Tamil Nadu

Three men and a party

Print edition : September 15, 2017

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami, Governor Ch. Vidyasagar Rao and the newly sworn in Deputy Chief Minister, O. Panneerselvam, at the swearing-in ceremony held at Raj Bhavan on August 21 after the Cabinet reshuffle. Photo: M. PRABHU

T.T. V. Dinakaran. The leader of the third faction, he claims that only he will be able to revive the legacy of Jayalalithaa. Photo: L. SRINIVASAN

The political drama in Tamil Nadu goes on with the two main factions of the AIADMK merging and the third, headed by T.T.V. Dinakaran, trying to sabotage their government. The BJP leadership, which has been pulling the strings in the ruling party, is apparently upset that its script has gone awry.

SOME honeymoons are so short that it is impossible to figure out if the marriage took place at all. The August 21 meeting of minds of two factions of the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) in Tamil Nadu was one such event. Barely had the smell of cordite and flash powder of the firecrackers burst to celebrate the union dissipated from the Greenways Road residences of the two faction leaders, Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami and former Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam, when T.T.V. Dinakaran, the leader of a third faction who claims that only he will be able to revive the legacy of Jayalalithaa, dropped a bombshell: AIADMK Members of the Legislative Assembly belonging to his camp would withdraw support for the Palaniswami government.

The next day, 19 MLAs trooped into the Raj Bhavan and handed over identical letters to Governor Ch. Vidyasagar Rao declaring that they would not support a government headed by Palaniswami. The letter said: “The Chief Minister is corrupt and is encouraging corruption…. This has caused severe damage to the name of our party.” As such, Palaniswami has lost the confidence of the people and has forfeited the interests of the State, the letter said.

Each letter stated: “I hereby express my lack of confidence on Palaniswami. As such, I withdraw my earlier support given to him vide this communication. I further submit that I have not given up my membership of AIADMK and I am only doing my duty as a conscious citizen to expose the abuse and misuse of the constitutional provision.” The letters were signed by P. Vetrivel (Perambur), Thangatamilselvan (Andipatti), P. Palaniappan (Papparapatti), M. Rangasamy (Thanjavur), L.G. Subramanian (Sattur), S. Mariappan Kennedy (Maanamadurai), S.T.K. Jakkaiyan (Kambam), R. Sunderraj (Ottappidaram), R. Thangadurai (Nilakottai), N.G. Parthiban (Sholinghur), Elumalai (Poonamallee), Uma Maheswari (Vilathikulam), Senthil Balaji (Aravakurichi), K. Kathirkamu (Periyakulam), S. Muthiah (Paramakudi), M. Kothandapani (Thiruporur), R. Murugan (Aroor), R. Balasubramanian (Ambur) and Jayanthi (Gudiyatham). On August 22, the Dinakaran camp MLAs left for a resort in the Union Territory of Puducherry.

It was clear that this development had upset the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which had worked in the background to make the Palaniswami-Panneerselvam deal work. H. Raja of the BJP tweeted: “If TTV [Dinakaran] group votes against the govt they will be disqualified as MLAs. Then effective strength will be 214. So 108 is sufficient to continue.” Naturally, all eyes are on the Governor to see how the drama will unfold this time. Going by what he did on an earlier occasion, he is sure to use his “discretion”, and work according to the advice he receives from New Delhi.

The patch-up

The script for the unity was not supposed to go like this. It was supposed to be sealed and concluded on August 21. Even on that day there was trouble. Here is how it unfolded: The noon deadline on August 21, a new moon day, came and went but the anticipated merger announcement of the two AIADMK factions did not happen. There was no sign of either Palaniswami or Panneerselvam leaving for the party office on Lloyds Road, where party cadres were waiting in anticipation.

Initially, the cadres thought there was a hitch. But steeped in their belief in astrology and irrational faith in the panchangam (the Hindu calendar), both the leaders were expected to leave their respective residences much after noon, after yamakandam (the inauspicious time in a day) ceased.

