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From MGR & Amma to EPS: How ‘Lion of Salem’ Palaniswami made AIADMK crown his own

AIADMK is finally in grip of Jayalalithaa protégé EPS after a bitter factional battle. But while he is coming into his own, threats linger — from ally BJP to rival O. Panneerselvam.

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Chennai: The mood was mutinous as thousands of All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) cadres swelled at Chennai’s Little Mount to stage a massive demonstration against Tamil Nadu’s Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) government Monday. But the atmosphere suddenly shifted to jubilation when AIADMK chief Edappadi K Palaniswami’s car approached the venue.

As the leader’s silver Innova came to a halt, the crowd spontaneously erupted into fervent chants of Salethu Singham! Kazhaga podhuchailalr, varungala mudhalamaichar! Annan Edappadiyar! —Lion of Salem! General secretary of the party, future chief minister! Brother Edappadi!

Amid the chants, Edappadi Palaniswami, or EPS as he is popularly known, emerged from his car, smiling at the party cadres, alternating between namastes and flashing the victory sign— a gesture that also signifies the party symbol of two leaves on a stem.

Earlier seen as a liaison between late AIADMK chief Jayalalithaa and party cadres, 69-year-old EPS has been cementing his position in the organisation ever since the Supreme Court gave the go-ahead for him to continue as general secretary this February, dismissing the challenge of ousted party rival O. Panneerselvam (OPS).

And as EPS strengthens his grip on the party, the AIADMK itself is undergoing a change in its character.

From being led by larger-than-life movie stars-turned politicians — Puratchi Thalaivar (revolutionary leader) MG Ramachandran, or MGR, and the revered Amma (mother) J Jayalalithaa— it is now embracing the stewardship of Annan (brother) EPS, a chief who positions himself as an equal, although he is held in high reverence.

Chennai AIADMK rally
A section of the massive crowd of AIADMK cadres gathered at Chennai’s Little Mount Monday | Akshaya Nath | ThePrint

Since the demise of Jayalalithaa in 2016 and his elevation to the post of Chief Minister the following year, EPS has been viewed by cadres as a man who held a large section of the party together through a period of factional turmoil.

At the Monday rally, when asked why EPS captured their imagination, party workers described him as being close to cadres, someone who remembers their names and attends their personal celebrations.

They also praised his ambitious target to build the party by ramping up its membership numbers and his efforts to connect top leaders to the grassroots.

Unsaid by the workers, but also worth mentioning is the AIADMK’s amended bylaws. Through these, EPS has ensured that only faithful old-timers can climb to the top or have a say in who does. These bylaws, amended in July 2022, were “taken on record” by the Election Commission last month.

At the protest in Little Mount the cadres are cheerful, and say they now have “clarity” about the affairs of the party.

“There were several hurdles that came in the AIADMK’s way and also for EPS personally. But he overcame it all and has proved to be a strong leader like MGR and Amma,” former minister and AIADMK women’s wing secretary B. Valarmathi told ThePrint.

Nonetheless, political analysts point out that EPS still faces imminent threats.

As the opposition party in Tamil Nadu since 2021, the AIADMK has been seen as overly reliant on its ally, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), with which it has long been at odds.

Furthermore, despite EPS’s reputation as a “Salem strongman” with backing from the Gounder community in western Tamil Nadu, the AIADMK’s sway among the influential Thevar community may be at risk due to the newly minted alliance between ousted Thevar AIADMK leaders OPS and TTV Dhinakaran.

O. Panneerselvam with TTV Dhinakaran | Photo by special arrangement
O. Panneerselvam (L) with TTV Dhinakaran | Photo by special arrangement

Speaking to ThePrint, author and political analyst Nilakantan RS also highlighted that EPS is yet to command the kind of following that MGR or Jayalalithaa did.

“EPS managed the party for four years, for which credit needs to be given to him. He was a good manager of circumstances. But that is one thing and being a mass leader is another,” he said.

