realise that the narrative has already slipped from their hands, and that it might herald a new brand of politics, which would take away the purely regional tug-of-war prevalent for over 50 years in Tamil Nadu.
The resounding question, therefore, is will the real AIADMK please stand up?