In Tamil Nadu it is AIADMK vs AIADMK vs BJP

Print edition : September 25, 2020

Edappadi K. Palaniswami (left), Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, presents O. Panneerselvam, Deputy Chief Minister, with an award in Chennai on August 15. Photo: PTI

Fissures within the ruling AIADMK in Tamil Nadu come to the fore, with its leadership differing on the strategy for the Assembly elections next year and on issues of governance amid the BJP’s attempts to get a toehold in the State.

At the Independence Day function on August 15, Tamil Nadu’s Deputy Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam showed due deference while receiving the best practices award for computerisation of departments under his control from Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami. But shortly after the event, as many as 10 Ministers, acting as interlocutors, were shuttling between the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) leaders’ residences to sort out the differences that had cropped up between them. According to a senior AIADMK leader, the disagreements between them was the result of “a few Ministers carrying tales”. He added: “The Chief Minister has always been accommodative of everyone. But there is always scope for misunderstanding.”

After a lot of back and forth, a truce was finally reached between the two though some issues still remained unsolved. Apparently, Palaniswami ceded some ground that he had occupied in the past few years and put himself back on an equal footing with Panneerselvam. However, this was only on paper.

The two leaders have been jockeying for position following the death of party supremo and former Chief Minister Jayalalithaa. The truce brokered by Sangh Parivar elements at the time of her death has been an uneasy one. In effect, it gave Palaniswami the control of the government and Panneerselvam that of the party.

But all has not been well ever since the Chief Minister decided to take a few steps against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the policies of its government at the Centre, obviously with an eye on the Assembly elections in the State in early 2021 along with Kerala, Assam and West Bengal. Sections of the AIADMK believe that going to the polls as an ally of the BJP will be counterproductive. The BJP’s vote share in Tamil Nadu is barely over 3 per cent; and it was a wave against the BJP in the State that led to the rout of the alliance it had with the AIADMK and a couple of other parties at the hands of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK)-Congress combine in the Lok Sabha elections in 2019. The DMK combine won 38 of the 39 Lok Sabha seats in Tamil Nadu.

The main reason for the strain in the AlADMK-BJP alliance is the Tamil Nadu Cabinet’s decision of August 3 to reject the three-language formula as envisaged in the New Education Policy—the brainchild of Prime Minister Narendra Modi—and continue with the two-language policy the State has been following for long. Although there was ostensible unanimity in the Cabinet on this decision, there were quite a few dissenters.

Ministers’ concerns

An informed source said that a few Ministers voiced their concerns about taking an anti-BJP line. “What if we are raided [by the Central agencies],” was one of the apprehensions that they expressed. The reference was to the raids of the Enforcement Directorate, the Income Tax Department and the Central Bureau of Investigation against a few party leaders. But the Chief Minister stood firm and told the Ministers that it was ridiculous to have incriminating material in their houses. In any case, he said, there was the example of C. Vijayabhaskar, Health Minister, whose residence had been raided by the Income Tax Department and who had been questioned repeatedly by the Central agencies. He is an accused in a case of distributing money to voters in the RK Nagar Assembly byelection in April 2017. The Income Tax Department raided his house, but the case has been in cold storage for more than two years. He continues as a Minister and is responsible for making critical decisions during the COVID-19 pandemic. In short, Palaniswami seemed to think that there would be no long-term damage unless one was convicted. While a few of his colleagues bought into this logic, many, including Panneerselvam, who is beholden to the BJP leadership for his position post-Jayalalithaa, are uncomfortable with this line of thinking.

Ganesh Chaturthi celebration

Palaniswami’s biggest slight against the BJP was when he refused to agree to the demands of the Hindutva elements in Tamil Nadu to allow public celebration of Ganesh Chaturthi in the State on August 22. On August 14, the State government announced that it would not allow installation of Ganesh idols in public places and their immersion in waterbodies in view of the COVID-19 pandemic.