But as noon and yamakandam ended, it became clear that there was more to the story. The Panneerselvam camp wanted an announcement from the Palaniswami camp on three “open” demands (apart from many that were not out in the open), and insisted that unless these were met, a merger would not be possible. Two of the three demands had already been met: converting the late Chief Minister Jayalalithaa’s house in Poes Garden, valued at around Rs.90 crore, into a memorial; and holding an inquiry into the circumstances leading up to her death at Apollo Hospital, Chennai.

Although Palaniswami decided to make a retired High Court judge look into Jayalalithaa’s death (against the demand by the Panneerselvam camp for a Central Bureau of Investigation inquiry), this did not appear to be a big block. The problem was with the third demand: Panneerselvam wanted all members of the V.K. Sasikala (who became party president after Jayalalithaa’s death) clan removed from the party, and Palaniswami, according to top sources in the Panneerselvam camp, had agreed to this demand, too. But for some reason, he vacillated on this. One insider said Palaniswami “had received a phone call” and hence began to weigh the ramifications of acceding to the demand and going ahead with the merger. Apparently, he received another call about an hour later, and decided that it was better to go ahead with the merger after conceding the demand for Sasikala’s expulsion.

Thereafter, a few senior Ministers from the Palaniswami camp went to Panneerselvam’s residence to hand over the draft which contained the exact wording on the ouster of Sasikala, an informed source said. Satisfied with the draft, Panneerselvam left for the party office, more than two and a half hours behind his scheduled time of departure. “Amma’s [Jayalalithaa’s] aatma has created this opportunity [for us to come together],” Panneerselvam said. (Ironically, he invoked the aatma (soul) card at 9:40 p.m. on February 7, 2017, when asked why he was splitting away from the party.) At the party headquarters, announcing the coming together of the two factions, he said: “Nobody can separate us. We are children of the same mother.”

Palaniswami said: “Because it was a hurried decision, we could not inform everyone. Many [party leaders] could not be present here. All cadre wanted the party to unite. Both the leaders, MGR and Amma, had scarified their lives for this party. There are so many parties in India. There’s no history of a breakaway faction merging. Even though we had many differences, we have come together.”

Behind-the-scenes work

The behind-the-scenes work took a long time to be completed. That was the reason why the merger could not take place on August 19, although news was leaked in New Delhi to select media that a merger was on the cards, and would take place by 7:30 p.m. the same day. Some Delhi-based television anchors even flew down to Chennai as they expected the curtains to come down on the political drama which began with the swearing-in of Palaniswami as Chief Minister on February 15.

In true P.V. Narasimha Rao mould, Palaniswami acts only when it is absolutely necessary. He had not allowed a discussion in the State Assembly on suspicions over the circumstances leading to the death of Jayalalithaa and had resolutely opposed any suggestions to hold an inquiry. But he conceded both the demands of the Panneerselvam faction. There were no lofty principles at play here, only practical politics. Also, Palaniswami has not made any statement against Sasikala to date. Some of the Ministers in his Cabinet have been openly talking about ousting the Sasikala clan. One of them said that the Palaniswami faction had decided in mid August to throw out the Sasikala clan and pointed to the resolution that stripped Dinakaran of his post and invalidated all actions taken by him on behalf of the party. So throwing out Sasikala from the party, without a formal announcement from either of them, was a via media that was achieved between the two factions in the last minute.

There were many more demands, which were not articulated in the media, that needed to be met. Primary among them related to what post Panneerselvam would hold after the merger. Panneerselvam is a three-time Chief Minister, and there were doubts that he may not agree to work under the current Chief Minister. But this was overcome with the promise of a prominent party post, a temporary one though, until fresh elections to the top post were held. There were a few prominent faces in the Panneerselvam camp who had to be accommodated in the new set-up: V. Maithreyan, the first Member of Parliament to offer support to Panneerselvam; “Mafoi” K. Pandiarajan, the first Minister to support Panneerselvam; V. Munusamy, the first party senior and former Minister who joined the Panneerselvam camp; former MLA Manoj Pandian; and S. Semmalai (Mettur MLA).

