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A Chennai shocker for BJP in presidential poll?

Last updated on: June 09, 2017 12:15 IST

With faction bosses not seeming to control anyone any more, can the BJP count on the AIADMK for the presidential polls any more, asks N Sathiya Moorthy.

Image: TTV Dinakaran, whose release from Tihar jail and subsequent return to Chennai seems to have sent the ruling AIADMK in a tizzy. Photograph: R Senthil Kumar/PTI Photo.

The fact that ‘there is no alternative’ (TINA) to him just now in the ongoing faction feud(s) in the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam alone seems to be keeping Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami continuing in the job.

One sneeze, or even a sniff of someone’s nose, could lead to the fall of the second post-Jayalalithaa government, the earlier one under one-time confidant, O Panneerselvam, OPS.

And the much-delayed assembly session, commencing on June 14, could set the tone and tenor, one way or the other.

All of it means that the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party at the Centre they may not be able to count on the AIADMK factions, with or without the one now owing allegiance to the Sasikala family all over again, for the presidential polls.

The EPS-OPS faction feud is old story. A new element has since been introduced, or re-introduced, by way of T T V Dinakaran’s return from Delhi’s Tihar jail.

Designated deputy general secretary of the AIADMK (Amma faction) by his aunt and party general secretary V K Sasikala Natarajan before her earlier imprisonment in the ‘Jaya wealth case’, Dinakaran is now out on bail -- and possibly out of the case for which he had been arrested in the first place.

Dinakaran’s surprising arrest by the Delhi police flowed from an alleged information/complaint that he had tried to bribe an official of the Election Commission, for obtaining the AIADMK’s ‘Two Leaves’ symbol for the ‘Amma’ faction, against the rival claims of OPS’s ‘Puratchi Thalaivi Amma’ faction.

Back in Chennai, Dinakaran has gone back on his pre-jail declaration of staying away from politics. He has since added a rider that his proposal was to encourage the two factions to merge, as the OPS group had specifically laid down Sasikala family’s exit from AIADMK politics as a pre-condition for merger talks, which have failed to take off.

It would look as if the OPS faction had concluded that Dinakaran would not be able to obtain bail or come out of prison to ‘take over’ the Amma faction under Chief Minister EPS’s care. On the reverse, the newly-emerging EPS camp within the Amma faction was hoping against hope that Dinakaran would not come out of prison but did not seem to have ruled out the possibility.

Both sides thus maintained ambivalence at the six rounds of merger talks, which fell through after a time. It is anybody’s guess if the EPS and OPS factions have been able to come to terms with Dinakaran’s sudden reappearance on the AIADMK political scene -- and his early meeting with aunt Sasikala at the Parrapanagara Agraharam prison in Bengaluru.

For now, around 30 AIADMK MLAs from the election time total of 134 in a 234-member state assembly have openly identified themselves with Dinakaran. Their numbers have only been rising. The OPS-led Purathchchi Thalaivi Amma faction has 12 members, leaving 90 MLAs at last count on the side of CM Edappadi, clearly indicating that he cannot add up to the required 118 members in a real showdown.

For his part, Dinakaran has promptly declared that he does not have any intention to topple the government. It would also mean that the AIADMK may lose power in the state, leading to fresh round of elections, ultimately, which the party may find even more difficult to win than in 2016.

At the time, Jayalalithaa’s charisma and firm hold over the party as incumbent chief minister were the main factors for electoral victory.  Even OPS, EPS and the rest of them all together cannot hope to reinvigorate the party in her absence, especially if they are not able to work together and get back the ‘Two Leaves’ symbol of the party, now frozen by the Election Commission, following the faction feud.

Apart from the ‘Two Leaves’ symbol issue and also the ‘real AIADMK’ question between the EPS and OPS factions, the EC is also seized of the question over the legality of Sasikala’s election as party general secretary after Jayalalithaa’s death.

The EPS faction secretly and the OPS faction more openly, have been hoping for the EC to rule against Sasikala’s -- – and with that the end of Dinakaran’s ‘nomination’ as deputy general secretary.

In the midst of all this, veteran minister D Jayakumar, who got the finance portfolio -- earlier retained by the CM for OPS to return -- chaired a meeting of some 20-odd colleagues, also identified with EPS, to reiterate their opposition to Dinakaran’s re-entry.

EPS has also begun meeting with party MLAs, some of whom had raised a banner of revolt in groups even before Dinakaran’s return from Tihar.

Broadly speaking, the rebels wanted the leadership’s ‘commitment’ made during the Koovathoor resort hibernation ahead of EPS’s confidence vote in the assembly, met in full.

Some of them seemed to have been promised a ministerial berth, and might even settle for something equivalent. Many however had problem equations with incumbent ministers in their district party affairs -- a main reason why so many MPs joined the OPS camp in the first place.

Whatever his political and personal problems in meeting the ‘Koovathoor commitments’, the chief minister is faced with a constitutional hurdle in inducting more ministers as part of the promises.

