With the assembly polls only two years away, any demoralising defeat in 2024 would challenge not only the party's continued relevance, but also EPS's leadership, asserts N Sathiya Moorthy.
Notwithstanding the late anti-NEET day-long fast of ruling DMK cadres under state minister Udhayanidhi Stalin's leadership, the Opposition AIADMK has achieved a certain feat.
In celebrating the party's golden jubilee, even if delayed by a year, the AIADMK's recent Madurai rally demonstrated the party's support-base -- and more so, re-asserted former chief minister Edappadi K Palaniswami's unassailable leadership, which was not in doubt anyway over the past couple of years.
No other political party of its size and popularity had grappled with factionalism as the AIADMK had done since then chief minister Jayalalalithaa's death in December 2016.
It was nearly so when party founder M G Ramachandran died on December 24, 1987, but then the faction-feud centred around his wife Janaki Ramachandran and 'disowned' heir-apparent Jayalalithaa, ended after both lost the 1989 assembly polls.
Elections 89 marked the return of the DMK parent to the centre-stage, from where MGR had consigned it to the sidelines through his lifetime as AIADMK boss, much of it as chief minister.
It is another matter that most men in the AIADMK may now want to forget it, but the fact remains that MGR, in his last public appearance, at Chennai's Anna Nagar locality, had asked party cadres to stay away from Jayalalithaa, after having promoted her as propaganda secretary and Rajya Sabha member over the previous decade or so.
To cut to the present, EPS's hugely-attended rally at Madurai -- the centrepiece of most rally politics in the state, whichever the party and leader -- has re-energised the AIADMK to face next year's Lok Sabha elections with renewed vigour.
It has also taken the media focus off the DMK for one, and even more so, state BJP chief K Annamalai's much-trumpeted padayatra, flagged off by Union Home Minister Amit A Shah at the temple island of Rameswaram.
Truth be told, after the DMK's Karunanidhi and M K Stalin, now chief minister, EPS alone has proved to be a never-say-die man in Tamil Nadu politics.
It was not so in the case of Jayalalithaa before him, as she even considered quitting politics once after losing the post-MGR assembly polls of 1989.
EPS did not give up even for a day after losing the 2019 Lok Sabha polls and more so the 2021 assembly elections -- and with that elected power -- both in the company of the ruling BJP ally at the Centre.
Not a day has passed since the 2019 electoral defeat, that too when both the BJP and the AIADMK were respectively in power at Delhi and Chennai, and equally so, following the 2021 results, without EPS targeting the DMK rival from all kinds of fora and platforms.
His confidants like former ministers D Jayakumar and C Ve Shanmugam have lost no time in hitting out at all detractors, especially of EPS.
Be it the DMK or other faction leaders like three-time AIADMK chief minister O Panneerselvam, or Jaya's one-time confidante Sasikala Natarajan (to whom alone EPS owed his CM's job) or the latter's estranged nephew T T V Dhinakaran, the duo, among other close aides of EPS, have been unsparing.
So have they been when it comes to pot-shots taken by Annamalai, their political and electoral ally otherwise.
Alongside, EPS has also won most of the pending court cases, these ones initiated by the OPS faction.
The latest, if not possibly the last one, was settled in his favour by the Madras high court just last week.
The high court is also set to hear the forgotten appeal by Sasikala, challenging the lower court's dismissal of her petition on the party removing her as general secretary when she was serving a four-year jail-term in Bengaluru.
As may be recalled, the case pertained to Jaya's first term as chief minister, and the Supreme Court verdict in the matter came weeks after Jaya's death.
Yet, there is no ground sympathy for Sasikala, either in the party or among the general public.
In leading the party to the Lok Sabha polls, that too without a challenger worth the name from within, EPS has his job cut out.
The ruling DMK rival is only one of them, though the main one, along with its Congress and Communist allies.
Any chance collaboration among OPS, Sasikala and Dhinakaran, even with their weakened base, has the potential to upset the apple-cart for the BJP-NDA, which is led by the AIADMK in Tamil Nadu.
Not that the trio, if at all they came together, would be able to win any seat, but their vote-share may have the potential to upset the NDA calculations in 10-15 Lok Sabha seats in the south and south-central regions.
The DMK-led INDIA combine -- which is still shaping up -- may stand to benefit, despite visible signs of anti-incumbency having set in against the Stalin government, across the state -- though not enough for the latter to lose all 38 of 39 seats that they had bagged in 2019.
The BJP is said to be concerned about such developments and the party's national leadership seems inclined to try and accommodate the OPS faction in whatever way possible.
The question of the BJP dictating merger terms to EPS is gone, and party sources say that they may now consider a 'package deal' with the AIADMK under EPS, for them to field both BJP and non-BJP alliance candidates under its symbol.