On August 17, L. Murugan, BJP State unit president, and K. Subramaniyan, Hindu Munnani president, along with two other leaders, met the Chief Minister seeking withdrawal of the government’s order banning the celebrations. They told him that during the celebrations social distancing norms would be followed and any stipulation by the State would be adhered to. They later told the media that the Chief Minister had assured them of considering their demands. But, according to a source in the Chief Minister’s office, the Chief Minister did no such thing.

It was clear from the beginning that the State government would remain firm in its aim of not allowing the celebrations or the related procession. The Hindu Munnani, which had been very vocal in its demand since early August, condemned the State government’s decision and asserted on August 14 itself that it would go ahead with the installation of 1.5 lakh idols in the State. Even after meeting the Chief Minister, its leaders stated that they would go ahead with this plan regardless of the government’s decision.

The government stood firm on its decision. Some attempts were indeed made across the State, particularly in places such as Coimbatore, to install the idols on roadsides. The police came down on anyone trying do so and seized the idols.

In fact, between August 14 and 22, the stand-off between the government and the Hindutva outfits in the State—which had ironically grown manifold from 2016 to 2020 during the AIADMK government’s reign—only worsened. The BJP’s sympathisers and Sangh Parivar elements tried to put pressure on the government through the media, their local contacts and also the district administration to change its decision. Their argument was that why could the government not allow the celebrations when it had opened State-run retail liquor shops in Chennai from August 18.

On August 22, despite the Sangh Parivar outfits’ tall claims, not many people ventured out to violate the government’s orders. Their leaders, including Murugan, who had asserted that the celebrations would go on, were not seen anywhere carrying out their plan. Instead, party functionaries were asked ‘to lead’ the celebrations. Many people were booked across the State for violating the government’s orders. No top BJP or Sangh parivar leader stepped on to the road to be arrested. This was a major success that the AIADMK government had notched up against the Sangh Parivar elements in the State who had openly called for defying law and order on a few occasions. In doing so, the government also exposed the Sangh Parivar leaders to ridicule from various quarters.

Desecration of statue

Earlier, when the government, on the Chief Minister’s direction, slapped the National Security Act on a miscreant who had defaced ‘Periyar’ E.V. Ramasamy’s statue in Coimbatore in mid July, it gained wide publicity. Similarly, when a statue of AIADMK founder and former Chief Minister M.G. Ramachandran (MGR) in Puducherry was found draped in a saffron cloth, Palaniswami described those who did it as “barbarians”. This also again gained media attention. He also directed the police to proceed against the actor and BJP member S.Ve Sekar for his comments on the national flag in his reaction to the episode. The actor is now upset that the BJP leadership has left him in the lurch. Sekar sought protection from arrest at the Madras High Court. The police took the stand that if Sekar apologised for his conduct, there was no need for an arrest. Sekar climbed down and tendered an apology.

Palaniswami wrote two letters to the Prime Minister with demands and complaints. The first letter demanded that the Centre make money available from the PM-CARES fund to the State government to buy COVID testing equipment. The second one made his government’s displeasure clear over the Centre’s handling of the goods and services tax (GST) issue and rejected the solutions it had put forth to compensate for the States’ revenue losses.

Though Palaniswamy wants to take an anti-BJP stance, two events make it clear that he is also not completely rejecting the voices from the Panneerselvam camp. One of them was that though the government effected arrests related to the Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations, it did not give these arrests wide publicity. No consolidated number of the arrests were put out. The second instance related to a murder in Ramanathapuram, which was sought to be communalised by BJP leaders; the State government did not act against these leaders. The Ramanathapuram police denied the existence of any communal angle in the murder and put out a release on social media warning against the attempts at communalising the incident. The local Superintendent of Police also prevented a BJP leader who tried to incite communal riots from entering the district. Strangely, the government transferred the SP and placed him on compulsory wait. Police sources claimed the transfer was decided sometime ago, but the awkward timing of the transfer meant that this was an instance of the AIADMK backtracking to please a local BJP leader.