Political analyst GC Shekhar expressed similar reservations.

“EPS is still not all powerful,” Shekhar said. “He is dependent on the support of others in the party to hold his position.”

As EPS entrenches himself as a key figure in Tamil Nadu’s political arena, ThePrint traces his ascent as well as the obstacles he continues to face.

Also read: Supreme Court order on AIADMK rift: What are OPS’s options now & what ruling means for EPS & BJP

‘Naalavar ani’ to CM and ‘sole leader’

 In 1974, Edappadi K Palaniswami, a 20-year-old from a family of farmers, joined AIADMK as a volunteer.

However, it wasn’t until after the demise of party founder MGR in 1987 that EPS caught the attention of Jayalalithaa. For the 1989 state elections, she nominated him as the Edappadi constituency candidate for the breakaway faction of the party she headed at the time. He won, the party didn’t.

It took until 1991 for Jayalalithaa to claim the CM’s chair, but it wasn’t until her fourth stint as chief minister two decades later that she officially gave EPS — who had been steadily rising in the ranks of the party— a place at her table.

Revered like a deity in a temple, Jayalalithaa was someone the cadres could admire and worship, but from a distance.

When she regained power in 2011, she personally handpicked a group of four cabinet ministers, known as the “Naalavar ani” (team of four), to act as a bridge between her and the party’s cadres.

These elite cabinet members were EPS, Natham Viswanathan, R Vaithilingam, and OPS.

EPS pays respects to Jayalalithaa
EPS pays his respects to a portrait of J. Jayalalithaa | Twitter/@EPS

Among these four, it initially seemed as if OPS was Jayalalithaa’s natural successor.

He had temporarily served as CM in 2001-2002 when she was disqualified due to corruption charges, and then again in 2014 when she was convicted in a disproportionate assets case. After her death in December 2016, it was again OPS who took the mantle of CM for the third time.

However, analyst Shekhar pointed out that even though OPS had taken centrestage whenever Jayalalithaa was indisposed, EPS — a one-time Lok Sabha MP and four-time MLA then —  was never far from the scene either.

“When Jayalalithaa was ill and when OPS was given the portfolios handled by her, EPS too had gone along with OPS to meet the governor to make the changes in the cabinet. He was in the equation all along,” he pointed out.

In February 2017, just over two months after he took oath as chief minister, OPS resigned as a culmination of his rollercoaster “dharmayudham” against one-time Jayalalithaa aide and CM aspirant Sasikala after she was convicted in a disproportionate assets case.

Although EPS and OPS had led different groups within the party at the time, they established a front against the then AIADMK general secretary Sasikala and her faction, which included her nephew TTV Dhinakaran, or just TTV. Both Sasikala and TTV were ousted from the party.

EPS and OPS then set up a ‘dual leadership’ system for the AIADMK. In this arrangement, EPS became CM and joint-coordinator of the party, and OPS the deputy CM and coordinator. Jayalalithaa was termed the “eternal general secretary”.

File photo of former Tamil Nadu CM Edappadi K Palaniswami, former Deputy CM O Panneerselvam and senior leaders of AIADMK and PMK showing a signed copy of the alliance agreement for the 2019 polls. | R Senthil Kumar/PTI
File photo of Edappadi K. Palaniswami (third from left) and O. Panneerselvam (second from right) and senior leaders of AIADMK and PMK showing a signed copy of the alliance agreement for the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. | R Senthil Kumar/PTI

A lot has changed since then. EPS is no longer CM, but he has taken charge of the party.

After the AIADMK lost the 2021 state election, he pushed for singular leadership in the party to strengthen its functioning.

There was pushback from OPS, but it was now EPS who called the shots and enjoyed the support of most party office-bearers and cadres.

In a June 2022 general council meeting, OPS was reportedly “booed” out. EPS was anointed as the party’s rightful leader the next month. Soon thereafter, OPS and his aides were expelled from the AIADMK.