Palaniswami said: “We have taken some decisions.” He announced that Panneerselvam would function as the coordinator ( oruginaippalar) and that he would be the joint coordinator ( enai oruginaippalar). The second senior-most leader in the Panneerselvam faction, K.P. Munusamy, was made the deputy coordinator ( thunai oruginaippalar).

A team to lead the party forward (in the absence of an authentic elected body), comprising 11 members, was formed. “We have to get back the two leaves symbol,” he said, to thunderous applause.

Panneerselvam returns to the State Cabinet as Deputy Chief Minister. Pandiarajan could not elbow out K.A. Sengottaiyan from the School Education Ministry, which he had held before the Panneerselvam camp broke away in February. But Sengottaiyan had to part with the additional portfolio of Archaeology, which went to Pandiarajan in the reshuffle. There were a few other changes, too, and the new members did not waste time before taking the oath of office. The Governor rushed to Chennai, after cancelling all his appointments, according to media reports.

Talk of unity between the factions has been on for quite some time. In April, for instance, an innocuous statement of Panneerselvam became a talking point: “I want the party to be united. We have to retrieve the two leaves symbol….” This is something he has maintained since he broke away on February 7.

He added two more sentences on the need to protect and carry forward the legacy of Jayalalithaa, before turning around and rushing to board his flight to Madurai. Panneerselvam had to attend a few events in his hometown Periyakulam and in Theni, and was supposed to spend a few days in and around Theni district to talk to AIADMK cadre in the region, before heading back to Chennai. Although many go-betweens tried to talk peace—this was at a time when there were only two major factions in the party—it failed because Panneerselvam backed out at the last moment, citing the fact that Dinakaran was still part of the arrangement and this was not acceptable to him.

The BJP’s hand

It is not as if all these developments took place on their own. At each point, there was nudging by the BJP. In the days leading to Panneerselvam’s prime-time drama at the Jayalalithaa memorial, an auditor, known for his Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh-BJP links, was the go-between, adviser and controller-in-chief in Tamil Nadu. According to two people who have been in the thick of the February 7 developments, it was at the prodding of the mediator that Panneerselvam went to the memorial. But the controller-in-chief’s stock plummeted after the rest of the script soured. The script was rewritten, and the overall command was taken away from Chennai. With the shift of the command hierarchy to the national capital, the main actors in the play were forced to make many trips to Delhi to complain and, later, comply.

BJP spokespersons have tried to play down the fact that both Palaniswami and Panneerselvam had met Prime Minister Narendra Modi at least six times in the past eight months. Each time, both the leaders kept repeating that they were meeting the Prime Minister to talk about the needs of Tamil Nadu. But the unusually high number of meetings in a short period of time did not go unnoticed. Many observers in Tamil Nadu and elsewhere wondered how many former Chief Ministers could meet the Prime Minister so easily. BJP spokespersons kept insisting that their party wanted a united AIADMK in the interests of the State. The irony of this was not lost on most people: the BJP was seeking unification of a party even when it was trying hard elsewhere in India to split political parties and alliances, the latest case being Bihar.

There is one major dilemma the BJP faces in Tamil Nadu. “The BJP’s dilemma [is] what to do with Dinakaran [who has the allegiance of 19 MLAs]. The BJP will be embarrassed by any association with Sasikala or Dinakaran,” N. Ravi, former Editor in Chief of The Hindu, told a television channel. “So they want to somehow keep them out, but also make them support the government. I don’t know how they are going to do it. That’s the dilemma. Dinakaran is a wild card in this game. It [the BJP] wants to keep this AIADMK going as long as possible. Otherwise the field will be left open for the DMK to come back to power,” he added.

