Months before his demise, former Chief Minister and AIADMK founder MG Ramachandran (MGR) said there will be no AIADMK party after him. “After me, the deluge,” he told K Mohandas, former DGP and a close confidante.
As per MGR: The Man and The Myth, a book penned by Mohandas, MGR predicted doom while responding to the then growing internal rivalry in All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK). At the time, MGR was ailing and the party was crumbling from within as the tall leader's successor was not yet named.
Decades later, in June this year, it seems AIADMK is indeed facing the proverbial deluge. “The two leaves are now torn,” quipped senior political commentator Priyan, while metaphorically referring to the party's election symbol – two leaves. “I am not sure if they can come together again, certainly not in the immediate future.”
In fact, AIADMK leader O Pannerselvam approached the Madras High Court twice before the party's much anticipated general council meeting scheduled for Thursday 23 June, to prevent a discussion on leadership. While a single judge bench declined to give him relief on 22 June, a midnight hearing held by a two-judge bench barred the party from electing a single leader as general secretary. This has come as a setback for Edappadi K Palaniswamy, but the fight between the two is still on.
General Council To Decide Fate of EPS and OPS After Jayalalithaa?
After MGR, however, the party did thrive as former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu J Jayalalithaa became the sole leader of AIADMK. The regional party has, however, not been fairing well after Jayalalithaa's demise in December 2016.
Former Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswamy (EPS) and Deputy Chief Minister O Panneerselvam (OPS) have been fighting it out for absolute control over AIADMK.
Ahead of general council meeting of the party scheduled for Thursday, 23 June, the rift between the two turned into a bitter fight, as Palaniswamy's camp is expected to push for 'unitary leadership' within the party and Panneerselvam is expected resist any leadership talk.
EPS is believed be enjoying full majority in the party. Of the 75 party district secretaries, only 11 are, reportedly, in support of OPS.
Though the High Court gave OPS relief, what has come undone with the ongoing fight over leadership is the precarious understanding that Palaniswamy and Panneerselvam had temporarily reached after Jayalalithaa's demise.
In 2017, AIADMK settled for an uneasy dual leadership where both Palaniswamy and Panneerselvam were purportedly at the helm.
Before attaining this arduous arrangement, Panneerselvam, who became chief minister soon after Jayalalithaa’s demise, had revolted against her confidante VK Sasikala who had nurtured political ambitions. Sasikala, however, chose Palaniswamy as CM candidate before she got incarcerated in a disproportionate assets case. Ironically, Panneerselvam and Palaniswamy factions came together, and Sasikala was expelled from the party.
Palaniswamy continued to be the chief minister and Panneerselvam became the deputy chief minister. At the party level, Panneerselvam was made the coordinator and Palaniswamy, the joint coordinator – thereby symbolically anointing Jayalalithaa as the permanent general secretary of the party even after her demise.
Current Crisis in AIADMK Unlike Those of MGR & Jayalalithaa’s Times
Sources said that Palaniswamy (EPS) intends to be the sole leader of the party because he is "wary of Sasikala’s return to the party at the behest of Panneerselvam (OPS)."
"After all, he would be in greater trouble if Sasikala manages to come back to the party,” said Priyan. But observers say such internal rivalries are not new to AIADMK.
“There have been many (small and big rivalries) since AIADMK’s inception,” said Durai Karuna, a senior journalist who has been tracking the AIADMK for over three decades now. A year after MGR formed the party in 1972, the party faced its first split mooted by Sheela Bajaj, whom MGR renamed Porselvi for political reasons.
"Sheela Bajaj was given a state-level position but when she started abusing her power, the party took action against her. She started Puratchi ADMK and even filed complaints against MGR, only to fade out. Since then there have been many splits, but the party had remained strong.”Durai Karuna, Journalist
But Karuna also pointed out that the AIADMK lacks strong leadership similar to that of MGR or Jayalalithaa who were able to tide over crises and establish themselves as the prime leaders of the party. “Former Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswamy seems stronger today because of the influence he was able to garner as a Chief Minister. One doesn’t know how long this (his political strength) will last,” said Karuna.
Unlike MGR or Jayalalithaa, Priyan said, neither EPS nor OPS enjoys the support of the masses.
“I think the party needs a singular leadership – but neither Palanaisamy nor Panneerselvam are cut out for the task. While I think Sasikala and her nephew TTV Dinakaran [who started his own Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam after the expulsion] should be return to AIADMK, the cadres should choose a popular face to lead them.”Priyan, Political Commentator
The onus was on cadres because neither MGR nor Jayalalithaa had publicly named their successors, leaving room for such struggles. While Jayalalithaa had handpicked Panneerselvam twice to step into her shoes, observers said that it was not because she thought of him as her successor but only because "he was loyal enough to toe the line."
But Panneerselvam considers Jayalalithaa naming him successor an important qualification.
“Do I need any more qualification than the fact that Amma [Jayalalithaa] had chosen me twice to be the Chief Minister?” he asked in an interview with Junior Vikatan Tamil magazine recently.
In the same interview, however, Panneerselvam said the party doesn’t need singular leadership as of now and a high-level committee should decide on it after ‘considerable deliberations.' However, the odds are clearly against Panneerselvam.
'BJP Effect': Odds Stacked Against Panneerselvam?
But OPS perhaps hopes to have the last laugh since other factors could play in his favor in the long run.
One, he hopes to enjoy the support of the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi at 'whose insistence’ he had agreed to settle with EPS in 2017 by agreeing to be the deputy chief minister. But according to Priyan the BJP might end up throwing its weight behind Palaniswamy (EPS) if he emerges the winner.
Panneerselvam (OPS) also pins his hopes on his community – Mukkulathor, to which Sasikala also belongs – and which had exercised its control over the party till recently. But ever since Palaniswamy took over, observers say, Gounders – the community to which he belongs – reportedly has more clout in the party.
Supporters of Palaniswamy, however, think that it is important to have a singular leadership since the party is ‘seen as weak’ now, especially after its alliance with the BJP.
Earlier in June, AIADMK’s organizing secretary C Ponnaiyan made a scathing attack on the BJP claiming that the party was trying to grow in Tamil Nadu at the expense of the AIADMK. He had also accused the BJP of betraying the state on important issues.
While the top leadership dismissed these views as Ponnaiyan’s personal comments, observers say in terms of ‘perception politics,’ BJP is fast capturing Opposition's space in Tamil Nadu.
BJP State President K Annamalai said that BJP "is becoming the opposition party, narrative-wise, because we are at loggerheads with the DMK."
“What Ponnaiyan said is true, the BJP is growing at our expense. We are concerned about establishing the strength of the AIADMK and we think this dual leadership and its uncertainty is affecting the party and its prospects. Palaniswamy wants to put an end to this. The cadres are also in favor of singular leadership."AIADMK Supporter to The Quint
“As far as the cadres are concerned...they want a strong leader who can accommodate everyone. Also, the cadres indeed feel the association with the BJP is costing the AIADMK heavily. They want the AIADMK to leave the BJP” Priyan said. Neither Palaniswamy taking over the party nor EPS and OPS reaching a last minute agreement at the general council would save the party, he added. "What could save the party, in the long run, is strong leadership that could also be accepted by the masses.”
Meanwhile, Sasikala continues to maintain her silence, perhaps bidding her time.
(Kavitha Muralidharan is a senior journalist covering Tamil Nadu.)