For now, Edappadi K Palaniswami is in the saddle in Tamil Nadu, and firmly so. Both inside the party and the government, he has made OPS a yes-man, as the latter used to be under Jayalalithaa, says N Sathiya Moorthy.
‘Man proposes but god disposes.’
‘Much water has flown under the bridge.’
There cannot be a better scenario for these much used and misused idioms than present-day Tamil Nadu.
One year back, when then AIADMK ‘general secretary’ Sasikala Natarajan walked into the Parapanagara Agraharam prison in Bengaluru, she would not have imagined even in her wildest dreams that her chosen stop-gap of a chief minister for Tamil Nadu would turn against his mentor, and so very completely.
But that is the truth at the end of one year.
On February 14, 2017, Sasikala had a majority of the AIADMK legislature party choose Edappadi K Palaniswami (EPS) as their leader after acting governor Ch Vidyasagar Rao would not swear her in for days after being elected to the post, in the face of the pending Supreme Court verdict in the ‘wealth case’ against her one-time master and mentor, the late chief minister Jayalalithaa.
Two days later, on February 16, EPS got himself sworn in as chief minister.
On the intervening February 15, Sasikala delivered her famous vow at Jaya’s samadhi in Chennai before motoring down to Bengaluru and walking into what seemed to be an eternal political oblivion.
Today, succeeding O Panneerselvam (OPS), who proved to be the real stop-gap for the third time after Jaya’s death on December 5, 2016, EPS has consolidated his base, and with the very same OPS toeing his line. While Sasikala is cooling her heels in a prison cell, hauled up since for allegedly bribing jail officials, and also before the Justice Arumugaswamy Commission probing the mystery, if any, behind Amma’s death.
Sasikala’s nephew, T T V Dinakaran, even while losing the party to EPS-OPS after the Election Commission ruled in their favour, is a confused man, still.
He had swept the post-Jaya R K Nagar assembly by-election for her seat as none else, including Amma in her time, that too after a cancellation caused by tax raids, has become the ‘third force’ in state politics, and yet does not have a party to call his own -- at least as yet.
Less -- or, more -- said about the official DMK rival the better as M K Stalin as the heir apparent of ailing octogenarian father and party president M Karunanidhi has it all -- and none at all. The party is at the cross-roads, in terms of poll strategy especially, after Stalin as DMK working president and Leader of the Opposition in the state assembly led the party into a dismal defeat in RK Nagar (where the party nominee lost his security deposit), only because he said the party should resort to “principled politics”, and not resort to “bribing the voters”.
Today, barring two adversarial court verdicts, there is nothing to suggest that EPS or the ruling AIADMK (as recognised by the EC) is still on a sticky wicket. One of those cases pertains to assembly speaker P Dhanapal, at the instance of the ruling party, ‘disqualifying’ 18 Sasi-Dinakaran MLAs of the party. They promptly moved the Madras high court, which has since reserved its verdict, after long drawn-out arguments, which witnessed half a dozen or so senior counsel from the Supreme Court appearing before the bench, for many days and long hours.
The other case relates to a DMK petition, again in the high court, seeking the ‘disqualification’ of 11 OPS MLAs, including leader Panneerselvam, after they had stayed away from the governor-ordered confidence vote that EPS sought as chief minister. The law permits any member of the House to seek ‘disqualification’ and speaker Dhanapal had declined the DMK plea.
In the high court, the EPS counsel has argued that his camp’s whip for the trust vote did not cover OPS & Co. The arguments in the case are continuing still and, like the other case, this one too may end up in the Supreme Court, as and when the high court pronounces its verdict. The chances are that speaker Dhanapal may decline to heed the high court order, citing legislative privilege and prerogative if the verdict did not uphold his own orders in the matter.
All of it only means that EPS may face more hiccups of the past year’s kind, but nothing substantial until after the Supreme Court gets involved, if at all, and pronounces its verdict. In the normal course, it may mean a few months to a year. In political and electoral terms, it could, if at all, coincide with the timing of the Lok Sabha polls, due before May 2019. The five-year term of the state assembly does not ordinarily conclude before May 2021.
For now, thus, EPS is in the saddle, and firmly so. Both inside the party and the government, he has made OPS a yes-man, as the latter used to be under Jayalalithaa, both as her top-most political aide, and two-time, ‘stand-in’ CM whenever courts disqualified her for a period.
From having treated his ministerial colleagues, including EPS, as an equal, if not more than equal in his short-lived third-term as chief minister after Jayalalithaa’s death, OPS is now seen sitting along the sidelines of the chief minister’s working table whenever the latter received dignitaries in his office -- as used to be the case in Amma’s time.
