BJP veterans whom K Annamalai has reportedly sidelined are upset over his 'immature' way of handling allies, reveals N Sathiya Moorthy.
At a time when he should have been building on the national BJP leadership's 'Sanatana' narrative to put the ruling DMK rival on the defensive, Tamil Nadu party chief K Annamalai has expanded the canvas to paint C N Annadurai in the same colours, thereby provoking the AIADMK ally endlessly.
The question is not if Annamalai is right or wrong -- and he insists he has newspaper reports from faraway 1956 -- but Annamalai's repeated taunts has led to AIADMK Organisation Secretary D Jayakumar announcing the 'snapping of ties' with the BJP, indicating that the revival of the alliance, if it came to that, would be taken up at election time.
Trouble started this time when Annamalai said that Annadurai had to go into hiding (fearing physical repercussions) after Forward Bloc leader Pasumpon Muthuramaliga Thevar had ticked him off for deriding Hinduism at a public meeting as far back as 1956.
In this era of 'Hindu nationalism' elsewhere in the country, Annamalai obviously wanted to tell his militant Mukkulathore community audience, how Thevar as their leader had defended Hinduism in his time.
When the AIADMK's C V Shanmugam said that it was inappropriate to talk disparagingly about departed leaders, Annamalai claimed that he had past newspaper reports to support what he said was only his 'recalling of history'.
Naming Shanmugam, he said that the former minister 'said one thing before 6 pm and another after 6 pm'.
The Hindu newspaper, citing archival material, has since said there were no past reports of Annadurai tendering an apology before being able to leave Madurai. Instead, news reports from those days have stopped with noting that Thevar, intervening from among the audience, after obtaining the chair's permission, had stopped with contesting the 'atheist statements' made at the golden jubilee celebrations of the Madurai Tamil Sangam held at the famous Meenakshi Amman temple.
At least The Hindu at the time had not mentioned what exactly Annadurai had said, the current report in the newspaper pointed out. As the daily recalled, there was another seven-day programme in the city not long after, where Thevar staged a walk out after defending C Rajagopalachari on Rajaji's criticism of the 'Aryan-Dravidian theory'. However, the meeting 'continued without any incident', The Hindu recalled.
Before Annamalai now, some Sangh Parivar speakers, and more so social media activists, have claimed that E V Ramaswamy Naicker 'Periyar' too had faced a similar situation when Thevar contested him on religion-centric issues, again in Madurai, and that Periyar had to go into hiding. Supportive evidence, including Periyar 'supposedly tendering an apology, have not been contested -- but they have not also been authentically attested.'
The AIADMK is not clear if Annamalai was acting on his own or had the national leadership's say-so.
Before Annadurai, he had targeted Periyar and also late AIADMK chief minister J Jayalalithaa, calling her 'corrupt'.
So much so, the AIADMK ended up passing a resolution. This time around, the AIADMK has denied reports that EPS has directed party men not to join issues with Annamalai or target the BJP.
In between, social media posts in the name of known AIADMK leaders taunted the BJP in turn, questioning the way Vinayak Damodar 'Veer' Savarkar and Atal Bihari Vajpayee came out of prison during the freedom movement.
Party leaders also pointed out how they had looked the other way without joining a similar national debate on Savarkar, revived references to the 'Gujarat riots' , the 'lynching controversy' among others, in recent years.
Against this background, the AIADMK is still divided over continuing with the BJP alliance in the Lok Sabha polls, and more so in the 2006 assembly polls where they claim 'anti-incumbency' against the ruling DMK has already set in.
However, in the BJP's company, the AIADMK combine may do marginally better than in 2019, when they won only one out of 39 Lok Sabha seats from the state.
The DMK-Congress combine bagged the remaining 38.
Though not a clean sweep, the DMK-Congress combine also won the assembly polls two years later only because of the BJP alliance, they claim.
However, opinion is divided if EPS would break away from the BJP, especially because of the fear of central agencies that 'are being unleashed' against those that do not fall in line with the ruling party at the Centre.
While it is true that the AIADMK still has to retain the party's Two Leaves symbol with which cadres identify more than anything, they do not see much problem on this score.
