The Rise and Rise of EPS in Tamil Politics; Should Stalin Worry?
EPS has emerged as a serious challenger to legacy politician MK Stalin ahead of the Assembly polls.
On 16 February 2017, Edappadi K Palaniswami was sworn in as the 13th Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. Not many even knew who he was at the time. His face, with its ever-present beaming smile, did not have recall.
Four years later though, EPS, as he is better known, has emerged as a serious challenger to legacy politician MK Stalin of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK).
Not too many months ago, it was assumed that MK Stalin would automatically be voted in as the next chief minister of Tamil Nadu. The reasons were obvious – ten years of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) would mean huge anti-incumbency, the state had a history of alternating the two parties into power and J Jayalalithaa was no more.
By the end of 2017, according to bureaucrats, officials, and senior police officers that The Quint spoke to, EPS had come into his own.
By the time COVID-19 arrived, he was well entrenched in his role as chief minister. The efficiency of the state machinery went to his credit. Tamil Nadu turned out to be a model state for others in the country to emulate once again.
2017: Consolidating a Factious Party
In the months following Jayalalithaa’s demise in December 2016, political turmoil ensued in the state, especially within the ruling party. Split into factions and dealing with infighting, the party appeared to be in danger of breaking up the government as well.
The trio of EPS, minister S Thangamani, and minister SP Velumani swung into action – first they brought the mutinying O Panneerselvam into the fold, offering him the position of Deputy Chief Minister and Finance Minister. He was also made the coordinator of the party, with EPS as his deputy. Other loyalists of VK Sasikala and TTV Dhinakaran similarly fell in line.
EPS won a trust vote and the government survived. Then began the task of strengthening the party and consolidating it under his leadership.
Those who interacted with EPS at the time say that he agreed with pretty much what everyone said or wanted. “In the initial months, he simply said yes. He wanted to keep everyone happy and win them over to his side,” said a senior police officer who preferred to remain anonymous.
A party colleague, who, too, did not wish to be named, recalled that EPS deferred to his predecessor O Panneerselvam (OPS) on many decisions: “Towards the end of 2017, the state Transport Corporation had no option but to increase bus fares. Multiple bureaucrats kept giving him inputs and urging him to take a decision. He listened to everyone.
He then said - I want you to discuss with Deputy CM as well, since he is also the Finance Minister. Also, he has handled such situations earlier with Amma. So, let us go with what he says.”
Another party colleague and party IT Wing Secretary and Joint Coordinator-Media Relations, Aspire Swaminathan spoke similarly of his interactions with EPS before the latter became chief minister. “I have had several interactions with the Honourable CM in the years between 2014-2016 when he was the highways minister. He was always a very calm and composed politician.
“He was district secretary and party headquarters secretary. His successful stints in Salem made Amma give him the post of party headquarters secretary, which he still holds fondly today. He is a participative and assertive leader.
“He ensures he takes opinions from all key stakeholders, applies his own intelligence to the content and then he decides what has to be done,” he said.
2018 Onwards: Becoming a Leader
But as he grew into his role by 2018, EPS formed a “super-check team.” This team, whispered about in government circles, comprises a handful of EPS’ closest associates, friends who have travelled with him through the years.
“This is an unbiased team,” said a senior police officer. “Whenever they get recommendations for postings or complaints against bureaucrats and police officers, this team does a super-check before orders are given. That’s where the name came from,” he grinned.
For instance, a name was proposed for the post of District Collector. “The super-check team then called the immediate superior who recommended another person for the post. After taking the input into account, the original name was vetoed and the second person was appointed as Collector.”
“The team either agrees or vetoes postings and transfers in a very careful, vetted manner only after speaking to a number of different stakeholders,” said another officer.
Police officers say that EPS became a quick decision maker over time. “He will say yes or no and if yes, he will act immediately,” said one officer. “He once came to Dindigul. He was told that there was a demand for a police guest house. He said ‘fund illa sir, ippo mudiyadhu,’ (we don’t have funds, it is not possible now) instantly and left.”
“A month later, in Ramanathapuram, he was again told that a police guest house was an urgent requirement, that policemen were sleeping in marriage halls and that land was available for the proposed guest house. He asked for a note in Tamil. He announced the building of a police guest house before the press and left,” said the officer.
EPS also appears to have put his keen knowledge of politics and politicians to good use. He has developed a strategy to keep his ministerial colleagues guessing.
“He will ask everyone to leave – ministers, PSOs, PAs, everyone – and call the IG in alone. The conversation will be about how long it would take to travel from one place to another on the planned route. Very routine things that he already knows. But outside, the waiting ministers will be on tenterhooks, wondering if the CM is enquiring with the police about them. After a few such meetings, the ministers started putting vanakkam (respectful greeting with folded hands) to the IGs. I have seen four chief ministers. No other CM has ever done such a thing,” he laughed.