The AIADMK rank and file is not used to the idea of dual leadership. Over the past three years, Palaniswami has emerged as a leader capable of leading a government, while Panneerselvam has not shown the same mettle with regard to leading the party. True, there has not been any large-scale desertion of cadre from the AIADMK, but that does not explain the confusion in the minds of the cadre over the future course of the party.

The confusion is over the lack of a well-defined approach to the 2021 Assembly elections. By his actions, it appears certain that Palaniswami is convinced that the only way forward is to dump the BJP for now, appear to take a strong line against the Centre, and communicate to the people that the AIADMK has been standing against the BJP’s bullying tactics just as Jayalalithaa had done.

Despite his best attempts to win over senior leaders in the party, there are far too many doubters who are not keen on taking on the BJP. The first one on that list is Panneerselvam, whose son and Member of Parliament P. Raveendranath Kumar has Modi’s picture printed on his letterhead and has been defending the Central government in Parliament even when BJP members themselves have not been doing so.

The most intriguing games in Tamil Nadu politics have just begun and the drama is expected to reach a climax in early 2021. In short, the AIADMK camp presents itself as a party beleaguered by a battle of “all against all”: the Palaniswami faction versus the Panneerselvam faction; the party versus former party general secretary V.K. Sasikala (Jayalalithaa’s close aide who is jail after her conviction in a disproportionate assets case); Sasikala versus her relative T.T.V. Dinakaran’s Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam (AMMK); and the AIADMK versus the BJP and its allies in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) and the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK).

The Sasikala factor

The silence of Dinakaran, who was articulate after his 2017 victory in the RK Nagar byelections, is an indication that there is some deal in the works. The sudden raid on Sasikala’s property in Chennai’s Poes Garden and the Income Tax Department’s attachment recently of a new bungalow under construction opposite Jayalalithaa’s house, Veda Nilayam, under the Benami Transactions (Prohibition) Act, have to be viewed in this context. (Sasikala is said to have been planning to move to this bungalow next year when her jail term would end.) One Sasikala supporter, who was present with her until she left Chennai for the Bengaluru jail in 2017, said that these recent actions aimed at her were because Sasikala was not cooperating with the demands of a “powerful entity”. As many as 64 of her properties have been attached. The targeting of Sasikala and Dinakaran’s silence could mean that the “powerful entity” is approaching both separately. There is also talk of a merger of the AIADMK and the AMMK, but it is unclear what role Sasikala will have in this set-up.

In jail, Sasikala has been meeting only her relatives to the exclusion of partymen, said a person who was in constant touch with her through the first few years of her in jail. “She is more interested in her properties and her estates. Those are the people meeting her regularly,” he said. Even Dinakaran is a rare visitor to the jail.

It is into this political matrix that actor Rajinikanth is seen to be encouraged to enter politics, at least to lend his support to one side. On September 4, Tamil news channels carried source-based stories of Rajinikanth launching his party in November. It is a known fact that the PMK and the DMDK are merely jockeying for space. In fact, after Vijayakanth’s illness, the DMDK is all but a defunct party while the PMK, which beat a hasty retreat after the massive defeat in the 2016 Assembly elections, is trying to desperately remain relevant in Tamil Nadu politics. The DMDK is keeping its options open for the moment and appears to be open to go with the DMK alliance, which, at this moment, is on top of its game in the State.

The AIADMK is a divided house today over the strategy for the 2021 elections and most other aspects of governance. But Palaniswami is not giving up. He is clear that his government has managed to deliver on several fronts, has done a good job of dealing with the COVID-19 crisis, and has been at the forefront of taking care of people’s needs. Above all, he believes that the presence of ‘weak’ leaders in the opposition rank is his strength. “They [the DMK] will keep on giving us opportunities. We just need to take these,” he reportedly told a close associate.

Palaniswami, the eternal optimist, who was a nobody in the 2016 Assembly elections, is the person to watch out for in the 2021 elections.