He lacks the command and stature of J. Jayalalitha. Nor does he have the gift of the gab of the late AIADMK leader’s lifelong opponent M. Karunanidhi, 93. What chief minister Edappadi K. Palanisamy revels in is silence—something his predecessor O. Panneerselvam had slowly managed to come out of, gaining confidence after his revolt against the party’s rival-camp leader V.K. Sasikala.
But behind that inscrutable quietude lies the mind of a master manipulator who has outmanoeuvred his challengers, kept his flock together and wormed himself into the good books of faraway Delhi: the 63-year-old announced the support of his group to the NDA’s presidential candidate. “The speed with which EPS (Palanisamy) not only forced OPS and TTV (Dhinakaran, AIADMK’s deputy general secretary) to follow suit, it also earned him the trust and goodwill of (Prime Minister) Narendra Modi and (BJP president) Amit Shah,” says a BJP leader.
And the union government quickly warmed up to him by inviting Palanisamy to the swearing-in of Ramnath Kovind at Parliament House. Modi even granted him a long audience. The NDA ministers also lent a patient hearing in favour of exempting Tamil Nadu from the NEET for medical admissions. Two days later, on July 27, when the PM visited the southern state to inaugurate former president A.P.J. Abdul Kalam’s memorial, Modi made sure the CM was next to him throughout the two-hour function at coastal Rameswaram.
AIADMK’s Saidai Duraisamy recalls that the BJP initially backed OPS after his revolt this February and viewed EPS with suspicion since he was Sasikala’s chosen proxy. “Soon, the Delhi bosses discovered that EPS was nobody’s man. The way he quickly distanced himself from Sasikala and Dhinakaran and was ready to do Delhi’s bidding surprised them,” says the former Chennai mayor. “The likes of Shah were further impressed with the way EPS rejected OPS’ terms for merger and yet managed to retain his majority in the House. They saw in him an astute politician.” EPS, according to Duraisamy, was “always politically shrewd and a great survivor who found a new life as a political master, once he got power as CM and the support of Delhi.”
Ambiguity is another weapon EPS effectively uses to confuse rivals. He has so far refrained from openly disowning either Sasikala or Dhinakaran even while sending signed affidavits to the Election Commission endorsing the jailed leader as the party’s general secretary. “Only his ministers have spoken about keeping (Sasikala’s) Mannargudi family out of party politics…. EPS hasn’t uttered a word,” points out a senior minister. “At the same time, he is doing everything to keep the Sasikala clan in check—a promise he has made to the BJP.” Informed sources say EPS may openly spell out his move once the EC rules on the legitimacy of Sasikala’s appointment as party general secretary.
But when matters come to a head, EPS has proved to be assertive as well. Dhinakaran, after a self-imposed sanyas for two months, announced resuming active work by convening a meeting of office-bearers on August 5 at the party headquarters. To preempt him, EPS, who is the headquarters secretary, convened his own meeting of top leaders on August 1—and got finance minister D. Jayakumar to assert, “The party and government are being led ably by the CM”. That was to send the message out that Dhinakaran should not cross the Lakshman rekha by entering the party office. Already, EPS had all the posters and portraits of Sasikala removed from the party HQ in April to demonstrate to the OPS faction that he too was keen to keep the discredited family out of party politics.
As a more assertive EPS attempted to shield the party and government from the influence of the Sasikala clan, Dhinakaran was forced to make peace with his warring uncle Divakaran, the younger brother of 60-year-old Sasikala. “The family had to first contend with the revolt of OPS—and just when it thought it had a diehard loyalist in EPS, he has proved to be a bigger rebel,” points out legislator Thanga Thamizselvan, a Dhinakaran supporter. “So much so that the family had to hurriedly close ranks. That has been the EPS effect.”
Even as OPS hemmed and hawed over conditions for merger, EPS quietly went about undercutting Panneerselvan’s support base, weaning away two MLAs from the OPS ranks by fulfilling their constituency demands. This gave second thoughts to other MLAs and MPs of the OPS faction about the usefulness of sticking with OPS. “Unless OPS effects a merger in the coming weeks, almost his entire camp will migrate towards EPS,” cautions an MLA from the OPS camp.
EPS has dangled another carrot to cause disquiet in the OPS camp: ministerial berths at the Centre. While this has definitely tempted a few pro-OPS MPs like V. Maithreyan, EPS has got the BJP to impose one condition. Any representation in the Union ministry can happen only if both the factions merged. This would ensure that the EPS government had the cushion of about ten more MLAs (from OPS camp) in case Dhinakaran decides to undermine the state regime. “Being part of the Union government could also deter Dhinakaran from destabilising EPS since he and his aunt are facing ED cases,” says a senior MLA from the EPS camp. “At the same time, the CM also risks being part of Modi government’s unpopular decisions like trimming ration subsidies and rolling out gas and oil projects in farmlands.”
To maintain balance, EPS has to show that he also got some good deals from Delhi—like exemption from NEET (if that happens), special central government projects and preventing arrests of Tamil fishermen by Sri Lanka. Even for the BJP, a liaison with the EPS-led AIADMK comes with its own negatives. “The BJP hopes that a mere tie-up with the AIADMK will politically strengthen it in the state,” pointed out a senior bureaucrat. “But many of its economic decisions run counter to the state’s own freebie culture and heavily subsidised approach. The BJP could also be tainted by the massive corruption charges against the present regime in the state.” Modi’s claim of a scam-free government could actually be threatened by the prospect of AIADMK central ministers ready to cut deals.
Many of his detractors had believed that EPS will trip when he faced the assembly, as the AIADMK was racked by factionalism. But the CM tiptoed his way through the budget session, winning over the DMK by sparing its errant MLAs from disciplinary action for bringing disrepute to the Speaker’s chair and then by exempting Karunanidhi from personal appearance. EPS then won the applause of all the MLAs by giving them a hefty hike in their salaries and perks. “He knows how to recompense,” chuckles a senior DMK MLA.
The coming days could test the cunning and staying power of Palanisamy. How far will Dhinakaran go to challenge his authority on August 5? What happens if the EC rules in favour of Sasikala in appointing her as general secretary? Also, EPS has to ready the party to face local body elections, once the HC fixes a deadline for holding them. The smooth operator needs to make smart moves swiftly.
By G.C. Shekhar in Chennai