Bureaucrats and the police say that he takes time to speak with the district administration and urges them to do everything by the law. “Even if it has something to do with a party man, go by the law – he keeps telling everyone this,” said the officer.
When pressure from other party cadre is heaped on the CM, especially when in police cases, a little drama is enacted, said another officer. “He will call the concerned senior police officer in front of everyone and say – neenga paathurunga sir, enna nu paathurunga (please take a look and see what needs to be done, sir). But once the officer leaves and as he gets into the vehicle, the CM’s PA will come running out and say – Ayya (respectful honorific) asked me to tell you to take action as per law, regarding that petition,” he said.
As for younger party colleagues, he has made it clear that his reactions are issue-based and not personal. One party member who had gone with the OPS faction initially and was given a posting in the party when he returned to the fold, recollected an incident when his older tweets had gone viral, post his comeback.
“He (EPS) called me and expressed his displeasure rather severely. It so happened that I had to meet him a few days later. I was very hesitant. But when I met him and we finished the meeting, he himself brought the subject up. ‘What I said to you is about that particular issue on that particular day. Now you go and do your work,’ he told me. He made it clear that his anger was about the issue and that it was not personal.”
Weathering Corruption Allegations
Late in December 2020, the DMK submitted a list of corruption allegations against the ruling party to the governor. The AIADMK, of course, stoutly denied these.
On the ground, however, these charges do not seem to have had a major impact. “They may be corrupt but at least we are getting laptops,” said James, 22, a cab driver residing in Tirunelveli town, adding, “Why is the DMK trying to ruin things for us by filing cases?”
Many others feel that corruption is a non-issue. “Who is not corrupt? Everybody is corrupt. As long as they do not make us suffer by targeting our livelihood, it is fine,” said Muthukumar, a chicken stall owner belonging to the Nadar caste in Sankarankoil, Tirunelveli.
Nallavaru: The Gift That Keeps on Giving
In September 2019, EPS startled the state clad in a three-piece suit and cloud-blue sneakers. He and his ministers were on a tour of the US, to attract investors and woo companies to set up shop in Tamil Nadu.
The picture was jarring because it had been decades since a chief minister had gone abroad to aggressively woo investors.
EPS’ pet project, the Kudimaramathu scheme, funded by the World Bank and aimed at rejuvenating water bodies ahead of the monsoon, has been widely appreciated. Many lakes, tanks and ponds in the states are brimming now, after being desilted and the bunds strengthened.
EPS’ conscious projection of the fact that he is a farmer himself has also reaped dividends. Couple that with a dose of luck and suddenly, EPS is raasiyaanavaru (lucky or blessed) in the eyes of the electorate.
Several years of poor rains later, a good monsoon year has been attributed to EPS’ good fortune. “Edappadi vandha mazhai varum, current pogadhu, ration kadaigalila ella porutkalum kidaikkum (If Edappadi comes, there will be rain, no power cuts, all products will be available in ration shops),” is a common sentiment among many farmers and villagers.
Even the staunch DMK voter has no major negative comment about EPS. He is the generic nallavaru, a good man, and a gift that keeps on giving. The announcements of Rs 2,500 per family for Pongal and six free LPG cylinders in a year to every household has only reinforced this feeling.
Closing the Gap with MK Stalin
The latest opinion polls show how far EPS has come from being a political nobody to a serious challenger to MK Stalin, son of the Dravidian leader M Karunanidhi.
Prominent Tamil news channel Thanthi TV’s opinion poll, conducted in the first three weeks of February, shows that the gap between EPS and Stalin as CM candidate has bridged sharply. Released a week ago, the poll shows DMK’s MK Stalin at 47 percent and EPS at 41 percent as choice of CM candidate.
The Times Now-CVoter opinion poll, too, suggests that EPS is closing in on Stalin barely a month ahead of elections. EPS is at 31 percent and Stalin at 38 percent, according to Times Now-CVoter.
Internal polls within the AIADMK put the two parties at just a 1 percent difference against each other in popularity, indicating a neck-and-neck race. DMK internal polls peg a sweep of 180-190 seats for the party in a 234-strong legislative body.
A clear win is not on the cards just yet for EPS. But then neither is victory clear for the DMK. What is clear is that EPS has arrived in Tamil Nadu politics as a worthy challenger.
The next few weeks will show who is the wilier politician of the two.
(Sandhya Ravishankar is a Chennai-based independent journalist. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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