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Tamil Nadu

AIADMK: A house divided

Print edition : Aug 04, 2022 T+T-

AIADMK: A house divided

AIADMK leader Edappadi K. Palaniswami with party MLAs in Chennai on July 18.

AIADMK leader Edappadi K. Palaniswami with party MLAs in Chennai on July 18. | Photo Credit: B. Jothi Ramalingam

Edappadi Palaniswami tops rival O. Panneerselvam to consolidate his hold for the time being.

A battle between the prominent faces in the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) to gain control over the party turned into an all-out war on July 11 after the party’s general council meeting elected former Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami as “interim” general secretary and expelled party coordinator and former Chief Minister, O. Panneerselvam, who also served as Deputy Chief Minister between 2017 and 2021.

On his part, Panneerselvam expelled Palaniswami, claiming that he was the “true” AIADMK and appointed a new set of office-bearers. Meanwhile, V.K. Sasikala, the third factor in this complicated and oftentimes comical equation, claimed to have “expelled” both Panneerselvam and Palaniswami. Sasikala was elected general secretary in 2017, only to be expelled later, but she still claims to head the party.

M.G. Ramachandran (centre), former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu and founder of the AIADMK.
M.G. Ramachandran (centre), former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu and founder of the AIADMK. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Photo Archives

The drama in the run-up to the July 11 meeting was reminiscent of the fracas between the Jayalalithaa and V.N. Janaki factions during the succession war in 1988 after the death of the party’s founder, M.G. Ramachandran, and the results are almost the same: the party has been weakened, and the latest altercation could possibly result in the Election Commission of India (ECI) freezing the party’s most treasured two leaves symbol.

Today Palaniswami leads what appears to be the dominant faction in the party. He has used all the resources available at his disposal to convince many party seniors and most general council members that he is the best bet to lead the party. The AIADMK’s top body has appointed him “interim” general secretary, and the party constitution mandates that the cadre must elect a general secretary within four months of the interim appointment. Panneerselvam leads the smaller faction that is now staring at oblivion. Ever since he entered into an uneasy truce with Palaniswami more than five years ago, there were many who cautioned him that the ground beneath his feet was shifting, but Panneerselvam did nothing about it.

Palaniswami believed in action, while Panneerselvam trusted Prime Minister Narendra Modi to come to his rescue again just as he had when he brokered the deal with Palaniswami that saw Panneerselvam become Deputy Chief Minister.

July 11 meeting

Interestingly, the July 11 meeting was facilitated by an order of the Madras High Court that was delivered just in time for the general council. A single judge said that any person with a grievance over the conduct of the general council could file a civil suit. “In matters of internal affairs of party/association, the courts normally do not interfere, leaving it open to the party/association and its members to frame a particular bye-law, rule or regulation which may provide a better management of the party/association and solution for sorting out any issues and/or providing restrictions,” the judge said.

Palaniswami ensured that he was elected as the party’s boss for now and the general council lost no time in adopting a resolution that scrapped an earlier resolution that made Jayalalithaa the party’s permanent general secretary. (Jayalalithaa, who was the AIADMK’s undisputed leader after she gained control over the party, was singularly responsible for elevating Palaniswami to political prominence by inducting him into her Ministry.)

Former Chief Minister and AIADMK coordinator O. Panneerselvam at a party general council meeting in Chennai on June 23.
Former Chief Minister and AIADMK coordinator O. Panneerselvam at a party general council meeting in Chennai on June 23. | Photo Credit: M. VEDHAN

But Panneerselvam refused to let go. He went to the party headquarters with his supporters, who fought a pitched battle with Palaniswami’s supporters, and occupied it. The police were conspicuous by their absence at the scene for about 40 minutes. When it became clear that Panneerselvam had entered the party headquarters, the police moved in. A local Revenue Divisional Officer told him that the office was being sealed because it was a disputed place. The AIADMK headquarters was sealed yet again, after a gap of nearly 35 years.

Genesis of the trouble

The root cause of the internal trouble was Jayalalithaa’s refusal to clearly spell out the name of the party’s second-in-command. In fact, barring D. Jayakumar, no one had an uninterrupted run in her various Ministries, from 1991 until her demise in 2016. (The DMK was in power for 10 years during the 1996-2001 and 2006-2011 periods.)

When legal trouble forced Jayalalithaa to step down as Chief Minister in 2001 and later, she picked Panneerselvam to occupy the Chief Minister’s chair. Sasikala, who was a member of the Jayalalithaa household, could not aspire for the post and even had to face the ignominy of being thrown out (although she was later taken back). Jayalalithaa also did not bring any of her relatives into the party fold.

In short, the AIADMK was a one-person party. Everyone else, from the cadre on the street to the presidium chairman, was at the same level: on a par with each other. Panneerselvam was only a municipal chairman in 1996. He was given an MLA ticket in 2001 and made Chief Minister soon after she was forced to step down when her appointment was termed unconstitutional and void by the Supreme Court. For Jayalalithaa, experience on the job or expertise was not a criterion; only loyalty mattered.

