After a long radio silence in the political scenario in Tamil Nadu, Wednesday saw the announcement of Edappadi K Palaniswami as the chief ministerial candidate for the AIADMK for the upcoming 2021 elections.
Well, the move didn’t come as a surprise.
Popularly called EPS, he is presently serving as the chief minister of the state and the other name in the race, O Panneerselvam (OPS), is the deputy chief minister.
As the incumbent chief minister, and after the ouster of general secretary V K Sasikala, EPS has wielded the maximum power in the party and government. The announcement comes weeks after a tussle between the OPS and EPS factions within the party.
How will this move affect the party’s vote share and will it serve as a force strong enough to defeat the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in 2021? The Quint spoke to analysts to understand dynamics such as popularity and caste to see if they stand a chance to win the elections.
Why AIADMK has chosen EPS as CM candidate
Basically, EPS is the most powerful leader in the AIADMK at the moment. He enjoys the support of majority of the cabinet members, MLAs and party cadre in all districts.
This was even evident in the floor test back in 2017. The then Chief Minister O Panneerselvam had led a revolt against V K Sasikala, close aide of late Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, stating that she worked against the principles of Amma and that many in the party were not in agreement with it. He broke from the party to form a separate faction. However, it so happened that not many MLAs followed him to his camp.
In August 2017, the EPS and OPS factions merged, and Sasikala and her nephew TTV Dhinakaran, were ousted from the AIADMK. EPS then won the vote of confidence in the floor test.
Tamil Nadu, a State Known for Centralised Power
Tamil Nadu has had a long standing formula of one person, be it MGR, Jayalalithaa or Karunanidhi heading the party and the state as they had a ‘cult-like following.’ However, OPS and EPS lack the charisma and popular support that these stalwarts enjoyed, many analysts believe.
“Both Dravidian parties have always had a single leader image and no change in leadership. Even when it came to DMK, Karunanidhi was always projected as the CM candidate,” said Murari.
“This was Jayalalithaa’s party and these men came and went at her pleasure. The AIADMK, I don’t think it believes, will be back in power. They are just going with the status quo arrangement.”Nilakantan RS, Political Analyst
Does the Steering Committee Mean Anything?
Another key announcement made was the formation of an 11-member steering committee that will establish some kind of ‘collective leadership.’ Sources said EPS was not in favour of this committee, but had to comply because this was part of the truce when the OPS and EPS factions had merged. OPS’ only win is that he will reportedly have a greater say in this committee, but its powers remains unclear.
“These committees don't mean anything now, I think. If they've come up with the mechanism (steering committee) to make it acceptable to the those MLAs on the margins. In the end, status quo is what's in the self interest of most MLAs,” said Nilakantan RS.
A Party Once Led by a Woman, Sees no Female Representation
AIADMK is a party that had swept to power in four Assembly elections under the late J Jayalalithaa’s leadership. Women used to be a key support base for her. However, it must be noted that the party’s steering committee doesn’t feature even a single woman leader.
Sources close to the party said that a few more important committees are yet to be announced to handle election propaganda, negotiations, etc which may have women leaders on board.
Nilakantan believes this is not a matter of concern for the average voter, who “really don't care about the gender makeup of the steering committee of a political party. Especially not this version of the AIADMK.”
“The reason AIADMK was the bigger party in TN for a generation was because it enjoyed 10-15 percentage point lead amongst women. Jayalalithaa made women in Tamil Nadu believe that she was fighting their battles. That her life was their life. That connect isn’t going to brought back by including a woman in a pointless committee.”Nilakantan RS, Political Analyst
The Caste Arithmetic
Edappadi Palaniswami belongs to the Gounder community and Pannerselvam is a Thevar. Both are among the most numerous and politically powerful communities in Tamil Nadu.
Neither Jayalalithaa nor MGR hailed from the politically influential OBC communities. Jayalalithaa was a Karnataka-born Brahmin and MGR a Malayalee Nair. But the two charismatic leaders, who were worshipped by voters, managed to balance the caste dynamics within their party.
Murari argued that anti incumbency will always be there and he believes this could impact decisions of some of the voters to swing to DMK or other allies. He pointed out that EPS’ only winning strategy could be “to strive to keep his vote bank intact.”
Does DMK Stand to Gain?
MK Stalin, Karunanidhi’s son and the president of DMK will be the chief ministerial candidate for the opposition party. “If we moves his coins right, he could tap into the vote banks and stands a chance to win..at least by a small margin,” said an analyst.
Murari believes DMK definitely has greater leverage than the AIADMK.
It is believed that MK Stalin would use issues such as under-reporting of COVID-19 deaths in the state, lack of availability of adequate hospital beds and equipment during the pandemic, not able to successfully abolish the medical entrance exam NEET which has led to several suicides, the water crisis, the Cauvery issue and the centre's allegedly pro-corporate agrarian legislations as talking points to garner support from the people.
“Given the utter confusion in the AIADMK voter's mind, some of them may walk over to DMK. To win a first past the post race, the simple strategy is: either win the opponent's voters over or make those voters vote for someone else. So the DMK strategy is likely to be: keep their vote bank intact, and hope the AIADMK will lose a significant chunk of votes given it's leaderless and even pointless,” said Nilakantan
Can BJP Make a Dent?
The 2019 elections saw the AIADMK failing majorly when DMK swept the elections, winning 37 of the 38 Lok Sabha seats along with its allies.
Many analysts believed that AIADMK’s alliance with the saffron party cost it the votes of Christian and Muslim minorities and the DMK-led alliance benefited from this. The constituencies -- Chennai North, Chennai Central, Ramanathapuram, Thoothukkudi and Kanniyakumari -- have a significant number of minorities who form the vote bank. The BJP was also seen as being antithetical to Dravadian nationalism.
While many ministers say ‘their daddy is in Delhi’, experts believe Modi will not be an influential factor. “The BJP is what happens in news channels and social media. It is not a real thing in Tamil Nadu,” said Nilakantan RS.
Another matter of concern is if Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam (AMMK), led by TTV Dhinakaran could poach some of the votes, enabling DMK’s victory.
Analysts rubbished this saying factions who have a strong ideological stance, will be able to stand tall amid the clutter, else will just fizzle out.
“Factions can exist many reasons. For philosophical reasons, like how BR Ambedkar stood up in the Congress. Or it could be because of power and personal ambition like how MGR walked out to form the DMK. There is a vacuum and each side wants to make sure whatever accrued is not lost,” said Nilakantan.
First Election Without Stalwarts
Political analysts believe with the current set of ministers, the party seems to be lost in its ideologies and this will impact the vote share.
“AIADMK used to stand for something. It was the only party in Parliament to oppose GST, remember? It was also a party of competing interests in terms of its base which MGR and Jayalalithaa were able to paper over. That difference is bound to get serious, soon,” said Nilakantan RS.