TWO LEAVES TO LIVE
With Dinakaran’s arrest, a door opens for reconciliation between the two warring AIADMK factions. But the Sasikala clan still holds a few aces
Hours before the warring AIADMK factions were to gather for talks at the party headquarters in Chennai on April 24, former chief minister O. Panneerselvam (OPS), who leads one of the camps, was accorded Y-plus security cover by the Centre following a “heightened threat perception” to his life. Then when information trickled in that the rival ruling faction of Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami (EPS) had not acted on their demand that posters of jailed ‘general secretary’ Sasikala Natarajan, be removed from the party HQ to maintain its “sanctity”, a miffed OPS cried off from the talks.
By the next evening, though, when the Delhi police arrested her nephew and party deputy general secretary T.T.V. Dinakaran (and duly Sasikala’s posters started coming down), both sides had climbed down to declare that conditions were conducive for talks.
In Tamil Nadu’s politics, cutting deals is second nature to many, more so in the AIADMK since the death of their puratchi thalaivi, J. Jayalalithaa. But suddenly, arriving at one between the party’s two warring factions seems a daunting task. For close to four decades, party leaders and the cadre had a domineering, decisive leader to look up to. Now the embattled AIADMK factions, staring at an uncertain future, realise that they may lose their last unifying emblem, the coveted ‘two leaves’ poll symbol.
On March 22, the Election Commission of India (ECI) froze the poll symbol, pending a decision on the rival claims of a majority within the party’s organisational structure. Indeed, Dinakaran was arrested for, among other things, trying to bribe an ECI official to get the ‘two leaves’ symbol assigned to the official EPS faction. Now, in order to retrieve the poll symbol, both factions will have to withdraw contentious claims made to the ECI, including those on Sasikala’s appointment as party general secretary.
Burying the hatchet for a common future is also dependent on ousting Sasikala’s family from the party. The OPS faction had insisted on two pre-conditions before talks: expelling Sasikala and Dinakaran, and a CBI investigation into the circumstances leading to Jayalalithaa’s death. Their apprehensions over Sasikala’s family resorting to back-seat driving at the cost of the party should have eased somewhat at the news of Dinakaran’s arrest.
EPS too should be emboldened by the arrest (he was handpicked to be chief minister by Sasikala after OPS’s revolt in February). Tellingly, a senior party functionary says, “EPS has a lot more clarity on the party situation after his visit to Delhi for the Niti Aayog meeting when he also met the prime minister.” The leader who attended the review meetings of district secretaries of the party on April 25 adds that “no references were made about Sasikala at the meetings”. EPS has also been prudent in avoiding visiting Sasikala at the Parappana Agrahara Central Prison in Bengaluru where she is lodged.
That said, Sasikala’s family still pulls the strings in many quarters. The AIADMK party organs, Tamil daily Dr Namadhu MGR and channel Jaya TV, sing paeans to both Sasikala and Dinakaran daily. “We have ousted them from the party and the government. But nothing can be finished off in a day,” reasons R. Vaithilingam, Rajya Sabha member and head of the EPS faction negotiations panel.
Eliminating the ‘Mannargudi mafia’, as the Sasikala family is known, will not be easy considering the vast party resources and strategic assets in their control. The AIADMK, minus the Sasikala clan, will have to forego what may be held in closely knit trusts, and it may take much legal wrangling to get back the daily and channel, if at all. Political analysts say merely sidelining Sasikala and Dinakaran will have little impact as there are many, including legislators and MPs, who owe their rise in the AIADMK to the family. “Our party bylaws do not allow the expulsion of the general secretary (Sasikala). Only the general secretary can expel others. When they (the OPS faction) do not have ant legal sanctity, how can it be done?” asks one such leader.
What has kept much of the EPS faction together (though there are many within opposed to the clan) till now is their wafer-thin majority and the consequent lack of bargaining leverage to force the hands of the OPS group. The EPS faction has 122 MLAs in a 233-seat legislative assembly—a majority of just six seats. Jayalalithaa’s RK Nagar seat which Dinakaran was vying for still lies vacant.