“The story, dialogue and direction was from Delhi,” said the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s (DMK) acting president, M.K. Stalin, when asked about the merger of the two factions. “Here they [Panneerselvam and Palaniswami] put on a melancholy face and acted very well,” he added, and went on to name the BJP as the crucial factor behind the unification attempt. Incidentally, the BJP president Amit Shah, who was slated to reach Chennai on August 22, cancelled his trip a second time. The welcome readied for Amit Shah was unprecedented: posters, banners, buntings and flex boards dominated the Chennai skyline from the night of August 20, with each faction vying with one another to praise the BJP leader. The most preferred term of praise was “political Chanakya”.

Stalin also referred to the allegations Panneerselvam and Palaniswami had levelled against each other. “Panneerselvam alleged that the regime led by Palaniswami was corrupt and Palaniswami accused Panneerselvam of introducing Sekar Reddy [the businessman who was arrested recently on a plethora of charges] and other corrupt elements. People have been watching them and will soon deliver a clear judgment,” Stalin said.

Pattali Makkal Katchi founder S. Ramadoss too stressed this point: “The people of Tamil Nadu are aware why the AIADMK split…. The allegations they made against each other were unprecedented…. The two factions did not pay any attention to vital issues like NEET [National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test] and farmers’ suicide. The way they held talks day and night clearly exposed their opportunism. Their act of betrayal will be punished.”

Game plan

Despite the loud views of the opposition, Tamil Nadu does not seem to be headed for elections yet. In yet another strange coincidence relating to timing when it comes to Tamil Nadu developments, the Supreme Court rejected the review petition filed on behalf of Sasikala. A believer would fault the stars for such coincidences since the day Sasikala was elected leader of the AIADMK legislature party on February 5, but rationalists have a different version of the events.

Through all this, Sasikala loyalists held firm. After Jayalalithaa’s death, Sasikala had united the party, made the No.2 in the Cabinet the Chief Minister, and handed over the party to her nephew Dinakaran before she left for Bengaluru to serve a four-year prison term in the disproportionate assets case. “I am having a lot of faith in you,” she told MLA P. Vetrivel at the Jayalalithaa memorial on the Marina beach before leaving for Bengaluru. “Keep the party together, and make sure we are united,” she said. Vetrivel and at least 15 other MLAs refused to be swayed although they realised that being on Dinakaran’s side would not bring any political dividends for them in the near future.

Now it is Dinakaran’s show. He had stated that he would stay away if it would help in the merger of the factions and in the smooth running of the party. But he attacked the government vehemently at a Madurai rally, calling it corrupt. In his view, the party is more important than the government. A few party seniors said that informal talks were on between the DMK and the Dinakaran faction. If true, this indicates that Dinakaran is willing to pull down the government if need be. The move to make his MLAs approach the Governor fits in well with this script.

The Panneerselvam and Palaniswami factions believe that Dinakaran will not dare pull another stunt: while they believe that he has to threaten the existence of this government for his own survival, he will not be able to carry out this threat. In essence, they believe that he has made a threat that he cannot carry out if things go sour for him. They base this surmise on the aftermath of his decision to contest the R.K. Nagar byelection (the seat became vacant following the death of Jayalalithaa on December 5). It turned counterproductive and he was sent to Tihar jail for about 40 days (on charges of trying to bribe Election Commission officials to get the party’s “two leaves” symbol allotted to his group). If he tries another stunt, both the Panneerselvam and Palaniswami factions believe the same unseen hand in Delhi will come to their aid. They have no doubt that this government will last its full term.

In retaliation for the Dinakaran faction MLAs handing over letters to the Governor, the AIADMK Whip in the Assembly, who belongs to the Palaniswami faction, met the Speaker P. Dhanpal and asked him to take action against the “erring” MLAs. A letter handed over to the Speaker contends that the 19 MLAs had breached party discipline.

The war of nerves will go on. Both factions are using everything in their grasp to fight this. Only one thing is certain now: Tamil Nadu is headed for a period of destabilising uncertainty that will negate many of its hard-won achievements.

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