Already, IJP leader and incumbent Lok Sabha member T R Parivendhar, who won the Perambalur seat under the DMK symbol, and New Justice Party leader A C Shanmugam -- he lost the Vellore seat on the AIADMK symbol in 2019 -- are in line for contesting the 2024 elections under the BJP symbol.
Will the BJP be able to wriggle out 10-15 seats as the leadership aspires out of the EPS leadership, to project them all as 'BJP seats' to the rest of the country even while fielding allies under the party's 'Lotus' symbol?
If so, can it get the OPS faction to contest under the Lotus symbol, likewise -- and also have the EPS faction work for them at the grass-roots?
The problem for the EPS-AIADMK is two-fold and more. Together especially, the OPS-Sasikala-TTV trio can project their sidelining from party affairs as an insult to their 'caste pride' (though may not be said so publicly).
All three belong to the militant Mukkulathore community dominating the south and south-central regions, and were at their peak during Jaya's time, especially.
If Sasikala had chosen EPS after dislodging OPS as CM post-Jaya, especially after then acting governor Ch Vidyasagar Rao refused to swear her in pending the Supreme Court ruling in the 'Jaya wealth case', it owed to the fact that he came from the Vellalar Gounder community in the western region, whose loyalty to the party was no less than that of her own.
However, even while anticipating an unfavourable verdict, she did not expect EPS to become as ambitious as and even more cunning than she was ready to credit him with.
It was the first time that anyone from the community had become the state chief minister, post-Independence, and they were not ones to let the opportunity pass by.
They are both businessmen and landowners across the western region, centred around Coimbatore, which is often called the 'commercial capital' and region of Tamil Nadu.
If the AIADMK may stand to lose if the OPS-led votes are not in its bag, the BJP would be a greater loser, as the traditional strongholds of both coincide and lie in the south.
But there is a catch for the EPS leadership, too. Party cadres are convinced that identifying and partnering with the BJP was the cause for the AIADMK's massive electoral losses in 2019 and 2021.
AIADMK strategists fear that despite visible signs of mushrooming anti-incumbency, the DMK-led alliance may slip through the victory gate in 2024 if they did not address the larger issue of the BJP's Hindutva image.
They say that none of Narendra Modi's pro-Tamil image-building has worked on the ground, and cite his installing the Sengol in the new Parliament Complex as only the latest of them -- preceded by the Varanasi and Saurashtra Sangamam festivities, and also the PM quoting Tamil poets in international fora like the UN General Assembly.
According to them, going beyond the traditional BJP supporters and sympathisers, the ordinary Tamil voter is not convinced about the sincerity and seriousness with which the BJP is promoting the Tamil cause.
As they point out, the language issue in Tamil Nadu is two-fold, one promoting Tamil and the other, opposing 'Hindi imposition'.
Seemingly promoting Tamil even while taking great pains to impose Hindi, as seen by the locals, won't work here, they say.
Even without it all, there is a 12 to 15 per cent minority vote bank comprising Muslims and Christians, that will go wholesale to the DMK-Congress alliance, as happened in 2019.
By challenging the BJP with her 'Modi-ya, indha lady-ya?' campaign in 2014, Jaya as CM could break this nexus.
The ruling AIADMK swept the polls with 37 of 39 lOK sABHA seats, with the BJP-NDA bagging two. The DMK drew a huge blank.
This section of the AIADMK feels that it would do the anti-DMK, anti-Congress parties and groups to let their party and the BJP contest on their own, and make post-poll adjustments, as may be required for the medium and long terms.
On most occasions in the past, the BJP too had won its seats mostly in a three-cornered contest, as in southern-most Kanyakumari, and not in a direct fight, they argue.
If this is the strategy that needs to be followed -- and not many in the state BJP especially agree -- then, the national party leadership has to work on the scheme, depending on what it aims to achieve.
The BJP will have to choose between its purported ambitions to 'send at least 25 MPs to back Modi', as Amit A Shah had said in Tamil Nadu not very long ago, and subsuming its electoral ambitions in the Dravidian state, if only to stop the DMK-Congress alliance on the track, even if in a limited way.
For the AIADMK, elections 2024 would mean a lot more.
With the assembly polls only two years away, in 2026, any demoralising defeat in 2024 would challenge not only the party's continued relevance, but also EPS's leadership.
Though no challenger seems to be anywhere on the horizon and within the current fold, there is no knowing what would await a drubbing in the Lok Sabha polls, which at least the AIADMK cadres fear is bound to happen if they are in the BJP's company -- whatever be Modi's acceptance level elsewhere across the country.
N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist and author, is a Chennai-based policy analyst and political commentator.
Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com