“The towering image of Jayalalithaa for so long had conditioned people to not take EPS seriously,” said Nilakantan — but that was clearly no longer the case.

A mirror in history?

The saga of EPS’s ascent bears a few striking parallels to that of Jayalalithaa’s.

Following MGR’s death, his wife VN Janaki Ramachandran, and her supporters claimed ownership of the AIADMK, while Jayalalithaa, leading a breakaway faction, asserted that the true followers of the party should be with her.

Similarly, when Jayalalithaa died, different claimants to her political legacy emerged, including OPS and EPS.

Much as how MGR’s wife Janaki asserted her ownership of the party and even served as CM for 23 days, OPS also staked his claim, but had a truncated tenure.

Janaki Ramachandran | Ramandeep Kaur | ThePrint Team
Janaki Ramachandran | Ramandeep Kaur | ThePrint Team

And much as how Jayalalithaa accused Janaki of being soft towards Karunanidhi, EPS criticised OPS for his alleged proximity to the DMK and even labelled him as its “B-Team”.

Another parallel that could be drawn is in the poll performance of the AIADMK in these two eras of churn.

In the 1989 state elections, the fractured AIADMK got a drubbing, but Jayalalithaa’s faction outperformed Janaki’s, with the former winning 27 seats over the latter’s two. This gave Jayalalithaa greater political credibility and shortly thereafter both factions were merged under her leadership.

In the Lok Sabha elections that same year, AIADMK , in an alliance with the Indian National Congress, achieved a resounding victory, winning 38 out of 39 seats, returning the party to its former glory.

Cut to the 2021 state assembly polls, the first after Jayalalithaa’s death.

These elections were a blow to the AIADMK, which secured only 66 out of the 179 seats it contested out of the state’s total of 234 assembly constituencies. But the result also gradually shifted the dynamics within the party.

While AIADMK won 32 out of 54 seats in the Gounder-dominated western belt of Tamil Nadu, where EPS wields considerable influence, they only managed to secure 16 out of 60 seats in the Thevar-dominated southern belt, considered a stronghold of OPS.

Moreover, between 2018 and 2022, several members of the OPS faction switched their allegiance to EPS, further reshaping the political landscape within the party.

Amma vs Annan

Today, EPS is forging his own identity as a leader. At Little Mount this Monday, he was swarmed by his party men from all sides. The stage he was to step on to was jam-packed with many senior party leaders, all of them pushing forward to greet their general secretary. He steadily reciprocated their greetings while also asking them to make way.

EPS, it seems, is positioning himself as a common man, an annan, who has worked his way up the party ranks.

“His message is that he is one among them,” said a senior former AIADMK MP, asking not to be named.

Establishing connections is one of EPS’s strengths, according to most AIADMK leaders ThePrint spoke to.

“He is always there for the cadres. If a party worker invites him to a wedding, baby naming ceremony, or any such function, he will try being there if he doesn’t have a prior commitment,” Valarmathi said.

EPS at a wedding
EPS blesses the newly wed son of a party district office bearer | Twitter/@AIADMKOfficial

AIADMK organisational secretary Aadhi Rajaram also described EPS as “approachable”.

“He is a man who loves talking about agriculture, he is a farmer at heart,” Rajaram added.

He shared a personal incident where EPS, who had met Rajaram’s family once, remembered them even after several months— a trait that is not common among many senior leaders, Rajaram said.

All of this is quite a far cry from Jayalalithaa’s persona as a leader.

She was never closely surrounded by people due to her Z-plus security and larger-than-life image. Senior leaders and cadres were more likely to prostrate themselves before Jayalalithaa than push their way toward her.

Analysts, however, say EPS could take a leaf or two from Jayalalithaa’s book, emphasising that her charisma and popularity were not solely due to her film star status but also her hard work.

