On December 18, 2016, barely two weeks after former Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa passed away, intense lobbying was underway within the AIADMK. Jayalalithaa Peravai secretary RB Udhayakumar was the first to reveal the party's design as he headed to the late leader's memorial, with a list of resolutions in hand and followers behind him. Slowing down to talk to reporters, the minister said, "AIADMK and Tamil Nadu must be saved. And for this, Sasikala must head the party and the government. 50 AIADMK district secretaries have expressed their wishes that she contest from RK Nagar, win and become the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu."
For the general public, this was a shocking declaration. Current Deputy Chief Minister O Pannerselvam was the caretaker Chief Minister then, and while there were signs that Sasikala would take over the party, this push to head the government was unexpected. But for the AIADMK, it was merely a plan in action. First, prominent leaders would make the demand for a single leader to lead the party and government, and then propose a name, claiming it was “what the cadre want.”
It looks like a similar modus operandi has been put into force in Tamil Nadu once again. Only this time, it is Edappadi Palaniswami (EPS) who has set the ball rolling. In the last week, many voices have demanded that EPS head the party – alone. Currently, O Panneerselvam (OPS) and EPS function as coordinators of the AIADMK with powers of the party’s General secretary. These posts were created after the party's bye-laws were altered in 2017, when OPS rejoined the main faction.
"Soon after the Lok Sabha election results came out, the plan began brewing," said an AIADMK source, "The massive loss in the Lok Sabha polls really upset the cadre. It was decided that it was time to make the demand for one leader to call all the shots."
And the right moment came after an ugly fight between EPS and OPS over a ministerial berth in PM Narendra Modi’s Cabinet. While EPS pushed for Rajya Sabha MP R Vaithilingam based on seniority, OPS demanded that his son Ravindranath who won the Theni seat, be given preference. As a result of infighting, no MP from Tamil Nadu was inducted into the Union Cabinet. And senior ministers and cadre blamed OPS's insistence as the reason for the humiliation.
"Instructions were given to a few MLAs last week to demand a single leadership in the state, even as a meeting of district secretaries was planned," said the AIADMK source.
And sure enough, on Saturday, the first MLA made the demand.
“This party needs to be conducted with discipline by one leader," said Madurai North MLA Rajan Chelappa, "We need a talented and selfless person, whoever it may be, old or new. It should be someone certified by Amma. Both of them have been certified by Amma. We can see who is better between them or we can look for someone more certified. There is nothing wrong with that.”
While Rajan may have remained diplomatic and not named a leader, the next person who spoke up made it clear that OPS was ruled out. In a Whatsapp video that has now gone viral, MLA RT Ramachandran from Kunnam Assembly constituency, rejected OPS.
"We want a singular and selfless leadership. Both Puratchi Thalaivar MGR and Amma put aside all familial ties, made the party their family, and protected the AIADMK," he pointed out, "Those who threaten us for their family will be thought of as another Sasikala by the party cadre. This brings us great sorrow.”
Soon after this, orders were issued to leaders and cadre to not talk against the party, but insiders say the task at hand was accomplished.
"Now, on June 12, when the district secretaries meet, this will definitely come up," said the AIADMK source, "And they will quote party tradition."
The AIADMK party and its government has always been under a single leader, right from its conception. When the party wins an election, the leader who is made Chief Minister also holds the position of General secretary. For instance, after the declaration of Sasikala as General Secretary, senior leaders including M Thambidurai and minister Valarmathi also joined the chorus to make her the Chief Minister.
"We want the full control to be with one person," Valarmathi had said, "The aatchi (government) and katchi (party) were together in Amma's hands. That is why AIADMK was unshakeable."
And on Wednesday, with a crucial meeting scheduled, TNM asked Rajan Chelappa if he will raise the demand for a singular leadership.
"I don't need to bring it up in the meeting," he said confidently, "It will become an issue without my interference."