Second-line party leaders argue that there are no real claimants to the AIADMK's name and title, as the courts have already declared the EPS faction as the legit one.
This is against the claims of factions led by breakaway rival and three-time chief minister O Panneerselvam and also those led by Jaya's confidante Sasikala Natarajan and the latter's estranged nephew T T V Dhinakaran.
Under the circumstances, they see no reason why the Two Leaves symbol should be allotted to any of the other factions -- even if they join together, and stake claim.
The worst case scenario, according to them, is the possibility of the Election Commission freezing the symbol, if it came to that.
According to them, it would imply a break in the alliance, and the AIADMK going on its own.
Even if the party lost votes in the absence of the Two Leaves symbol -- which they say is unlikely -- it would be more than made up by the AIADMK's traditional share of minorities' votes and those of peripheral ideological groups, all of which had gone to the DMK rival with a vengeance, in 2019 and 2021.
Despite Jayakumar's declaration and the like, the AIADMK is unlikely to shut the door on the BJP, at least for now.
The party would be happy if there is a change of guard in the state BJP as the leadership feels that with Annamalai around, grassroots-level coordination, which is essential in election time, may not occur as seamlessly as it used to.
Two, the current threat to break the alliance also seems to flow from the perception that the BJP wants at least thrice as much as the five or six Lok Sabha seats that the party had traditionally contested in the AIADMK's company in the past.
EPS had met Union Home Minister Amit A Shah last week, and the issue seemed to have cropped up at the time.
Already, AIADMK leaders are on record that they would take care of 'minor allies' who had traditionally contested on the party's Two Leaves symbol, but whom the BJP wants on its side, to contest on its Lotus symbol.
The BJP's intention became clear earlier this year when those like K Krishnaswamy, A C Shanmugam and T R Paarivendhar met Shah in Chennai.
Of the three, the first two had contested the 2019 Lok Sabha poll on the AIADMK symbol. Paarivendhar, who had organised Narendra D Modi's pre-poll rally in the Chennai suburb in 2014, crossed over to the other side and became a Lok Sabha member on the DMK symbol five years later. Now, he is identifying with the BJP, but has not quit the DMK alliance or the Lok Sabha.
Opinion in the state BJP is said to be divided. Veterans whom Annamalai has reportedly sidelined, if only to bring in fresh blood, are upset over his 'immature' way of handling allies, as cadre-level sentiments run deep in regional parties.
Two, they are also concerned about Annamalai threatening the DMK first and now even the AIADMK ally that he has the list of all their wrong-doings while in power.
They say successive raids and court cases involving central agencies may not end up producing the desired electoral results for the BJP, as the common man is getting increasingly aware and polarised on issues even outside of religion -- educated as he is by the social media, day in and day out.
Gone is the mood that raids as on Minister Senthil Balaji and his arrest used to be applauded. They have come to be seen as a part of 'political vendetta' with electoral ends in mind.
This can prove counter-productive for the BJP to begin with, and for the AIADMK, too, if they continued in the alliance.
There are indications that if push comes to shove, EPS may assert himself against the BJP ally at the Centre, even if not actually revolt.
Since coming to power and even after losing it, he has been increasingly assertive in party matters, as seen in his handling of predecessor and rival OPS, despite continuing pressure from the BJP's national leadership.
This is typical of Dravidian political party leaders, which the BJP leadership is still unaware of.
The former, starting with the DMK's M Karunanidhi and going on to include his breakaway AIADMK successors, MGR and Jayalalithaa, too, had played along with the ruling party at the Centre (Congress or the BJP) until they had captured their party in full and had also settled in office.
Once they had gained confidence, they were the ones dictating terms to their ruling ally at the Centre, almost always, no questions asked or no quarter given.
It did not matter if they were not in power but their ally was either in power or was expected to regain power at the Centre.
EPS, it seems, is in that phase of his political evolution.
Now it looks as if he needs to cut the apron strings -- whatever the cost, including tax raids and court cases -- to prove his real worth to the party and cadres.
And he needs to do it long before the 2026 assembly polls, which is what seems to be on the cards now.
N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist and author, is a Chennai-based policy analyst and political commentator.
Feature Presentation: Rajesh Alva/Rediff.com