On the face of it, the first round has gone to Edappadi K Palaniswami. Not only has he been named chief ministerial candidate, that too by his one-time bete noire Panneerselvam, he also gets one member more in the steering committee than OPS. He can now hope to wean away one or more members of the OPS team in the steering committee just as he had done with other leaders in the latter’s camp, post-reunification.
That was also OPS’s concern, says N Sathiya Moorthy.
It is celebration time for the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam cadres in Tamil Nadu.
In state capital Chennai, AIADMK coordinator and deputy chief minister O Panneerselvam (OPS) named incumbent Edappadi K Palaniswami (EPS) as the party’s chief ministerial candidate for the assembly elections next year.
The announcement, preceded by the setting up of the much-delayed steering committee, as agreed upon during the reunification of the party in 2017, has also put in place an internal mechanism to choose / shortlist candidates for the assembly elections and also act as a high-powered committee reporting to the top two.
When he started his ‘Dharmayudh 2.0’ on Independence Day, OPS had insisted only on the steering committee, which EPS had personally opposed almost until the last minute.
But with a pre-announced deadline of October 7 for the party to announce its chief ministerial candidacy, which he coveted even more, EPS had little choice but to yield.
On the face of it, the first round has gone to EPS. Not only has he been named chief ministerial candidate, that too by his one-time bete noire, he also gets one member more in the steering committee, currently split 6-5 between him and OPS. He can now hope to wean away one or more members of the OPS team in the steering committee just as he had done with other leaders in the latter’s camp, post-reunification.
That was also OPS’s concern. Over the past three years, he was witness to the systematic shrinking of his base, which was none too large to begin with.
Even when he launched his ‘Darmayuth’ at late chief minister Jayalalithaa’s samadhi, he had only 11 of the total 130-plus party legislators supporting him. The head count in terms of district unit secretaries and those below was also nothing much to go by.
If this was also one of the major reasons for OPS agreeing to the reunification, but for the honourable way out provided by the ruling BJP at the Centre and the latter’s ideological supporters nearer home in Chennai, the faction might have had a slow and painful death.
OPS recognised it, he also recognised in recent times that he needed to restore the confidence of his own camp followers if he had to arrest his sliding popularity within the party in the long run-up to the assembly polls.
For EPS had already consolidated his position in the government and the legislative wing. What remained for OPS to throw at the other was only the unfulfilled joint commitment to set up a steering committee. Though weighted in favour of the EPS camp in terms of numbers, it would still give OPS the elbow room to prove to his team that he had not forgotten them for personal benefits.
This is because an impression was gaining ground, and not entirely without justification, that OPS was keen only on promoting his son, P Raveendranath Kumar, first as a Lok Sabha candidate and later for making him a member of the BJP ally-led Narendra Modi government at the Centre.
Kumar, who has since officially changed his name as ‘P Raveendranath’, was the only AIADMK alliance candidate to win a Lok Sabha seat last year, which gave the rival DMK combine a sweeping 38-1 lead.
According to local media reports, EPS had then thwarted Raveendranath’s chances by proposing a senior Rajya Sabha member of the party for the lone MoS position the BJP was reportedly willing to offer the AIADMK.
In between, veteran leader M Thambidurai, a former Lok Sabha deputy speaker and former Union minister, has been elected to the Rajya Sabha after he had lost native Dharmapuri district to Congress field worker Jothimani by a huge margin.
The question is also if the current truce will help OPS to count on EPS’s backing for making Raveendranath as a minister of state at the Centre. This may however require the BJP’s nod to begin with but then EPS may also want Thambidurai or any other veteran from his camp named to a Cabinet berth. There can be many a slip between the cup and the lip.
Such sequences also need to be read in the context of the BJP’s own ambitions at the national level and consequent plans for Tamil Nadu.
The buzz from distant Delhi is that the party high command may be looking for more MPs, either of its own or of its allies from the South and the East, should its current strength in the Hindi heartland were to reduce in the Lok Sabha polls that are not due before 2024.
The option for the party in the state thus is to hope at the impossibility of strengthening the BJP, or continue to depend on the AIADMK ally and facilitate its ability to increase its numbers.
A month ago, state BJP president L Murugan asserted that the AIADMK still led their alliance, though his party by itself was capable of winning 60 assembly seats in a total of 234.
The AIADMK patch-up may now force the BJP to revise its hopes on the number of seats it hoped to contest.
If it remained rejuvenated at election time as now, the AIADMK may not be inclined to grant more seats to any ally, leave alone the BJP with its 2-3 per cent vote-share when contesting alone.
The party may then quote rival DMK’s late patriarch M Karunanidhi after their alliance lost the 2016 assembly polls by the smallest one per cent vote-share difference in the state. The figure was 41-40 per cent in favour of the ruling AIADMK under incumbent chief minister, Jayalalithaa.
At the end of the 2016 polls, Karunanidhi, citing the strike rate of the DMK alliance, publicly stated that they lost only because the Congress ally was given a high number of 41 seats and the party could win only eight.
In any seat-sharing negotiations with the BJP, a reunified AIADMK leadership could well cite the 2016 precedent of the rival, and ask the other to be ‘reasonable, pragmatic and not over-ambitious’ in its expectations.
It is another matter that a section of the AIADMK cadres still feel that the humiliating defeat of 2019 owed to the alliance with the BJP. According to them, Dravidian voters had not still accepted the party’s ideology and perceptions of performance in the 21st century.
Inside the AIADMK from now on, the jostling for seats may commence sooner than later.
The post-Jayalalithaa amended constitution of the party provides only for a coordinator and joint coordinator and also a 11-member ‘advisory committee’. It does not envisage a ‘steering committee’. The leadership hence has to look for some dissenters unhappy with the EPS-OPS deal, to flag the issue. It would be enough that the nomenclature is change, now or later.
However, on larger issues, round one has gone to EPS, and it is advantage EPS all the way -- or, so it seems.
OPS has not only got party positions for his supporters, but has also been careful to name only those that he can trust as steering committee members representing his camp.
More importantly, the two camps have carefully avoided party seniors and veterans before their own generation, in terms of age and seniority in the party for any significant organisational position.
In this, party presidium chairman and former minister E Madhusoodhanan is the lone exception. He had identified with the OPS camp during the earlier split but retained his position after the patch-up.
When during the recent bickering some EPS supporters wanted a new presidium chairman, Madhusoodhanan had retorted that ‘Amma had declared that I would hold the post as long as I am alive’.
In the interim, OPS can continue to hope that the other camp would still have to depend on his joint signature on ‘Form B’, for allocation of the AIADMK’s ‘Two Leaves’ poll symbol to individual candidates in individual constituencies. The party law says that both the coordinator and joint coordinator will have to sign together.
However, in real terms, trouble for OPS can commence after the polls. If the party wins, EPS would become chief minister. He can then fast-track the downsizing of OPS and have the general council remove him as coordinator.
On the reverse, should AIADMK not make it in the polls, then again, the EPS faction can continue to harass OPS as the coordinator, which post the latter seems to feel would otherwise put him permanently one up on the other.
N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist and political analyst, is Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation.