Nearly four years after her death, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) is still struggling to fill the void left behind by former Tamil Nadu chief minister J. Jayalalithaa. The party, which will turn 49 in October, is plagued by a leadership crisis that is deepening by the day.
On September 16, as the assembly proceedings came to an end, Deputy Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam, as party coordinator, wanted to call a meeting of all AIADMK MLAs and senior leaders at the party office. But Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami, as joint coordinator, refused to give consent. The tilt in the power equation within the party was for all to see. When the two factions headed by Panneerselvam and Palaniswami came together—brokered by the BJP, following Jayalalithaa’s death—the division of power was clear: Panneerselvam would control the party, and Palaniswami would head the government.
On September 17, Panneerselvam, also known as OPS, decided to convene an emergency meeting of party executives at the party office. In a first for the AIADMK, the notice was tweeted. Ahead of the meeting on September 18, there was much sloganeering at the headquarters—OPS supporters hailed him as “future CM” whereas Palaniswami’s aides called him the “permanent CM”. The three-hour long meeting, convened to broker a truce between the two, turned combative and ended inconclusively.
The clash between the two factions is not new though. Soon after the merger in 2017, senior party leader V. Maitreyan posted on Facebook: “The factions have merged. Months pass by, but what about the hearts?” Even though there was a clear distinction of power between the two leaders, Palaniswami, aka EPS, started getting more support within the party. As a senior AIADMK leader said, “OPS decided to assert himself and take control of the party, but EPS was always accommodative of everyone.” Also, the 11-member steering committee, which was to be constituted during the merger, was never formed. Sources said that OPS had trouble recommending his aides for party posts as every decision required the joint coordinator’s consent.
The rift between the two widened this August, when senior ministers took sides on the issue of the party’s chief ministerial candidate for the 2021 assembly elections. While Minister for Cooperation Sellur K. Raju said that MLAs will elect the chief minister post the polls, Minister for Milk and Dairy Development Rajenthra Bhalaji said, “Let us face the election with EPS as the CM candidate.” These statements soon turned into a poster war, which soon spilled on to the streets.
On August 15, Panneerselvam received the Chief Minister’s Best Practices Award for the total computerisation of the finance, treasury, human resources and pension management processes of the state. But soon there was frenetic activity outside the residences of the Panneerselvam and Palaniswami, both of whom live just a few metres away from each other on the Greenways Road in Chennai. Hectic parleys went on till late afternoon on August 16, with a group of ministers acting as interlocutors. The ministers were seen rushing in their cars from one residence to another to deliver messages. Later that day, the two leaders seemed to have arrived at a temporary truce. However, the EPS camp felt that OPS had his way as they could no longer project Palaniswami as the chief minister candidate, while Panneerselvam’s supporters were upset that he still did not have complete control of the party.
Days after the truce, Palaniswami reportedly visited party presidium chairman E. Madhusudhanan at his house in North Chennai. While it was supposedly to enquire about Madhushudhanan’s health, it was no courtesy call. Madhusudhanan, OPS and EPS were co-petitioners in the fight for the party’s two leaves symbol against Jayalalithaa’s close confidante V.K. Sasikala and her nephew T.T.V. Dhinakaran. With that visit, the truce reportedly came to an end, and Panneerselvam then tweeted about the emergency meeting on September 16.
Party sources said that as soon as the meeting got under way, a Panneerselvam supporter raised the issue of the delay in constituting the steering committee. While J.C.D. Prabhakar and P.H. Manoj Pandian from the Panneerselvam camp were said to be quite vocal during the meeting, deputy coordinators K.P. Munusamy and R. Vaithilingam tried to keep the peace.
A minister from a northern district pointed out that the party was being dominated by a particular community from west Tamil Nadu, which consists of the Kongu region—home to the Gounder community. Palaniswami and his lieutenants—S.P. Velumani and P. Thangamani—are from the Gounder community. A few days before the emergency meeting, three ministers from the Vanniyar community, hailing from north Tamil Nadu, had a closed-door meeting to discuss strategies to contain the growing clout of Palaniswami. Sources said that this meeting was convened after a Vanniyar minister was asked to approve a lucrative tender that was against the norms. With the failure of the emergency meeting, the party has called for an executive committee meeting on September 28.
Meanwhile, at a press meet hours before the emergency meeting, AIADMK’s Ramanathapuram strongman Anwar Raja said that Sasikala’s release from prison would have a huge impact on Tamil Nadu politics. On September 20, Dhinakaran is said to have taken a chartered flight to Delhi to meet a senior RSS leader, who is close to the BJP high command. This private meeting triggered speculations that the BJP was trying to merge Dhinakaran’s Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam with the ruling AIADMK. The visit has also led to rumours of his aunt Sasikala’s early release from the Parappana Agrahara prison in Bengaluru. But the state prison department, in a reply to an RTI query, said that the “probable date of release is January 27, 2021”.
Sasikala’s release and Dhinakaran’s moves gain significance, as party insiders said that only a “single leadership” like MGR’s or Jayalalithaa’s could lead the party to victory in the 2021 elections. And Sasikala, they said, was aware of each party member’s strengths and weaknesses, including those of Panneerselvam and Palaniswami. Sasikala and Panneerselvam belong to the politically powerful Thevar community. And Panneerselvam’s rise in the party, it is said, in the early 2000s was thanks to Sasikala’s recommendations. “Wait for two more weeks. Much more drama combined with hectic parleys will unfold,” said a senior party functionary close to Panneerselvam. “He wants to lead the party and he is not averse to bringing back Sasikala’s family into the party.”
Also, Panneerselvam is keen on continuing the alliance with the BJP. His son P. Raveendranath Kumar, the party’s lone MP in the Lok Sabha, voted in favour of the farm bills. Rajya Sabha MP S.R. Balasubramoniyan, though opposed to the bills, voted for it, saying, “It is an order to vote for the bill from the party high command.” Sources said BJP state in-charge Piyush Goyal had spoken to Panneerselvam, seeking support for the farm bills.
Palaniswami, however, wants to ditch the BJP and go it alone for the upcoming polls. He thinks that the alliance would prove disastrous for the party, like it did in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. And, he has been taking on the BJP and its policies at the Centre. In August, he opposed the Centre’s three-language policy, and later prohibited Vinayaka Chathurthi processions in the state. He also got a Bharat Sena member booked under the National Security Act for defacing the statue of social reformer Periyar E.V. Ramasamy in Coimbatore. But Palaniswami has not declared an all-out war against the BJP for fear of raids from Central agencies.
His actions though seem to have angered BJP leaders in Tamil Nadu, with state BJP president L. Murugan saying, “We can win 60 seats if we contest alone.”