“She had the ability to capture the attention of the masses, and it requires significant skills, thoughtfulness, and understanding of politics, governance, media, and what becomes viral in today’s time,” Nilakantan said.

“EPS will have to learn and deliver on these aspects; otherwise, he may risk being abandoned by his own supporters.”


When MGR started the AIADMK, it attracted a record enrolment of 16 lakh cadres. By the time Amma departed, its strength was 1.5 crore. EPS now wants to take it to the next level.

“EPS has started a drive to make the cadre strength 2 crore. He is driving the party towards glory, following the legacy of MGR and Jayalalithaa,” said AIADMK spokesperson Kovai Sathyan.

He added that EPS has three key areas of focus: “Ensure that grassroots workers are able to climb the ladder, encourage more youngsters to join the party and develop them into the next line of leaders, and, most importantly, he has a clear roadmap in mind, based on which clear decisions are taken without mincing words.”

Also high on the agenda is electoral preparations for the 2024 Lok Sabha and 2026 state polls. Party leaders said that EPS has held multiple meetings on this front.

“He has urged us to strengthen booth committees and regularly conduct public meetings to stay connected with the people across the state,” said former minister Valarmathi.

The Supreme Court verdict of February this year came as a huge boost for EPS, ensuring he is firmly in the saddle as the general secretary of the party.

The party’s amended bylaws also ensure that EPS remains at the helm of affairs for the foreseeable future.

The rules stipulate that anyone contesting for the post of general secretary must be a party member for a continuous period of 10 years, and have served as an office bearer at the party headquarters for five years. Further, their candidacy must be proposed by at least 10 district secretaries, with another set of at least 10 district secretaries seconding it. Only EPS currently enjoys that level of support.

Clouds that may form

EPS is currently flying high, but analysts highlight a number of issues that could make it a bumpy ride.

A.S. Panneerselvan, a fellow at Chennai’s Roja Muthiah Research Library pointed out that the court battle may not be over yet for EPS.

“All the cases related to the party filed by Sasikala and OPS are still pending, with not a single case fully resolved,” he said.

Further, over the past two years, EPS’s preoccupation with the AIADMK’s internal power struggle gave ally BJP and its state president K Annamalai an opportunity to amplify their presence in the opposition, according to analyst GC Shekhar.

“EPS was absent without leave, and Annamalai took the lead,” Shekhar said. “But EPS is now asserting himself as the opposition leader. His recent media interaction on the spurious liquor issue showcased his aggressive side.”

Earlier this month, nearly two dozen people in Tamil Nadu lost their lives, allegedly due to consuming tainted hooch, leading to a political firestorm. In the wake of this, EPS had said at a press conference that the deaths could have been prevented if the state government had taken action on preventing the sale of spurious liquor. The AIADMK also targeted the DMK over this issue in its Chennai protest rally this Monday.

A lorry bearing a public service message against drinking at the 22 May AIADMK rally | Akshaya Nath | ThePrint

The biggest challenge currently confronting EPS, however, is the alliance between OPS and TTV to take on the “betrayers”. There is also speculation that they may meet Sasikala for a tie-up. All three belong to the Thevar community.

An alliance, therefore, would result in a consolidated and influential Thevar group posing a threat to the AIADMK’s vote bank.

The former AIDMK MP, quoted earlier, expressed this concern.

“They are playing caste-based politics. Thirty AIADMK seats that were supposed to be ours were lost because TTV’s Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam (AMMK) played spoiler. But joining forces with them would lower the party’s morale,” he said. “We have one year to encourage people from the Thevar community to continue to be part of us.”

This is an updated version of the story. EPS was a one-time member of the Lok Sabha and not of the Rajya Sabha. The error is regretted.

(Edited by Asavari Singh)

Also Read: 74 years, 3 generations, 1 ideology: Inside DMK’s ‘first family’ at the heart of TN BJP’s ‘corruption exposé’

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