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

India Today - - NATION - By Amar­nath K. Menon

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

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