In a state with 234 assembly members, he can have only 10 per cent of them as ministers. He thus can have a maximum of 32, including himself, and already has 31, as inherited from Jayalalithaa and OPS. In fact, he was busy filling up the vacancies caused by the exit of the OPS team.

EPS, or OPS, more than someone with Sasikala’s backing as CM alone can hope, if at all, to handle any future rebellion if some incumbent ministers are dropped to accommodate some of the present-day rebels. That could make the party as unpopular among the cadres and voters as the OPS faction had claimed while splitting away. OPS himself would not be able to return to the parent fold with a straight face.

There are other accompanying problems, too, for the party. The EPS government seems to have reluctantly summoned the assembly session for taking up sector-wise allocation of budget funds for debate and voting, only after the leader of the opposition, the DMK’s M K Stalin, moved the Madras high court in the matter.

Given the numbers game -- the DMK-led combine, including the Congress, has 98 MLAs -- the survival of the government could come under daily pressure on the floor of the House, if a nominal cut motion of Rs 1000 value is moved.

It could bring the AIADMK factions under greater stress as even some members of the Dinakaran and OPS groups would not want the government to fall. But desperate members from among them could well resort to desperate solutions, or non-solutions.

Though no one remembered it then or since, by boycotting the DMK’s no-trust vote against Speaker P Dhanapal earlier, the OPS faction kept the hopes high for possible re-merger.

But in a boiling-pot situation that the government might find itself in the assembly during the 24-day session, ending July 19, could put the EPS leadership at one level, and also those of the other two AIADMK factions, under untold pressure, on a hourly basis, at times.

No one in any of the AIADMK factions wants the EPS government to lose any vote on the floor, but the other two do not want his continuance.

It is unclear if Dinakaran wants to become chief minister, but at last count OPS wanted to become both chief minister and party boss. His faction was not ready for a compromise.

The more difficult task is for the rival DMK. The party does not want to be seen as engineering defections from the AIADMK post-Jaya and causing fresh elections to the assembly, when the state could ill-afford it politically or economically.

But it cannot but afford to embarrass the government of the day and the factions within the ruling rival. Where to draw the line, when and how to go about it, are issues that the Stalin leadership would face constantly.

Surprisingly, thus, the DMK has looked the other way when the EC a couple of days ago announced the further postponement of the assembly by-election for the R K Nagar seat, held by Jayalalithaa.

After having cancelled the polls citing massive distribution of money to the voters as the reason for cancellation, the EC has not explained why the R K Nagar situation continues to ‘remain non-conducive’ for the early conduct of the by-election.

For the EC, the question is when will the R K Nagar situation become ‘conducive’ for them to conduct the by-poll. Implied in this query is a hidden proposition that the Edappadi government has not done enough to make the situation ‘conducive’.

The sub-text is if the EC had given any specific instructions for the state government to follow in the matter.

Further still, the question is if the EC can at all make such assessment before notifying fresh dates, when alone the countdown could start otherwise.

For the EPS and OPS factions, the question is if Dinakaran would want to contest the R K Nagar seat all over again -- and also hope to win in a ‘clean election’.

Both EPS and OPS are travelling in the same plane just now, but OPS may face greater difficulty in convincing the larger cadres that he could still get back the ‘Two Leaves’ symbol.

For the second-line leaders of both EPS and OPS factions, the greater question relates to the wisdom of their keeping the Sasikala faction away eternally.

At the end of the day, freedom now for Dinakaran has proved Sasikala’s pre-prison statement that they had seen enough of cases, courts and prisons that nothing could frighten them now.

The larger question still would be for the ruling BJP at the Centre. Their feeble efforts have not convinced the Tamil Nadu population that on l’affaire AIADMK, they (meaning the Centre, as well) were not running with the hare and hunting with the hounds.

Nothing explains why the Centre was maintaining a disturbing silence on Jayalalithaa’s health when she was in hospital for 75 long days, or whom they were trying to cover up for, if at all.

The follow-up question(s) in this case is/are why legitimate instruments of the Centre, as different from constitutional institutions like the Supreme Court and the EC, should be seen as going after all those AIADMK leaders who had fallen on the wrong side of the law -- yet with no firm and speedy follow-up action as in the case of many others, elsewhere in the country.

All of it boils down to the Doubting Thomases in the AIADMK second line, including ministers and MLAs, not wanting to trust their faction leaders, whom they are convinced are in communication with the BJP leadership at some level, but rather go by cadre instincts.

This could mean surprises for the BJP in the presidential polls, fixed for July 17, as the faction bosses do not seem to control anyone any more.

The party MLAs and MPs might thus end up drawing a distinction between voting for a BJP-backed candidate in the presidential polls and saving the day for an AIADMK government in the state assembly.

In a closely-fought election for the presidency, if it came to that, the AIADMK votes too seem to count more than is acknowledged.

In the presidential polls of 2007, six MLAs belonging to the AIADMK, then in the opposition, voted for victorious Congress candidate Pratibha Patil against the Jaya-backed BJP nominee, Bhairon Singh Shekhawat.

For the next nine years she could not identify the ‘rebels/traitors’. 

N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist and political analyst, is Director, Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Chapter.

N Sathiya Moorthy