A favourable order from the Madras High Court and a lot of boo-ing at O Panneerselvam preceded the crowning of Edappadi Palaniswami (EPS) as the sole leader of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) on 11 July.
EPS may be ecstatic about his ascension to the helm once occupied by icons such as MG Ramachandran and J Jayalalithaa, but he has a string of issues to be worried about. Petitions asking Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to inquire into the allegations of corruption in awarding contracts in the state highways department against EPS is expected to come up in the Supreme Court soon.
The Quint spoke to senior leaders and analysts to assess if EPS can lead AIADMK to victory in the next Assembly elections scheduled to be held four years from now.
EPS : The Man Who Always Delivers & Profits
EPS' desire to rise above all ranks became apparent as early as 2016. OPS and EPS were working under the dual leadership model as per a truce adopted five years ago after the death of the then chief minister J Jayalalitha.
“He had been eyeing the prize when Jayalalithaa put OPS on a pedestal during her illness and subsequent death and when Sasikala rose to claim her position as the leader of the party. But after fissures between OPS and Sasikala began to widen, EPS swooped in – created friendships and favoured senior leaders so as to lure them into his camp,“ said a source close to EPS.
“He was always walking on a tightrope but made sure to take everyone along with him. He would maintain a close link with even those leaders who would go visit DMK through the back door. Soon, those leaders cut off all the other ties and stayed put with EPS.”Kovai Sathyan, AIADMK Spokesperson
EPS' trump cards that worked during his time as the CM were consolidation of Devendrakula Vellalar under one SC category and awarding a sub-quota reservation for Vanniyars who form at least 15 per cent of the state’s population.
Later, ahead of the 2021 elections, EPS managed to convince his party to nominate him as the Chief Ministerial candidate despite OPS being a two-time CM and the coordinator of the party.
After the defeat in the elections, EPS stated that he had the credit of winning 66 MLAs to position the party as a credible Opposition and thus emerged as the Opposition leader. OPS had to give up as he did not have the majority support.
Several senior leaders told The Quint that they preferred EPS over OPS because the former always delivered on his promises.
“There were over 37,000 instigated protests that took place in the four years of his tenure as the chief minister but he always stayed vigilant and didn't give room for any back-talk. You have to be a good leader and an able administrator to run the party and the government. EPS has the right mix of these qualities,” added Kovai Sathyan.
"He took all of four weeks as his honeymoon period to settle in as the chief minister and then he began delivering. He showed his acumen in managing the MLAs, the party, and the public image. Meanwhile OPS would sit on an issue for months together and so the party cadre stopped expecting results from him."Kovai Sathyan, AIADMK Spokesperson
A senior leader in the party told The Quint that EPS’ strategy ensured “his personal gains and those of his close aides were constantly flourishing.”
“Contracts for infrastructure projects were always given to EPS’ relatives and his close team of AIADMK leaders. Even DMK was stumped to see how well EPS had laid the road out for this. When Stalin came to power (as chief minister), he noticed that EPS had already sealed contracts for the next one year, money was disbursed, and all the transactions were done. So even after AIADMK was no longer in power, its leaders were gaining and that credit goes too EPS,” said a source in the party.
AIADMK in a Midlife Crisis?
Today, EPS has emerged as the strongest leader of the party but is the party strong enough under his leadership? After 50 years of its inception, AIADMK is facing a midlife crisis.
Since the Lok Sabha election in 2019, the party’s electoral track record has been below par. After losing power in 2021, the party suffered a drubbing in the urban civic polls held in February. The alliance with Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has not had a positive influence on the public perception of the party.
A senior leader in the Dravidian party critiqued that EPS may enjoy majority support, but “he is looking at consolidating only his position in the party instead of strategising how to take AIADMK forward.”
OPS-EPS has ceased to be a hyphenated entity, but the battle isn't over as the tussle with Election Commission for party posts, party constitution, and party symbol is yet to begin.
Now, EPS will also have to make peace with losing the support of the Thevar community that OPS belonged to, which has a massive vote share. “Reconciling with Sasikala to reach out to the Thevars might infuriate the Gounders (the community he belongs to) and others as the anti-Sasikala sentiment could affect the power dynamics,” a source said.
It would be quite a challenge for the party to overcome the disadvantages that the absence of an OPS, VK Sasikala and TTV Dhinakaran may bring.
Another weak spot for the party is that DMK is way ahead in terms of support in Chennai and its surrounding districts of Kancheepuram, Chengalpattu and Tiruvallur and in the Cauvery-delta area.
"In the last election there was a difference of seven to eight percent in terms of vote share between DMK and AIADMK. These weak spots indicate that that difference has grown to at least 15 percent. The chances of AIADMK winning in any election is very slim," said political analyst C Rangarajan.
EPS Is No Jayalalithaa
In his first speech after taking over as the interim general secretary, EPS asked, “Did you think I am the Palaniswami of those days. I don’t think so.” While he has successfully ousted OPS and team, EPS has sent out a strong message that he is the sole leader of the AIADMK and would take on the ruling DMK and Chief Minister MK Stalin.
Recalling history, in the late 1980s, after MGR’s death, the party survived a split but Jayalalithaa showed grit and brought supporters from the rival faction together. She cemented her position as the single leader while ensuring to keep everyone else in the party at a much lower position in terms of power, said a senior leader in the party.
The problem today is that EPS believes that he can be a solo leader like Jayalalithaa. But he is nothing like her, opined political analyst Rangarajan.
“EPS suffers from a magnificent obsession to lead solo and a grand delusion. He believes that if he is the leader of AIADMK, then he will become the chief minister. He is going to face a shocker in 2024 elections if he continue to live in this delusion.”Political Analyst Rangarajan
He added, “It is not Anand Sharma or Ghulam Nabi Azad who can travel across the country canvassing for votes. It has to be someone from the Gandhi family. The same way for the BJP, it is Prime Minister Modi who spends weeks campaigning for state elections. In AIADMK, there is no MGR or Jayalalithaa to serve as a vote gathering machine. And AIADMK is also losing allies, unlike DMK. The number of leaders on top doesn't matter at all. And even with a united or solo leadership it is going to be difficult for the party to win any elections."
A divided AIADMK brought DMK back to power in 1989 after a gap of 13 years. Now, the DMK is already in power and a split in the AIADMK would mean more consolidation of electoral space for the ruling party.
Amid all these challenges, what is comforting to EPS is the fact that the predominant section of the party’s office-bearers and cadre is rallying behind him. Parties such as the BJP and Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) are also counting on him ahead of the Lok Sabha election, opined analysts.
Will EPS have the magic to drive AIADMK to victory or would 11 July, the day he took over as the leader of AIADMK, go down in history as just a pyrrhic victory?