The rival faction is no less fragile considering that apart from OPS, party presidium chairman E. Madhusudhanan and a few MLAs and MPs, there are no influential heavyweights. They still maintain that the party rank and file is on their side. “Of the 16 million party cadre, at least 95 per cent
are on our side,” says ex-minister K. Pandiarajan of the OPS camp.
With the centennial celebrations of party founder M.G. Ramachandran in June and elections to the local bodies after July, there is no option for the factions but to come together. While this has become easier with the Sasikala camp paralysed, the reunion will be fraught with challenges, mostly over who gets what post-merger. EPS is unlikely to surrender the CM’s post.
Meanwhile, the Opposition DMK’s working president M.K. Stalin admits that Jaya’s passing has improved their electoral prospects. However, the idea of a total collapse of the AIADMK and a mid-term assembly poll is not in the DMK’s interest either. If the AIADMK fails to consolidate at the end of the current convulsions, a simultaneous state election in 2019 along with Lok Sabha polls, as advocated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, cannot be ruled out.
The only party that seems elated by the turmoil is the BJP’s Tamil Nadu unit. The party feels that with the Jayalalithaa era over and the slowing down of nonagenarian DMK patriarch K. Karunanidhi, the situation is perfect for it to emerge as a strong player in the state. It’s all part of its Mission 2019 plan to wrest more Lok Sabha seats from the peninsular part of the country, feeding off Prime Minister Modi’s charisma and his ‘corruptionfree development’ plank. The Dravidian parties, steeped in corruption as they are, have reason to worry.
So how does the BJP hope to succeed in Dravidian politics, traditionally the antithesis of its own Hindutva-based ideology? P. Muralidhar Rao, state in-charge and BJP national general secretary, has an answer. “The regional parties rose in the 1960s Dravidian era,” he says. “Those days are now gone. This is the new age of good governance cutting across caste lines, and the leader who symbolises this new urge in people is our prime minister.”
There are reasons for the party to be upbeat. Leaders and workers from the regional parties here have been making overtures, a clear sign of the BJP’s ascendancy. The party still doesn’t have a significant leader except for state BJP chief Tamilisai Soundararajan, the daughter of former state Congress president Kumari Ananthan, but that could all change fast. For now, the party is keeping its cards very close to its chest. It doesn’t mind being projected as a party close to OPS as the Sasikala camp is now synonymous with corruption and nepotism.
The Dinakaran episode has sent “positive waves” across the BJP. Under the circumstances, the AIADMK may even opt for the BJP as an electoral partner in the future, banking on the old MGR formula of a swap-sharing ratio for assembly and Lok Sabha seats to serve mutual interests.
Seemingly rattled by the prospect of the BJP’s emergence, DMK heir Stalin has revived the old Dravidian anti-Hindi pitch. The recent reintroduction of Hindi signage on the highways, making it mandatory for ministers’ speeches in Parliament, talk of it becoming the language of the courts have all come together to help his cause. “It shows the BJP’s disrespect for Tamil sentiments. This is Hindi hegemony through the backdoor,” he thundered. In a video post on Twitter, Stalin warned the Centre “not to sow the seeds for a third generation antiHindi protest by pushing India into becoming Hindia”. Indeed, a dawnto-dusk bandh on April 25, to focus on the farmers’ plight in the state, saw all major parties backing Stalin and may serve as a prelude for his rise as an alliance leader against the “northerners”.
Soundararajan admits “the BJP faces challenges in the state. They are trying to create an anti-Central government image here”. The BJP’s immediate concern, though, is ensuring that the entire AIADMK votes in the electoral college are in its favour when the presidential poll happens in July. For the moment, it is likely to let the AIADMK factional battles play themselves out, rather than risk taking sides.
Photographs by JAISON G.
SHAKEN ’N STIRRED OPS, left, and CM Palaniswami