In Tamil Nadu, the Bharatiya Janata Party is faced with a unique challenge as its alliance partner All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) is still battling a leadership crisis. For the BJP, that has been trying to carve out a space for itself in the southern state, the AIADMK leaders should soon sort out the power struggle within the party.
"The AIADMK is weak right now. Yes, this is worrisome. We want the AIADMK to have a united front and this was communicated to the alliance partner," a senior national leader of the BJP who is in charge of TN state told The Quint.
To relay its message, the BJP did something out of the ordinary given the tiff between Edappadi K Palaniswamy (EPS) and O Panneerselvam (OPS). When the NDA's presidential candidate Doupadi Murmu was in Chennai to get support for her candidature, both EPS and OPS were invited to attend the meeting. The AIADMK rivals did come together for this event. Why?
Both EPS and OPS camps, which have been trying to get their respective leaders lead the party, think that close relations with the BJP can save the AIADMK. But will the BJP have a say in the leadership battle too? "It is their internal party matter and we will not get involved," the leader said.
The BJP's decision to maintain equidistance between Palaniswamy and Panneerselvam, however, is aimed at eating into AIADMK's vote base – the Thevars. "We would want more number of people to support the BJP and the party is growing in the state. We are aware that the AIADMK is angering a section of important voters of their party," the leader said.
BJP and EPS-OPS: Who Is the Better Leader for the National Party's Prospects?
In AIADMK circles it is widely known that O Panneerselvam has been an avid supporter of the party's alliance with the BJP. "After Jayalalithaa's demise, OPS was the one to keep the door open for the BJP. He did so even when EPS was given the Chief Minister post," a close aide of OPS said. According to sources in AIADMK, in almost all meetings where the Bharatiya Janata Party discussed terms of alliance with AIADMK, OPS was the leader who supported the partnership with the BJP.
"The route he took was similar to that of Jayalalithaa's position on BJP. Both OPS and she maintained that a national ally is important for a regional party like AIADMK," the source said. However, EPS did not have any qualms with the BJP either.
There, however, were limited differences when it came to key issues including National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test (NEET) and Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).
In both the cases, EPS who was the chief minister of Tamil Nadu till 2021, maintained that AIADMK's interests should weigh more than the BJP's demands. In 2021, EPS held that CAA should be revoked. AIADMK also supported legislation to ban NEET in the state, owing to popular demand. "EPS did strike a balance between what BJP wants and what AIADMK should do. He is not the one to listen to every demand of the BJP," the source said. Will the BJP be troubled by EPS' adamancy?
The Quint has reached out to both EPS and OPS for an official comment. The article will be updated when they respond.
"For us both EPS and OPS are equally important," the BJP leader stressed.
Ironically, VK Sasikala, another former AIADMK leader who had met with a fate similar to that of OPS, is nowhere in the BJP's good graces.
After Sasikala, who was a close aide of former Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, was ousted from AIADMK, the BJP maintained a safe distance from here. The national party favoured the two AIADMK leaders – EPS and OPS – who ousted her. Then why is OPS being given a longer rope? The BJP still considers him the custodian of Thevar votes of AIADMK.
AIADMK Cadre and Thevar Votes
Since 2021, the AIADMK has lost the support of three Thevar leaders – Sasikala, TTV Dhinakaran, and O Panneerselvam. The party which banks on the community's votes, that amount to about 10 percent of its vote share, cannot lose further favour among the Thevars. "For the BJP all communties are important. But for AIADMK, the Thevars do form a decent voting bloc," the national leader said.
In 2021 Assembly election, AIADMK's tally of seats dipped from 32 in 2016 to just 19. Was this a backlash from the Thevars who were pulled in two different directions as TTV Dhinakaran of Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam (AMMK) and OPS of AIADMK both campaigned extensively in the belt? Dhinakaran who is Sasikala's nephew is a formidable Thevar leader.
"Even during the fight with Sasikala, the BJP had asked AIADMK to stay united. A divided party is a weak party," the national leader said. However, the BJP did see an opportunity in this divide within the AIADMK over Thevars. "The BJP campaigned extensively among the Thevars in 2021. Now they have been trying to woo our traditional voters," an AIADMK leader, who had previous expressed his dissatisfaction with his party's alliance with the BJP told The Quint.
The BJP is expected to benefit from the growing hiatus between the Thevars and the AIADMK.
However, in the Kongu region, where the BJP has staked claim, EPS has been an formidable force. In Assembly election of 2021, the region largely stayed with AIADMK making EPS a natural leader of the party. Here, the BJP wants to bank on the AIADMK's clout to make inroads, a party leader said. "In the Kongu belt AIADMK is undefeatable. We will definitely benefit from an alliance with the party here," the leader said.
In essence, it seems the BJP can both benefit in some ways and lose in others as the AIADMK continues to battle over leadership.