If ever there was an accidental chief minister, it must be Edappadi K. Palaniswami, EPS to friend and foe. During Jayalalitha’s time he flew under the radar. When she died, O. Panneerselvam was the natural successor. After OPS was dethroned and Sasikala’s chief ministerial plans got nixed, her family expected Palaniswami to keep the seat warm till another nominee, TTV Dhinakaran—was ready.
But the wily Palaniswami had plans of his own. He kept the post for himself and has been firmly entrenched in the CM’s chair for over two years. And he looks set to complete the government’s tenure till May 2021. He has proved to be the smiling assassin who has taken everyone for a ride.
The challenge thrown by Dhinakaran and his 18 rebel MLAs was nixed, the AIADMK symbol was retrieved by making peace with Panneerselvam and he has kept his flock of MLAs happy in spite of a wafer-thin majority in the assembly. “He just replies with a smile. Never overstates anything. At the same time he quietly advances the AIADMK’s agenda. Look at the way he gave a dole of Rs. 1,000 for each ration card for Pongal and then followed it up with Rs. 2,000 each for 60 lakh BPL families affected by Cyclone Gaja and drought. All this munificence is aimed only at the Lok Sabha elections and the opposition cannot even protest,” says a PMK leader.
Palaniswami’s political acumen was on display again as he quickly assembled a strong AIADMK-led front by giving seven LS seats to the PMK and, in turn, took its support for by-polls in 21 assembly seats the AIADMK plans to contest. The BJP had hoped that it would take 15 LS seats from the AIADMK and then distribute them to allies like the PMK and DMDK. Just like the front it had headed in 2014. But EPS insisted on protecting the AIADMK’s primacy in the state by picking its allies and apportioning seats to them. The BJP was forced to fall in line.
That has been the EPS style—understated, effective and taking his opponents by surprise. The bluster of Jayalalitha or the verbose and repetitive jabs of M.K. Stalin are not for EPS. Stalin’s predictions about the imminent fall of the EPS government had become so tiresome that even DMK functionaries do not view them seriously. “Even in the assembly, EPS is ready with point-by-point rebuttal rather than throwing challenges at the opposition. Ever since he became the chief minister the house has witnessed more meaningful debates,” says a minister.
Even top bureaucrats were amazed at the manner he defused a strike by government school teachers, by adroitly undermining the leadership of the strikers rather than use the bludgeon. This was the first time a strike was broken without resorting to large scale arrests. Instead, he dangled the carrot of transfers to vacancies chosen by striking teachers. He also got the public backing by arguing that a strike ahead of public exams was unfair to students.
Even as his government faced a slew of corruption charges and investigations were ordered by the courts, EPS could attract more investments by organising an investor’s meet. EPS was firm that the state’s record as a leader in industrial output had to be maintained for generating jobs and revenue. “Attracting investments is one thing but delivering them on the ground without kickbacks is entirely different. On the corruption front, the EPS government has an abysmal track record. They are being saved only by the delays in the judicial system,” says anti-corruption activist Jayaraman.
The challenge ahead is to win at least half of the 39 Lok Sabha seats, so the AIADMK can call the shots in the next Union government. With the PMK, DMDK and a few minor parties ready to join the alliance, EPS would actually be leading a muscular front that cannot be discounted easily in spite of the anti-incumbency of the central and state governments. While Modi would be delivering thunderous speeches, EPS in contrast would keep it simple but with a smile. This could prove dangerous to his rivals if the last two years are an indication.
- Surprises everyone by surviving for two years.
- Defuses strike by government teachers.
- Got industries to sign for fresh investments of Rs. 3 lakh crore.
- Housing for poor living on government lands.
- Financial dole of Rs. 2,000 for 60 lakh BPL families
- Formation of Cauvery Water Management Authority after legal battle.
- Cyclone Gaja impact managed by speeding up relief and rehab.
- Ministers, including the CM is facing corruption cases. One minister convicted.
- Repressive measures against critics and protestors.
- Yet to prove electoral clout after R.K. Nagar loss. Avoided local body elections.
- Sailing with the BJP could hit minority votes.
By G.C. Shekhar in Chennai