A victory for Edappadi: Revenue department officials remove the seal at the AIADMK’s party headquarters in Chennai on July 21, 2022, after the Madras High Court directed the State government to hand over the keys to Edappadi Palaniswami.
A victory for Edappadi: Revenue department officials remove the seal at the AIADMK’s party headquarters in Chennai on July 21, 2022, after the Madras High Court directed the State government to hand over the keys to Edappadi Palaniswami. | Photo Credit: R. Ragu

Soon after her death in December 2016, Sasikala, who was elected as the party general secretary, allowed Panneerselvam to continue as Chief Minister for the sake of continuity. But she ordered him to resign in February 2017. He resigned, but soon created a major embarrassment for Sasikala by staging a “dharma yudh” on the night of February 7, 2017, to “reclaim the party” from corrupt elements.

A week later, Sasikala was sentenced to four years in prison in a disproportionate assets case and was ordered to surrender within 24 hours. She had been elected leader of the AIADMK legislature party soon after Panneerselvam stepped down, and was about to be sworn in as Chief Minister. Sasikala, who had managed to keep the flock together by shifting all the MLAs to a resort on the outskirts of Chennai, managed to weather the challenge from Panneerselvam and installed Palaniswami as Chief Minister. She then left for Bengaluru to serve her prison sentence. Less than six months later, the political equations within the AIADMK changed drastically following the BJP’s intervention. Palaniswami and Panneerselvam reached an understanding and the party began distancing itself from Sasikala and her nephew, T.T.V. Dinakaran.

In 2018, Dinakaran formed the Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam and stated that his aim was to “redeem the AIADMK”. Even though Sasikala received a massive welcome in Tamil Nadu on February 8, 2021 after her prison term, her reluctance to take on those she repeatedly described as “traitors” reduced her to a mere spectator in the party. Similarly, Dinakaran too was relegated to the sidelines of Tamil Nadu politics, especially after his party’s losses in the 2021 Assembly election.

V.K. Sasikala.
V.K. Sasikala. | Photo Credit: VEDHAN M

With Sasikala and Dinakaran out of the way, Palaniswami began consolidating his position in the government, and, later, in the party. His power to exercise discretion as Chief Minister, who is concurrently in charge of a few lucrative portfolios, meant that more and more office bearers and MLAs in the party gravitated towards him. It is well known that many politicians in power use their clout to award government contracts. Panneerselvam did not win many friends because he is not known to help party colleagues.

However, he was confident of “support from Delhi”. Since he was the party coordinator, his signature was needed for any major decision taken by the party. It was his only trump card. In fact, he tried to play the card during the last major tussle he had with Palaniswami in 2020, ahead of the 2021 Assembly election, in a matter relating to announcing the chief ministerial candidate.

There was a stalemate even as COVID-19 devastated livelihoods in the State. When Panneerselvam lost this fight very close to the election campaign, it was clear that Palaniswami would make his move to consolidate his hold on the party. The only question was when. Palaniswami waited for more than a year after the May 2021 election to seal Panneerselvam’s fate. There are multiple cases in courts on several contentious issues, but it is clear that for now, Palaniswami has the upper hand.

BJP’s intentions

Like every regional party that has dug its own grave merely by aligning with the BJP post-2014, the AIADMK was already doomed, and now it is facing the enhanced danger of annihilation following the internal split.

In the case of the AIADMK, in 2016, a senior BJP leader was in Apollo Hospital throughout the time Jayalalithaa was being treated, studying how the AIADMK operated. For his exemplary services, the BJP rewarded him with a higher post. This deep understanding of the AIADMK helped the BJP broker the deal between Palaniswami and Panneerselvam.

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister and DMK supremo M. K. Stalin. The DMK had aligned with the BJP but broke away before Narendra Modi became Prime Minister.
Tamil Nadu Chief Minister and DMK supremo M. K. Stalin. The DMK had aligned with the BJP but broke away before Narendra Modi became Prime Minister. | Photo Credit: VENKATACHALAPATHY C

The other political parties that aligned with the BJP post-2014 have diminished in importance in their home turfs. Some notable examples are the Shiv Sena, the Telugu Desam Party, the Janata Dal (United), the Shiromani Akali Dal (the second oldest political party in India), Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party (which came to power in Goa’s first election), and Indian National Lok Dal of Om Prakash Chautala. The Biju Janata Dal managed to survive in Odisha, although it lost some ground to the BJP after entering into an alliance with it. An exception to this trend has been the DMK, which aligned with the BJP and broke away before Narendra Modi became Prime Minister, and has so far retained its strength.

In the case of the AIADMK, the most important issue today relates to the two leaves symbol because Panneerselvam maintains that without his signature no AIADMK candidate can be allotted the symbol. In 2017, ahead of a crucial byelection, the Election Commission of India ordered the freezing of the symbol but did not decide on the substantive issue of Sasikala’s election as general secretary. Yet again, all eyes are on the ECI as it will be called upon to decide on the symbol sooner rather than later.