Future of Jayalalithaa Loyalists: What Next for OPS & EPS in AIADMK?
Irrespective of the meagre number of AIADMK leaders standing by O Panneerselvam, on paper he has equal power as EPS.
O Panneerselvam, coordinator of All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), has won the first battle over the party.
He pulled all stops – including getting a midnight hearing before Tamil Nadu High Court – to restrict discussion points in AIADMK's general council meeting that was held on 23 June and stopped the party from elevating Edappadi K Palaniswami (EPS) as the sole leader.
But this is only a temporary respite because the next general council meeting will be convened on 11 July.
What transpired at AIADMK's last general council meeting has exposed OPS’ dwindling support base, EPS' near complete clout in the party, and why a internal fight in AIADMK will be fruitful for the ruling party Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK). The Quint spoke to leaders in the AIADMK and political analysts to understand the way forward for the two leaders – OPS and EPS.
What Are the Options for OPS?
The power struggle between OPS and EPS has been simmering for long.
In the last few days, several former ministers, 75 district secretaries, headquarters functionaries, and members of the general council have shifted their loyalties from OPS to EPS. OPS has the support of just nine district secretaries and key leaders Manoj Pandian, MLA of Alangulam and R Vaithilingam, MLA of Orathanadu.
Irrespective of the meagre number of leaders standing by his side, on paper OPS has equal power as EPS. A source close to OPS told The Quint that he will soon approach the Election Commission in Delhi against these developments and will also seek to freeze the use of the 'two leaves' party symbol.
OPS’ supporters said that they will continue to fight this issue as a contempt of court saying that the general council did not have powers to cancel the 23 resolutions and that another meeting cannot be called.
Political analysts believe EPS will offer OPS an alternative post before 11 July.
“If he accepts it, OPS will get to stay in the party. Even if he doesn’t, EPS will try to emerge as the sole leader. OPS can’t run to BJP because the saffron party is still not absolutely welcome in Tamil Nadu and OPS will fizzle into oblivion. Even if he starts his own party, the chances of it succeeding are very less,” said a source close to EPS.
Flip-Flop Led to the Diminishing Credibility for OPS
OPS has served as the chief minister of Tamil Nadu thrice by virtue of being one of the trusted lieutenants of late AIADMK supremo and former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu J Jayalalithaa. In 2017, he started a rebellion against VK Sasikala, a close aide of Jayalalithaa and won the support of several leaders in the AIADMK and a favourable public perception.
However, five years later, OPS' position in the party is threatened.
“OPS should have waited for 10 more days before calling for the ‘dharma yudham’ (rebellion for truth). BJP would've pushed for the judgment that convicted Sasikala and she would have been sent to jail anyway. Then OPS could've been both the CM and leader of the party. But he miscalculated because he was misguided by BJP,” said political analyst Rangarajan.
It was during the rebellion that OPS raised doubts about Jayalalithaa’s death and fuelled conspiracy theories against Sasikala. But later, while deposing before the Justice Arumughaswamy Commission of Inquiry, which was constituted to probe the death, he gave a clean chit to Sasikala.
Party sources told The Quint that “OPS has been silently extending support to Sasikala because he believes he can get her help to strengthen his support among the Thevars.” The Thevars are among the most dominant castes in Tamil Nadu, concentrated in the Cauvery delta region and OPS and Sasikala belong to this community.
Additionally, leaders who stood by him in 2017 feel let down by OPS. A senior leader in the AIADMK told The Quint, “Several AIADMK leaders were expelled from the party for merely visiting Sasikala. OPS failed to stand by those who supported him during times of crisis. He managed to secure only the future of his son who is an MP now. And he never took action and was very passive with respect to decision-making. So, more people drifted towards EPS camp so as to consolidate their place in the party.”
This flip-flop led to the loss of his political credibility over time.
AIADMK to Split into Two Factions?
After the defeat the AIADMK faced in the Assembly elections last year, and successive local body polls, there is chatter in the party that the dual leadership has “only hampered the working of the party,” said a senior leader.
Apart from a few cadre protesting EPS' decision, while the midnight drama was underway at the hearing on 23 June, there have been no major protests recorded in any districts in the state.
Kovai Sathyan, AIADMK spokesperson on Thursday took to Twitter and said, “The numeroUno announcement is just deferred by 18 days.” He elaborated that “There is nobody to oppose EPS. EPS imbibed confidence in the hearts of the followers, so he grew as a big leader. Even when there was a threat to his leadership, he managed to save the government and he delivered welfare schemes to people.”
Several political analysts cautioned that EPS shouldn’t become “overconfident” of victory.
A source close to EPS told The Quint, “We need to consider the possibility that the two factions might split. The EC will give the 'two leaves' symbol to OPS and EPS might have to start another party. EPS needs to remind himself that he didn't become the leader of the party or the state, earlier, because of the people's mandate.”
How EPS Cemented His Position in the Party
Even though technically OPS was number one in the AIADMK, EPS’s clout in the party grew significantly over the last few years and he was able to consolidate his position, both in the government and in the party, owing to his political approach, caste equations, money power and government machinery at his disposal.
Just before the election in 2021, EPS had announced 10.5 per cent reservation for Vanniyars, a Most Backward Community, which “won him brownie points with the community.”
“In 2018, when there were issues with the Cauvery water sharing with Karnataka, EPS didn't hesitate to legally challenge the BJP, even though it is the ruling party at the Centre. He was the one to declare protected agriculture zones, the first of its kind in the country,” Sathyan added.
Meanwhile, a senior leader in the Dravidian party critiqued that EPS may enjoy support within the party, but “he is looking at consolidating only his position in the party instead of strategising how to take AIADMK forward.”
After Sasikala was incarcerated, EPS made it clear that he will not entertain "requests" from leaders close to Sasikala.
Now, EPS will have to make peace with losing the support of the Thevar community, 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,” he added.
The BJP and Sasikala have maintained a stoic silence over the AIADMK’s internal dysfunction. A day after AIADMK got embroiled in the controversy, Sasikala hinted at her return to politics, by announcing a tour across the state and stated that there will be “Amma’s rule in the AIADMK” again.
What has become ample clear clear is that the AIADMK has suffered erosion in its vote base since the demise of Jayalalithaa in December 2016. It looks like the votes may wane further.
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