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Will EPS-OPS differences break AIADMK?

June 11, 2021 11:29 IST
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As the former CM and deputy CM squabble, fishing in troubled waters is V K Sasikala.
What will a split in the AIADMK mean for Tamil Nadu, asks N Sathiya Moorthy.

IMAGE: O Panneerselvam, left, with Edappadi K Palaniswami. Photograph: L Anantha Krishnan/ANI Photo

More than a month has passed by since the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam lost power in Tamil Nadu, and the party is not just demoralised, but is divided still, the twin leadership not wanting to learn lessons for the future.

Seeking to fish in troubled waters is Sasikala Natarajan, charismatic Jayalalithaa's live-in-confidante who spent four years in prison in a case where the late leader was the first accused.

It is all around the AIADMK's top two -- Party Coordinator O Panneerselvam (OPS) and Joint Coordinator Edappadi K Palaniswami (EPS) sharing the spoils even after they had spoilt the shares through infighting.

As the losing chief ministerial candidate in the April 6 assembly election, after holding office for four years, EPS wanted the Leader of the Opposition post, a relatively prestigious one, and had his way in number-crunching, leaving OPS as sullied as ever.

However, EPS could not but seek out OPS for a compromise when he wanted a trusted man as the chief whip of the Opposition in the assembly.

With OPS in the process of shifting home, the two met at a Chennai hotel, but the talks snapped after about 20 minutes, leaving cadres divided, and another section despondent as before the election.

Under the assembly rules, chief whip of political parties have a greater say than even the group leaders, here EPS as the Leader of the Opposition. The whip (alone) can write to the speaker on disqualification matters, including that of the group leader.

To the cadres, the fight between the two factions is indicative of the rival leaders mentally and physically preparing for a fight to the finish, if it were to come to such a pause.

For EPS, naming the chief whip of the main Opposition thus became important, as the new assembly was to meet for the maiden formal session with address by Governor Banwarilal Purohit, any time soon.

After Chief Minister M K Stalin called on Purohit on Wednesday, Raj Bhavan has announced the convening of the session on June 21.

Ironically, the two leaders are divided over issuing separate statements on issues of public importance, with OPS slightly taking the traditional DMK line on state-centred issues, against his support for the pro-Centre approach of the EPS government.

They come together to sign joint statements only to sack party rebels like Nilofer Kapil who contested against the AIADMK's official candidate.

Strategising for the post-poll future, the OPS camp, as was known, staked everything on their leader being the coordinator even while playing second fiddle to EPS as deputy chief minister. They seemed to have missed out then on the Leader of the Oppostion job.

By the time they woke up to that reality post-poll, EPS had marshalled his arguments.

The EPS faction claims that it met all election expenses of the party even as the OPS group looked the other way, even in the latter's so-called southern stronghold.

As they point out, EPS defended his western citadel even after a total rout in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, but OPS failed on that score, too.

Three, EPS's nomination as the party's chief minister candidate meant that in case of electoral defeat, he would be the Leader of the Oppostion, though nothing was mentioned at the time about 'accountability' for losing the polls as the incumbent.

The OPS camp does not seem to have any arguments to offer. However, there is truth in their criticism that EPS kept OPS mostly out of candidate selection even in the south.

To them, EPS behaved as if he had already won the chief minister's post and was targeting OPS with the post-poll scenario in mind, which cost the party-led alliance heavily.

There is truth in their argument. By forcing the issue on 10.5 per cent internal reservations for the Vanniyar community from the larger OBC quota, tabling a hurriedly drafted Bill and getting it passed literally an hour before the Election Commission announced the schedule for the assembly polls, the EPS camp destroyed the party's chances across the state, so to say.

EPS got the alliance with the Vanniyar-strong Pattali Makkal Katchi which mattered in the northern and part of his western region, starting with his Edappadi constituency. But that led to the ganging up of non-Vanniyar voters across the board, other than in select constituencies of incumbent AIADMK ministers who were big spenders all along.

EPS led the list.

As critics point out, even the PMK could win only five of the 23 constituencies contested. In societal terms, the rival, Dalit-led Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi in the DMK combine bagged four seats, including two general constituencies, where it was expected to lose.

It will take a lot of time for the PMK to acknowledge emerging socio-political realities. Like actor-politician Vijaykanth and his failed Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam, the PMK too has overplayed the caste card every which way, only to lament in peril.

The OPS faction argues that the EPS strategy was to ensure their losing the southern stronghold while the latter would sweep through the north and the west as had happened for the rival DMK in the post-MGR assembly polls of 1989.

In the final analysis, EPS retained the west, but not the north, which went overwhelmingly to the DMK, even as the quota for the Vanniyar community upset and antagonised the numerically strong Mukkulathore community in the south to which OPS too belonged.

Incidentally, EPS is also afraid of losing his importance, and possibly the leadership, if he acquiesced to taking back Sasikala Natarajan, whom he had ejected out of the party with OPS in tow.

He has been more vociferous than pre-poll on the issue, especially after an undenied audio-tape appeared, with Sasikala reassuring an unnamed cadre on the phone that she would come out and save the party once the current pandemic ended.

