EPS' real test will commence with a decision whether or not to patch up with OPS and on what terms -- and then, to decide whether or not to have the BJP for an electoral ally, come 2024, observes N Sathiya Moorthy.
The ongoing tussle for leadership supremacy in Tamil Nadu's Opposition AIADMK has raised the question if a 'strong, single leadership' is unique to the state's Dravidian polity.
It raises an even bigger question -- if it's about loyalty or legacy, as is evidenced all across the nation, starting at the Centre.
To begin with, a strong, single leadership has come to epitomise an ideological element that is immediately identifiable.
At the national level, the ruling BJP leadership is identified near exclusively with the image and imagery of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, with his dominant personality and sweeping electoral invincibility.
Thursday's tumultuous events at the AIADMK's general council meeting raises the question if the 'dual leadership' issue in the AIADMK has greater relevance than the ego clash involving party coordinator O Pannerselvam (OPS) and joint coordinator Edappadi K Palaniswami (EPS), present Leader of the Opposition in the state assembly.
Of the two, OPS is a three-time chief minister, but the number did not add up to more than around a year.
The more times he was chief minister, two of them when charismatic party boss Jayalalithaa was incapacitated by pending corruption cases, less confident did OPS grow.
So much so when in his third and last term as CM, Panneerselvam let his ministers greater freedom of action and public presence, encouraging them to appear in television talk shows, addressing news conferences on their own, the less firm he came to be seen as.
Conversely, when EPS took the chief minister's job from OPS, albeit by playing a sleight of hand against 'mentor' V S Sasikala Natarajan, almost from day one, he behaved as if he had the inherited charisma and legacy of party founder M G Ramachandran and his political heir, Jayalalithaa.
OPS, in contrast, quit even when he was chief minister, unable to bear the pressure that Sasikala & Co brought upon him, little realising that he had the power to have his way -- and also put them in their place.
He then needed the famous prayer session at Jayalalithaa's memorial and then the ruling BJP ally's intervention from the Centre to be 'rehabilitated' honourably, also because EPS perceived the Sasikala-Dhinakaran aunt-and-nephew duo as a bigger threat to his leadership of a united AIADMK.
In the end, OPS could not but be seen as a 'weak and wavering leader', who did not reportedly fund his own chosen candidates in the long list of AIADMK nominees in the 2019 Lok Sabha and 2021 assembly elections.
Party cadres also saw behind the Lok Sabha poll victory of his son O Ravindranath as the only NDA candidate in 39, a 'deal with the devil'.
Either the suspicion was true, or OPS did not try to deny rumours that as party coordinator he was holding back the AIADMK from joining the Modi government as the EPS faction had a better candidate from the Rajya Sabha for the lone minister of state post that the BJP leadership was willing to offer the AIADMK.
More recent social media posts, often mischievous, claimed that OPS also wanted to launch his second son in politics, making it all a 'family affair', as if after the 'Sasikala family' earlier.
EPS scored in this regard, not only in his native western region and the north but also selectively in OPS's south.
Such acts of kindness and outreach, well executed by and through his loyalists from the respective regions is what has kept him in good stead in the party general council meeting on Thursday.
Within the AIADMK, EPS today is the unassailable leader, though the question remains if he is as charismatic as MGR and Jayalalithaa.
He is at a certain advantage or two.
Through his four years as chief minister, he managed to acquire 'name-and-fame' recognition that was not possible as easily for DMK rival and present-day chief minister M K Stalin in an era before social media.
EPS also exploited the Covid era chief ministership to the hilt.
More than be seen as a 'Covid warrior' himself, EPS used the lockdown period to visit every district at least once, creating 'administrative reasons' for doing so -- when Stalin and every other political rival was confined to his/her Chennai home, what with the authorities citing 'lockdown conditions' for denying them permissions for travelling and to meet cadres and voters in the districts.
His team of loyal ministers did the rest, likewise.
For the same reason, EPS will be tested in future elections, not as the public face of the AIADMK rival to the ruling DMK in the 'Dravidian electoral pantheon', but as a leader in his own right, who has to prove himself more than already.
From now on, his swearing allegiance to Jayalalithaa will sound hollower than earlier.
It comes with an electoral price at least initially.
That is also when he could lose badly -- but then, his fall in such a context could mean the beginning of the end for the AIADMK, which is not the case thus far.
Despite all the court cases and Election Commission petitions that OPS may prefer in the interim, the final test would still be in the party general council, where EPS is in near-full control.
Going by publicised figures that the OPS camp has not contested thus far, even in his so-called 'southern' stronghold, including native Theni district, EPS is much stronger, at least within the party.
This time round, if OPS's attempts lead to the Election Commission freezing the party's name and symbol, it would still be a setback for the party, yes, but then, his stock would plummet even more, both among the cadres and the loyal 'Two Leaves' voters from the MGR era, for being disloyal to the founder's memory and that of 'Amma', Jayalalithaa.
That could be advantage to the EPS camp within the party, but outside, until he proved otherwise, the ruling DMK would feel stronger despite the inevitability of anti-incumbency, as it stands at present.
