Chennai: With the tussle between Tamil Nadu’s two former chief ministers — Edappadi K. Palaniswami (EPS) and O. Panneerselvam (OPS) — playing out publicly, the latter Monday called for a postponement of the 23 June All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) general and executive council meeting where the EPS camp is expected to push for single leadership.
At OPS’ residence, Monday, AIADMK deputy coordinator R. Vaithilingam, flanked by 10 district secretaries from the former’s camp, said a letter had been sent to EPS on the postponement.
“Several members of the working and general committees among others have also noted that the agenda for the general council meeting has not been circulated among all members as yet,” he told reporters.
The OPS camp is firmly against the idea of single leadership proposed by the opposing camp last week. Meanwhile, leaders supporting AIADMK joint coordinator EPS say the general council meeting would go on as scheduled.
A senior AIADMK leader from the EPS camp told The Print: “Two years from now we are going to face parliamentary elections. In a way our party’s survival depends on this decision over single leadership. We have continuously faced lots of defeats, and it is time to take stock.”
The BJP and the leaders supporting expelled AIADMK member V.K. Sasikala have both refrained from commenting on the infighting.
“It is good of them (BJP) for not commenting,” said a senior AIADMK leader, “This is an internal party matter.” A BJP leader reportedly told The Indian Express: “The BJP’s state and central leadership are closely watching this situation.”
Why OPS wants meet postponed
Political observers see OPS’ move — demand for postponement — as aimed at preventing any call for a resolution on single leadership at the meeting scheduled for Thursday.
Last week, OPS reiterated that it was only after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s insistence that he decided to join the then AIADMK government in 2017 as deputy chief minister under EPS. And, that he was entirely against the unexpected move for single leadership in the party.
At a press conference last Thursday, he said, “I refused to be part of the EPS cabinet after the merger (of the EPS-OPS factions, following a split), and just wanted to be the head of the party, it was on PM Modi’s insistence that I agreed to join the cabinet.”
This wasn’t the first time he mentioned the BJP’s hand in negotiating a truce between the two leaders. In February 2018, during the first anniversary of the EPS government in Tamil Nadu, OPS reportedly opened up about the factors that led to the merger of the two factions of the party.
Political observers note that this past week’s power struggle within the AIADMK is reminiscent of 2017, when the party underwent a split after OPS was eased out of the chief ministership in early February to facilitate general secretary V.K. Sasikala’s elevation as the chief minister.
Back then, Tamil Nadu saw OPS revolt against Sasikala, followed by her conviction in a graft case. There was a split in the party, cancellation of the bypoll to RK Nagar, which was held by the late J. Jayalalithaa, the Election Commission freezing the ‘two-leaves’ symbol of the AIADMK, the sidelining of deputy chief T.T.V. Dhinakaran, and the eventual merger of the EPS and OPS factions.
The issue is coming to the fore five years after the duo reached a truce in 2017 to establish a dual leadership following the demise of Jayalalithaa.
The resolution at the time named Jayalalithaa as the “permanent general secretary” of the AIADMK and put in place a dual-leadership system steered by OPS and EPS.
Shortly after Jayalalithaa’s death, the AIADMK leadership brought in a series of amendments, which conferred the powers of the general secretary to the newly-created coordinator and co-coordinator.
Another amendment took away the voting rights of the primary members, making the general council responsible for selecting the coordinator and co-coordinator. However, after several legal setbacks, last December, at the party’s executive committee meeting, the AIADMK restored the power of the primary members, party cadres, to elect the two posts.
“These amendments come into force with immediate effect and the consensus will be received in the next general council meeting,” said the resolution statement in December 2021.
C. Thirumaran, joint secretary, AIADMK advocate wing, said it was an amendment to Rule 20 in the party’s bylaws that created the posts of coordinator and co-coordinator with a five-year term in office.
“Subsequently, elections were held, and posts of coordinator and co-coordinator were elected on the basis of a single vote,” he said, adding that the general council does not have the power to appoint anyone on a temporary basis in the event the two posts are abolished. “This will also raise a question mark on the use of the name and the logo of the party,” he added, pointing out that this will lead to a split among the cadres at a time when a united front is needed.
With days to go for the party’s general council meeting, a concrete resolution is yet to be framed to amend the AIADMK’s bylaws for creating a post that supersedes that of a coordinator and co-coordinator. OPS reportedly said: “Plans to revive that post again will be a betrayal to Amma (Jayalalithaa).”
He also ruled out any role for the BJP, terming the current debate over single leadership an “internal party matter”. When asked if he would decline to become the single party leader if offered, he said “it is not needed under the present-day circumstances.”
Game of numbers
The fight over the past week has turned into a numbers game favouring EPS, with those in the know claiming that hardly 10 of the AIADMK’s 75 district secretaries support OPS. Further, only five of the 66 MLAs are said to be on OPS’ side, with less than 20 per cent of the party’s general council believed to be backing him.
“At the time, for whatever reason, we were not able to arrive at a single leadership. It was not orally said, but everybody thought the dual-leadership was a temporary arrangement,” a senior party functionary said. “This had its impact, especially in the way we performed in the elections.”
Senior AIADMK leaders that ThePrint spoke to recollect the control wielded by Jayalalithaa on the party, saying she ruled the AIADMK with an “iron fist”, which led party cadres to fall at her feet in public events.
“The party is known for its ‘control’, a military regime sort of control,” said an AIADMK leader. “If the leader utters a word, it is an order. That is how traditionally it has been. The dual leadership is seen as a reason for the waning of control by many in the cadres. For any decision to be taken, it takes a long time since both (EPS and OPS) must decide after all the inputs go to them,” the leader added.
While those in the EPS camp speak of his popularity among the cadre and the people of Tamil Nadu, especially during his tenure as chief minister, the OPS camp questions the timing of the call for single leadership.
The party has just seen back-to-back developments unfolding as the two leaders assert their preferences.
At the party’s district secretaries meeting last Tuesday, officebearers from the EPS camp clamoured for single leadership. Two days later, OPS made it clear that he was in no mood for such an eventuality and that any resolution to this effect would require both his and EPS’ concurrence.
While Friday saw EPS holding a massive show of strength in northern Tamil Nadu, which saw posters hailing him as the party’s general secretary, OPS made his presence felt by visiting the AIADMK headquarters Saturday to register his presence at the resolution drafting committee meeting.
On the same day, over 60 district secretaries called on EPS. “This need not be seen as a show of strength as they all met him as a matter of courtesy,” an aide told The Hindu.
(Edited by Tony Rai)