Against this, OPS, who had lost his third-term chief ministership to Sasikala's insistence on occupying the seat, seems to have forgotten his dharma yudh at Amma's samadhi, and is in a conciliatory mood.

Pre-poll, he had begun telling media interviewers that the AIADMK should be open to the idea of working with the Sasikala faction, which now goes by the political brand-name, AMMK.

In this, the OPS faction was/is realistic, as the results showed that most of the 22 seats that the AIADMK lost in the assembly polls owing to the AMMK vote-split, lay in the southern region.

But what kind of compromise he may be willing to strike, if it came to that, is unclear. In comparison, OPS seems determined to put spokes in EPS's wheels, though there are inherent and institutional limitations to his efforts.

A rival audio, supposedly in response to one such call involving Sasikala, has surfaced since. The male voice pooh-poohs her for her reassuring words, asking her to stay at home and mind her business as the party was doing well without her. The voice is neither angry, nor antagonised, as would have been expected.

At last count, Sasikala's calls in about a week's time is inching towards a quarter century. She initiates the call and seeks to reassure the cadres that 'Chinnamma' will soon come out to save the party -- without having to mention from whom and why.

Sasikala's voice, weaker than normal, given her age, ailments and imprisonment, does not inspire cadre confidence either. But then she has been known more as a schemer or as the executioner of the schemes charted out by her late husband M Natarajan, who died of diabetes-related kidney complications when she was in prison.

Should the AIADMK continue to remain divided, and the leaders continued to behave thus, it may get reflected in the legislature, where the state's attention will be focussed -- mainly for assessing the Stalin ministers's performance.

The government has seemingly obtained a positive performance score through the first month in office, which it needs to build upon.

Inside the assembly, the AIADMK can be expected to continue provoking the likes of Finance Minister P T R Thiagarajan, whose tongue is as acerbic as his qualifications for the job are impressive.

The four-member Bharatiya Janata Party ally is already doing this job outside the assembly, little acknowledging their constituency-centric limitations, which could only damage the party's hopes for further expansion in Tamil Nadu.

On the reverse, the more the AIADMK turns provocative, greater are the chances that individual members of the erstwhile Jaya/EPS governments will come to grief, both inside the assembly and outside.

Rather, such provocation may fast-track assembly attacks and police cases against them, Stalin having led a DMK delegation to Governor Purohit with a long list of corruption charges against them.

There is also the digging into the 'mystery' behind Jayalalalitha'ss death needing to be done. It remains to be seen how slow the DMK goes about it all, and/or how selective it is all.

The political tradition set by the late chief ministers M Karunanidhi (DMK) and MGR and Jayalalithaa (AIADMK) is that they would force the other into staying and fighting back, and thus politically leave no vacuum for a national party to fish around.

A split AIADMK is going to make the DMK's choice(s) that much more difficult.

Yet, the conclusion of the coming assembly session could mean the opening of a newer chapter in the AIADMK's troubled career. Impractical about his ambitions and hurried as he has been ever since becoming chief minister, EPS is not unlikely to force the leadership issue in organisational fora.

There is no denying that EPS may have an edge, big rather than small, in the all-important general council, where he may want to take his case, at a time of his choosing.

For the coming June 14 meeting of the AIADMK legislature party to elect office-bearers, including chief whip, a letter purported to be from the party headquarters is in circulation. It bears the signature of neither of them -- rather, there is no signature of anyone, even to prove its authenticity.

Despite sympathies to the contrary, the numbers do not seem to add up for OPS. This is so after he was seen as sacrificing the interests of second-line leaders that had stood by him during the dharma yudh, focussing on the elevation of his son P Raveendranath Kumar, first as an MP from native Theni constituency, and later, possibly as a junior minister in Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government at the Centre.

So, the question arises: What if the OPS camp were to lose the legislative party elections, if no compromise is arrived at beforehand?

Will OPS in such a case have the numbers even to avert action under the anti-defection law?

Having proved his numbers in the uncontested election for the Leader of the Opposition, EPS is bent on consolidating his hold over the party early on, before going further -- counting more on the inevitable anti-incumbency factor against the DMK rulers working in his favour at whatever point possible.

He wants to be ready there, and not to miss the opportunity, whenever, and charge...

Will all this mean that the AIADMK is on its way out, and that the BJP ally can hope to fill in the vacuum?

Going by past experience, including under the post-Jaya Modi-Shah experimentation, the Tamil response was negative. The chances in case of a vertical split in the AIADMK, if it were to happen, is that it may lead to the second-line migrating to other parties, especially the DMK, some even to the likes of actor-politician Seeman's NTK, which polled a substantial eight per cent vote without winning a single seat in the 234-member assembly.

There is also the likelihood of a split in the AIADMK leading to the formation of more caste and interest-based minor parties along the way, as happened in the decade after MGR's death.

Through all this, the ruling DMK will only have to sit out the rivals, taking time to settle down quietly and firmly, without having to do anything to weaken the AIADMK challenger.

And this is the real challenge for the AIADMK, more than anything else.

N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist, political analyst and author, is Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation.

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