Amma was effectively the sole parent of the party; so her end did leave the legion of supporters practically orphaned. A year has passed after the death of J. Jayalalitha when she was Tamil Nadu chief minister, and her AIADMK continues to be in power—only that its leadership has never since looked solid. The top organisational echelon is in a crisis, as was the case in 1987 when AIADMK founder M.G. Ramachandran died and there was a tug of war between two senior netas.
That way, it is a miracle the AIADMK continues to rule the state. After Amma’s death on December 5, 2016, the state has seen two chief ministers: O. Pannerselvam and then Edappadi K. Palanisami. Both quickly turned from proxies to rebels against their political masters—V.K. Sasikala and her family. The rush to fill Jayalalitha’s boots also saw two CM aspirants—Sasikala and her nephew T.T.V. Dhinakaran—tripping, and even going to jail in the process.
The AIADMK suffered a split and managed a merger, which triggered another split. The party’s symbol just got released, so the AIADMK can contest the byelection to the R.K. Nagar Assembly seat that has remained vacant for a year (see box). The merger hasn’t ensured intra-party peace. While Panneerselvam (OPS) and Palanisami (EPS) have joined hands, they have not buried their differences. The two camps continue to remain suspicious of each other’s intentions. “Being the larger group in the government, we expect the EPS group to come up with confidence-building measures,” says the AIADMK’s V. Maithreyan, MP. “Instead, the EPS group is constantly undermining and insulting OPS and his supporters rather than attack the Sasikala faction.”
It requires more than the combined might of the EPS and OPS groups to untangle the AIADMK from the grip of the Sasikala family. Income tax raids in November on 130 locations of the Sasikala coterie and their business interests was aimed at defanging the family’s financial clout. “We have unearthed Rs 1,500 crore of undeclared income and dubious investments through shell companies running into hundreds of crores of rupees,” says an IT official. “Various instances of tax evasion have come to our notice.”
The raids sent out a political message to the feisty Dhinakaran: move away from politics. He is leading the family’s counter-attack, as Sasikala languishes in jail, convicted for corruption. An unfazed Dhinakaran recalls that his family had weathered similar raids in the past when Jayalalitha was ousted in 1996 and the United Front government filed a spate of enforcement and smuggling cases against Sasikala, her husband and three nephews. “Even if we go to jail, we will come back to take control of the party and run the state,” Dhinakaran, 53, asserts.
For Sasikala and family, the AIADMK remains a much-needed bulwark against political onslaughts in the absence of Jayalalitha’s cover. “The family had used the party to mint money,” explains former Chennai mayor Saidai Duraiswamy of the AIADMK. “Sasikala alone started the practice of selling MLA seats and district secretary’s posts. Having made a huge amount of money using its proximity to Jayalalitha, the party apparatus and government machinery, the Mannargudi family desperately needs at least the party to protect its ill-gotten wealth.”
Dhinakaran, unlike his aunt, has managed to connect with the cadres. While Sasikala, 60, came out as a phony pretender while attempting to emulate Jayalalitha, Dhinakaran’s tongue-in-cheek style of communication has earned him admirers. “He used to be a shy operator behind the scene,” notes legislator P. Vetrivel, a Dhinakaran supporter. “The present challenge to lead the party and protect it from the poachers has brought out another side of his personality. He speaks the same informal way at a public meeting and at a private family gathering.”
EPS, in contrast, comes out as a bumbling non-performer, at least on stage. In a recent documentary about the fight against dengue, his two lines in front of the camera evoked more laughter in the theatre than comedian Vivek’s one-liners. What he lacks in oratorical skills, the 63-year-old has managed with manipulative moves. When EPS saw Prime Minister Narendra Modi lean towards OPS, the CM offered the full support of his group and government. EPS supported the Centre on GST, NEET, presidential and vice-presidential elections.
So when Modi convinced OPS to effect the merger, it happened more on the terms of EPS. The OPS group got only two ministers and, in running the party, the two ended up with similar powers. OPS and his minions felt constantly short-changed. In the coming days, EPS would have to tread carefully to save his government. Having got back the ‘Two Leaves’ symbol might be a psychological victory, but what he really needs are the numbers to prove his majority in the house.
Even the Election Commission has recorded that the EPS+OPS groups have only 111 MLAs, seven short of the official majority mark in the house. If the High Court rules against the disqualification of 18 MLAs with Dhinakaran, then it would render the government without a majority. Then there is also the legal challenge of disqualifying the OPS group’s 11 MLAs who had defied the whip to vote against the confidence vote of EPS in February. If they get disqualified, then the numbers would be hopelessly ranged against EPS.
Such a scenario where no one commands a workable majority would tempt Delhi to impose President’s rule in the state at least for six months, which can be extended. The BJP would prefer Tamil Nadu to elect its Assembly along with the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The interregnum could give it the much-needed space and time to provide a clean and efficient government and showcase it to improve its electoral credentials in the state where it has polled only around 2 per cent votes.
A senior BJP official says that even a short spell of governor’s rule will demonstrate to the people of the state about the “kind of responsive government that can be provided in Tamil Nadu, compared to the Dravidian rule they have suffered” all these years. “If we clamp down on corruption in a big way, the contrast cannot be missed.” And a dry run seems to be already in place, as the new state governor Banwarilal Purhoit recently held review meetings with officials in Coimbatore. When the Opposition termed it direct interference in state powers, the governor’s office hit back to state that it was well within the constitutional norms and also something he had practised in Assam.
“A spell of governor’s rule could actually pep up the administration that has become moribund and corrupt,” observes a senior IAS officer. “The political masters are busy about survival and collecting funds for elections. The party in power at Delhi will try to influence the course of events, but then it is already in bed with a weak state government.”
EPS may have proved to be a great survivor politically, but his governance has suffered. For him, the need to stay afloat is more vital than swimming. Also, the CM lacks either Jayalalitha’s dominance or OPS’ earnestness. “He has been unable to reshuffle his cabinet and drop a few non-performers,” says DMK spokesperson T.K.S. Elangovan. “It is time to go to the people for their verdict.” The DMK does not want to be seen openly collaborating with Dhinakaran to topple the EPS government, as any truck with the Sasikala family would show it in poor light. Chimes in a Congress leader: “The DMK will use Dhinakaran but drop him once its job is done.”
The BJP wants to bide its time till Rajinikanth clarifies his political intention. The superstar recently said there was no need to rush into politics. His plan is to float a party a few months before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections and strike an alliance with the BJP. He is confident that actor Kamalahaasan, who seems to be in a hurry to make his political entry, will soon exhaust himself. “Rajini has realised that politics is a marathon race and not a sprint,” observes Thuglak editor S. Gurumurthy. “Kamal would only be splitting the anti-AIADMK votes to the benefit the DMK, which would cut Kamal to size the moment it captures power. Rajini is also waiting to gauge how the power struggle in the AIADMK finally plays out.”
The political churn caused by Jayalalitha’s exit, which also coincided with Karunanidhi’s retreat from active politics, continues to throw up new possibilities and players. Maybe a year is too short a time in Tamil Nadu’s politics for the muddied water to clear.
By G.C. Shekhar in Chennai