EPS for chief minister in 2021—the slogan is ringing out loud and clear from the ranks of the AIADMK after the ruling party won two assembly by-elections held on October 21. Significantly, they managed to wrest the seats—Vikravandi and Nanguneri—from the DMK and the Congress respectively with margins of more than 30,000 votes.
The crushing win has boosted the chances of Edappadi K. Palaniswami (EPS), a last-minute unlikely choice as chief minister hand-picked by Sasikala Natarajan in February 2017, to lead the AIADMK’s bid to retain power in the 2021 assembly elections. Described as diffident, not very articulate and lacking the charisma of Jayalalitha or even AIADMK rebel, T.T.V. Dhinakaran, EPS was more of a workhorse politician when he was suddenly anointed chief minister.
But he has grown into the job, countering the Opposition effectively in the assembly, protecting his government from destabilisation by Dhinakaran and warding off threats from DMK’s Stalin. Even after the debilitating loss in the Lok Sabha elections, when AIADMK won only one of the 39 seats in Tamil Nadu, EPS soldiered on bravely, claiming that people had been misled by the false promises of the DMK and Congress. “Now we will face the local body elections in January and lay the groundwork for the assembly elections of 2021,” says state fisheries minister D. Jayakumar.
In the two by-elections, EPS spearheaded the campaign and also used his alliance partners effectively. In Vanniyar-dominated Vikravandi, he got PMK leaders—Ramadoss and his son, Anbumani—to campaign. In Nanguneri, with an eye on the votes of the Nadar community, he deployed actor R. Sarathkumar, who belongs to the caste. After the two victories, EPS gave credit to their allies, thus attempting to seal their cooperation for future electoral contests.
“The result will boost the confidence of EPS and his standing within the party, and also neutralise any challenge that Sasikala may pose after her release. You can expect EPS to consolidate his position in the coming months. Combined with the missteps of Stalin and the support of an array of allies, he can anchor the AIADMK in pole position,” says political analyst Raveendran Duraisamy.
Stalin’s actions in the run-up to the elections only helped the AIADMK. He suddenly promised a separate quota for the Vanniyar community, only to be reportedly ticked off by the PMK regarding why he had not implemented that when DMK was in power. Stalin’s alleged act of tokenism failed to impress the Vanniyars and distanced Dalit voters as well as its ally, Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi, contributing to the remarkable victory margins of the AIADMK.
Further, Stalin’s comments on panchami land, which was allotted by the British to Dalits for the community’s empowerment in 1892, boomeranged. Panchami land can neither be reclassified nor sold to non-Dalits. If a non-Dalit purchases such property, the government can acquire it. After watching Asuran, a film about Dalits’ quest to gain back their land, Stalin praised the film on Twitter and emphasised the importance of reclaiming panchami property. However, Stalin’s political rivals put him in the dock, alleging that the office of his party’s mouthpiece, Murasoli, was located on panchami land.
Also, in his rush to promote his son, Udayanidhi, who has been made the DMK’s youth wing secretary, Stalin sidelined other leaders from campaigning in these two seats and let his son hog the limelight. “Kanimozhi would have been more effective in Nadar areas, but she was hardly used. Instead, Udayanidhi, was given the pride of place, which proved ineffective,” says a senior DMK functionary.
Now that the by-election victories have staved off threats to the longevity of the AIADMK government—it now has 124 MLAs in a house of 234—EPS can concentrate more on governance than survival. He has a good equation with the Centre and will try to get some big-ticket investments in Tamil Nadu. That can also buy the BJP some much-needed goodwill in the state.
By G.C. Shekhar in Chennai