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Palaniswami-led AIADMK is bad news for BJP in Tamil Nadu but it opens up opportunities too

While OPS has been courting the BJP in Tamil Nadu enthusiastically, the latter isn't inclined to take any side in AIADMK’s internal warfare yet.

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Tamil Nadu’s principal opposition party, AIADMK, looks headed for a split in its golden jubilee year. Former chief minister EK Palaniswami is set to take control of the party, sidestepping his former deputy, O Panneerselvam. The latter can only hope to delay the inevitable through judicial interventions but the die is cast. OPS must accept EPS’ leadership in the AIADMK or find his place in the sun outside.

In either case, the crisis in the AIADMK isn’t going to blow over any time soon. When MG Ramachandran had broken away from the DMK and founded Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (which later became AIADMK) on 17 October 1972, he was a matinee idol. After M. Karunanidhi, then CM and DMK president, had suspended MGR, a young man from Udumalpet set himself on fire.

Fifty years later, when EPS is seeking to get rid of OPS, few are shedding tears for the latter. OPS is left with two options — form a new party as MGR had done or fight it out to gain control of the party as J. Jayalalithaa did against Janaki Ramachandran, MGR’s widow. Incidentally, in the 1989 assembly election whose results settled the succession battle in the AIADMK, the Jayalalithaa faction had accused Janaki of being soft towards Karunanidhi; EPS faction is accusing OPS of the same today.

MGR and Jayalalithaa had succeeded in their ventures because they were popular cine stars with legions of fans. Neither EPS nor OPS has any fan following. If at all, they are seen as leaders of Gounders and Thevars, the two communities that form the backbone of AIADMK. EPS-OPS power tussle can, therefore, have serious implications for the AIADMK, which is struggling in the absence of a charismatic leader.

Also read: EPS one step up in AIADMK power battle, receives ‘crown’ as OPS booed out of council meeting

BJP’s tightrope walk

Amid all this drama in the Dravidian party, its ally, Bharatiya Janata Party, seems to be doing a tightrope walk. While Panneerselvam is actively courting the BJP, the latter isn’t inclined to upset EPS who looks set to get AIADMK’s reins.

It was BJP that was instrumental in uniting the AIADMK after Jayalalithaa’s death in December 2016. OPS had said that it was only at the behest of Prime Minister Narendra Modi that he agreed to merge his faction with EPS’ in August 2017 and join the government as deputy CM.

On 23 June, the day OPS was booed and humiliated by EPS supporter at the AIADMK’s general council meeting, BJP general secretary in-charge of Tamil Nadu, CT Ravi, and state BJP president K Annamalai called on EPS and OPS separately to seek support for NDA’s presidential nominee, Draupadi Murmu. The fact that Ravi and Annamalai first met EPS and then OPS was seen as a message that the BJP acknowledges the primacy of EPS in the AIADMK’s organisational set up. In the AIADMK, OPS is Coordinator and EPS Co-coordinator. Earlier, BJP MLA Nainar Nagendran supported the “unitary leadership” or EPS faction’s single leadership idea, saying that the AIADMK needs a good leader who is efficient and “deserving of the two”.

Panneerselvam flew down to Delhi to be present when Murmu filed her nomination papers. He couldn’t, however, get an appointment with either PM Modi or Union Home Minister Amit Shah. It was seen as a snub and an indication that the BJP was reconciled to EPS emerging as the AIADMK’s ‘single leader’ and was preparing to break bread with him. While OPS has been courting the BJP enthusiastically, the BJP doesn’t seem to be inclined to take any side in the AIADMK’s internal warfare yet.

Also read: ‘Marriage of compulsion’: Why AIADMK is unlikely to break up with BJP despite public discord

Palaniswami-led AIADMK to give BJP a hard time

While EPS cooperated with the BJP leadership all through his chief ministerial tenure, he was no pushover. In November 2020, months before the assembly election, the Palaniswami-led government denied permission to the BJP to launch a statewide Vel yatra. The national party was in favour of a rapprochement with Sasikala and her nephew TTV Dinakaran in the run-up to the assembly election last year. EPS wouldn’t have it. In fact, OPS’ perceived softness towards Sasikala became one of the sore points between him and EPS.

After the assembly election, C V. Shanmugham was one of the first leaders to blame the BJP for the party’s defeat. “The BJP alliance affected the minority votes completely,” he said, a couple of months after the election. Palaniswami-led AIADMK nominated Shanmugham to the Rajya Sabha in May.

On 31 May, AIADMK organisational secretary C Ponnaiyan, an EPS loyalist, came down heavily on the BJP, accusing it of trying to grow at the expense of the Dravidian party. The BJP’s growth is not good for the AIADMK or Tamil Nadu or Dravidian policies, he said.

While OPS sought to distance the party from Ponnaiyan’s comment, EPS came out in support of the organising secretary when the BJP sought to rebut him.

When the AIADMK general council met on 23 June, the agenda of the meeting included, among others, commendation of PM Modi over the nationwide Covid vaccination programme. It was reportedly included at OPS’ insistence. The EPS loyalists-dominated council, however, rejected it, along with 22 other items. For the 11 July council meet — primarily to elect EPS as interim general secretary — the Modi reference doesn’t figure on the agenda. The Hindu reported that the AIADMK was of the view that there was “no need” for the Dravidian party to commend PM Modi.

Also read: BJP is no ‘alternative pole in Tamil Nadu politics’. Its local election results show why

Options before BJP if EPS turns hostile 

What must also give jitters to the BJP is the fact that Palaniswami camp is wary of the national party’s ambitions in Tamil Nadu even though it wants to continue the alliance until the 2024 Lok Sabha election so as to benefit from PM Modi’s appeal even in the Dravidian land.

Few would place any bet on the continuation of the alliance after the Lok Sabha polls. The AIADMK is already facing heat from the ruling DMK, which has been playing regionalism and sub-nationalism card and often raking up Centre-versus-Tamil Nadu narratives. The Modi government’s cussed refusal to engage in a dialogue with states — be it on the farm laws, NEET, JEE or CUET — makes life more difficult for its regional allies. The AIADMK’s equations with the BJP are likely to strain progressively, given how the Palaniswami camp has been seeking to keep a distance from the national party.

If and when EPS decides to distance his party from the BJP, the latter has the option of allying with OPS and bring Sasikala and Dinakaran also under the umbrella. Annamalai, a Gounder like EPS, can then go on to undermine the latter’s influence in the western Tamil Nadu while wooing the Thevars (with both OPS and Sasikala in alliance) in the southern part. Add to it Modi’s fan club, howsoever small, and those getting disillusioned with Dravidian politics, and the BJP’s prospects in Tamil Nadu don’t look so bad. But that’s if everything falls in place in that hypothetical scenario. For that to happen, the BJP must first shed its image in Tamil Nadu as a Hindi heartland party with ‘uniformity’ as its core agenda.

Modi and Shah are known to create opportunities in adversities. For all we know, they may be seeing scope for a national party to fill in the opposition’s space in Tamil Nadu in the event of a Dravidian party, AIADMK, vacating it. But there are many imponderables. What if the AIADMK, led by a single leader, Palaniswami, bounces back? What if another Dravidian party — say, Seeman’s NTK — jumps in to fill the space? 

Imponderable apart, for now, the BJP would like to keep Palaniswami in good humour — until the 2024 Lok Sabha election, at least.

The author is Political Editor, ThePrint. He tweets @dksingh73. Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant)

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