There will also be a voter temptation to compare the 'divided AIADMK' with a more stable DMK under a 'strong' leader in Chief Minister Stalin, independent of incumbency benefits and reversals.
In the medium term, Stalin, for instance, may feel stronger than already to consider the necessity bordering on inevitability to drop dead wood, both in the government and party organisation, who are continuing in office only because of his status quo-ist approach and lack of willingness to upset the apple-cart for all.
The freshness of his chief ministership is wearing thin, and only residual image of his sincerity of purpose is holding on...
In the event of a split, formal or otherwise, the AIADMK may come under greater pressure from the BJP, more than already, in seat-sharing talks for the Lok Sabha polls, two years hence.
The BJP is perceived to be strong still in OPS's south and EPS's west, and how the national ally evaluates its chances in individual regions and constituencies would decide its demand for more seats, even otherwise.
Another option would be for the BJP to go it alone if the AIADMK splits and try its luck that way too.
Such a course could weaken the AIADMK in 2024, as it would be seen as a fight between the reigning BJP at the Centre and the ruling DMK in the state.
Yet, a section of the AIADMK would still prefer this option as it could 'return' traditional anti-Hindutva voters to the party's fold, in time for the assembly elections two years later.
Yet, EPS and the AIADMK under EPS would not be able to replicate the earlier party imagery under MGR and Jaya until he is able to go to the cadres over the head of the party, and to the voters over the head of the cadres, too.
Here, Modi and the BJP are at a greater advantage even in 'Dravidian' Tamil Nadu.
The DMK's Stalin, while proving his worth as the nation's longest surviving politician in such a mould, still has hesitation, asserting what he proved twice in as many years -- 2019 and 2021.
The great Indian truth is that only leaders who showed that they were above the party and had established direct contact with the voters, alone have helped themselves and also their respective parties.
In Tamil Nadu, the DMK, AIADMK and the PMK, founded by Dr S Ramadoss, all belong here.
In the DMK and the PMK, 'family politics' reigns, and both are identified with a particular ideology, and not just personal loyalty.
But each of them has proved to be an electoral burden for both as it was /is a political advantage.
Owing to the conspiracy of circumstances, MGR, without an extended family, and given his anxiety not to promote someone in his mould who would 'stab him in the back' as he had done to DMK's Karunanidhi, never allowed anywhere close to the second rung.
Jayalalithaa, who fashioned herself in MGR's mould, despite suffering similar fate under her mentor after he asked his partymen to stay away from her in his last public appearance at Chennai's Anna Nagar rally, kept the second rung, three or four rungs below.
In comparison, Ramadoss started the PMK in the early nineties, declaring that neither would he hold any party or government posts, and would not let his family members join what is still seen as a 'Vanniar party' in the community's northern stronghold.
Yet, successive party presidents in Dheeran and 'Dalit' Ezhilmalai, defected to rival/ally AIADMK before long, with the result he needed a loyalist, who could not have been anyone but his doctor-son, Anbumani Ramadoss, who was formally made the PMK president, a few weeks ago.
With all this, Ramadoss understood where the shoe had pinched DMK's Karunanidhi, when MGR first and Vaiko, founder of the breakaway MDMK, rebelled, respectively in 1972 and 1993.
But the greater problem for Karunanidhi and the DMK was/is that almost every adult member of the immediate family came to be associated with the party at the top rung.
Where it was not a formal post, their long arms were felt behind-the-scene, both in the government and in the party.
Yet, across the country, even regional parties with single, strong leaderships alone have flourished, if at all.
Whether it was Charan Singh's Lok Dal, or Bal Thackeray's Shiv Sena, N T Rama Rao's Telugu Desam, Jagmohan Reddy's YSR Congress, KCR's TRS, Odisha's Biju Janata Dal, not to leave out the Mamatas and Mayawatis, Lalu Yadav and Mulayam/Akhilesh Yadav, their parties benefited from their larger-than-life image.
Where their image suffered, which did not escape MGR, Jayalalithaa and more so Karunanidhi, the parties too suffered.
But there is a difference between each one of them and EPS in the present-day AIADMK.
The rest of them all grew bigger and/or popular over time, with cinematic familiarisation helping MGR and Jaya, NTR and Karunanidhi, to obtain and sustain 'face recognition' and ideological acceptance.
EPS has sort of 'inherited' a party left behind by two unfathomably charismatic personalities, by default though not deceit, and measuring up is not going to be easy.
The advantage is that EPS has an equally grounded Stalin for DMK rival compared to the latter's late father Karunanidhi, whose larger-than-life image was comparable to those of MGR and Jayalalithaa, especially in the departments of political strategy and administration.
His real test will commence with a decision whether or not to patch up with OPS and on what terms -- and then, to decide whether or not to have the BJP for an electoral ally, come 2024, considering that their union had not worked for the AIADMK especially in 2019 and 2021.
N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist and author, is a Chennai-based policy analyst and commentator.
Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com