Inside the party, too, OPS is now accepted as a spent force though no one really admits that EPS is the rising star, or the star that has already risen. Political aides of OPS who had joined his ‘rebellion’ against the Sasikala family, purportedly at the instance, if not wholesale instigation, of some close to the powers-that-be in the BJP-ruled Centre, feel frustrated at EPS’s sidelining them all so very effectively.
They have little choice, as they had bad-mouthed Sasikala and Dinakaran so much during the period that even their own mirror image may laugh if they were to look at other options. After his R K Nagar victory, they may not have problems joining Dinakaran, but then by sacking party second, third and fourth line leaders en masse at all levels, the EPS-OPS camp has also been closing the gaps for prospective deserters from the AIADMK in the rival camp, and at all levels.
Such deserters have no place in the Opposition DMK, where Stalin has at long last stabilised his hold over the party at all levels, what with Karunanidhi having facilitated the process indirectly by sacking ‘troublesome’ elder brother and former Union Minister M K Azhagiri in the long run-up to earlier elections. Stalin’s half-sister Kanimozhi, MP, too seems to have fallen in line, especially after the 2G scam case forced her out of the reckoning for long, and now with the CBI’s appeals against her trial court acquittal promising a longer winter.
In office, EPS has also been continuing with some of Amma’s favourite welfare programmes. His government has revived the free laptop scheme, and also subsidised ‘Scooty’ scheme, the latter for female students. The registration for the Scooty scheme saw long queues at various venues across the state.
Taking after Amma, EPS does not lose time writing to Prime Minister Narendra Modi every other day, be it on the Cauvery water issue with Karnataka, fishermens’ dispute with Sri Lanka, or a host of other Tamil Nadu concerns like methane extraction and the like. The state information department loses no time releasing copies of those letters to the media -- thus seeking to put the blame at the door of the Centre, time and again, as Jaya had succeeded in convincing the voters.
The EPS government, after decades, has also revived desilting of rural water storage resources, like ponds, rivers and even larger reservoirs, but the success rate is unclear as yet. So newspapers have begun carrying frequent raids of corrupt officials, who are being arrested, in a row.
Some of the high-profile arrests, as with the vice chancellor of a state university, may or may not owe to the state government’s initiative -- but then, many of the state ministers, including EPS and OPS, got mentioned in tax raids initiated by central agencies, but of which nothing has been heard since.
With state BJP leaders, lately including party president Tamizhisai Soundararajan, seeking to draw the battle-lines for the next elections on religious lines, calling it all spiritual, the AIADMK has begun acting tough on the ruling party at the Centre. For instance, the Modi government’s triple talaq law faced stiff opposition from the AIADMK members in the Lok Sabha.
Now, any delayed action by central agencies on alleged financial wrongdoings of AIADMK leaders and ministers will not ‘sell’ any more with the state’s voters, who seem to be getting increasingly convinced that the BJP is playing politics with religion than the state’s well-entrenched ‘Dravidian polity’, and the tax-raids and such other initiatives were all ‘politically motivated’, whatever the truth otherwise.
As political history, both in the state and outside, has often proved over the past years and decades, after a point both the intended targets and voters alike end up shrugging their shoulders at it all, and look around only for the ‘available’ alternative, if it at all it came to that.
In Tamil Nadu, for instance, after the DMK was nearly wiped out in the 1991 elections, the opposition BJP whipped up the ‘Ayodhya card’ after demolition, and Congress Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao was chasing the ruling AIADMK through similar raids and the like, the state’s voters helped revive the DMK in elections 1996.
Of course, the DMK at the time did get a lot of support from the likes of Congress veteran G K Moopanar, who founded the Tamil Maanila Congress, and superstar Rajinikanth, whose voice too went with the anti-Establishment sentiments of the time.
In present-day Tamil Nadu, the third force has already appeared, not in the form of Rajinikanth or co-star Kamalahassan, but in the form of Dinakaran who seems to be ‘earning’ some respect for his grit and determination, which seems to matter more with the ‘displeased’ sections of the party cadres and sections of ‘non-committal voters’, who want change, quick and smooth, but without bloodletting of any kind.
That is if, and if only, they are looking for change, and would not settle for the AIADMK’s traditional rival DMK, which under Stalin has become more acceptable to the voter than under Karunanidhi -- but not necessarily for all cadres.
Through all this, the state, the voter and the AIADMK cadre do not have time for Sasikala, though occasionally Dinakaran keeps her in the news by visiting her in prison and making news out of it, too.
N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist and political analyst, is director, Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Chapter.