For a man whose ascent to the top job was merely to become a puppet for the now incarcerated Sasikala Natarajan, is his survival due to circumstances, or compromises?

Edappadi Palaniswami How the accidental CM has become a crafty politicianPTI
news Politics Friday, August 23, 2019 - 13:29

On August 7, two days before the AIADMK would lose the closely-contested Vellore Lok Sabha seat, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami sacked his cabinet colleague, Minister for Information Technology M Manikandan. While the minister was already undercut in July with the appointment of another minister, Udumalpet Radhakrishnan, as the chairman of an agency he oversees, this final step came as a surprise. While a first for the Chief Minister since taking office, it reminded political watchers in the state of the ways of late Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa, whose victory and demise in 2016, ultimately brought the CM’s chair to Palaniswami. Considered a unilateral decision-maker, Jayalalithaa was known to firing ministers, transferring bureaucrats and filing defamation cases on journalists whenever irked.

With the state having witnessed multiple upheavals in the last few years, the AIADMK government has been severely criticised for acting per the whims of the BJP government at the Centre, eroding the rights of the state. The policies of the state have also been questioned— whether it was the promised opposition to NEET, the shootings during the anti-Sterlite environmental agitation, among other issues. However, through it all, Palaniswami, popularly called EPS, has managed to survive among his powerful peers, even shedding the image of an awkward Chief Minister to now frequently picking squabbles with journalists and political adversaries. For a man whose ascent to the top job in the state was merely to become a puppet for the now incarcerated Sasikala Natarajan, is his survival due to circumstances, compromises or modelled on a diligent study of the late AIADMK supremo?

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Master of compromise and survival

Speaking to TNM, senior journalist Shyam Tharasu points out that while EPS has certainly grown more assertive, one needs to bear in mind that he is emboldened by being in the good graces of the BJP. “The confidence emanates from New Delhi. His own popularity can only be measured by his winnability in a state election. But it can be fairly said that he is a master of survival,” he says.

In 2017, soon after Jayalalithaa’s death, the party was in the throes of a feud between then Chief Minister now Deputy Chief Minister O Panneerselvam (OPS) and Sasikala Natarajan, Jayalalithaa’s close confidant. With Sasikala’s conviction in the Disproportionate Assets case, Palaniswami’s name was the top pick for Chief Minister from the Sasikala faction which ultimately won over OPS’ ‘dharma yudham.’ Sasikala’s incarceration in a Bengaluru jail proved opportune and with some deft political manoeuvring by the BJP, OPS and EPS united against their ‘Chinnamma' Sasikala. While EPS remained Chief Minister, the once-Chief Minister OPS had to be content with the post of Deputy Chief Minister.

“Initially, when the BJP was coaxing EPS and OPS to unite, EPS would travel with his close aides to New Delhi. He would need facilitators. Now he has the confidence to go alone. He has learnt the art of tackling the BJP,” observes Shyam. 

Sources say that EPS has also brokered a compromise with power centres in the state bureaucracy by giving them a free hand to run the state.

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Perils of powerful peers 

While Jayalalithaa remained the undisputed leader of the AIADMK from 1989 till her death in December 2016, the post-Jayalalithaa AIADMK gave rise to multiple centres of power and influence. While leaders like KP Munusamy and Vaithilingam pulled their weight as the old guard, ministers like SP Velumani and P Thangamani took on more active roles in greasing the wheels of the party. Jostling in their midst, Palaniswami has had to play a careful game of wait and watch. 

Referring to the firing of IT Minister Manikandan, journalist Shyam says, “When Jayalalithaa was there, the leader was supreme. No questions asked. She would fire cabinet ministers at will, whoever it may be. There are two kinds of ministers. Solo ministers and those who have a coterie of MLAs supporting them. Manikandan doesn't have such support. Had this been SP Velumani or KA Sengottaiyan, the Chief Minister could not have pulled this off.”

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Electoral success, or lack thereof

The recently-concluded Lok Sabha polls in Vellore saw the AIADMK alliance lose, in a constituency it previously held, against DMK strongman Duraimurugan’s son, Kathir Anand. The polls were cancelled in April after bundles of cash amounting to over Rs 10 crore were found in properties belonging to Kathir Anand and DMK functionaries. Capitalising on the fodder this provided, EPS conducted a blistering campaign, attacking the Leader of the Opposition and DMK chief MK Stalin. DMK's margin of victory was wafer-thin. Observers point out that with a significant Muslim population in Vellore, the party’s sole Lok Sabha MP OP Raveendranath supporting the Triple Talaq move could have dented the alliance’s chances. 

Electorally however, the Chief Minister is yet to reap results, very much unlike Jayalalithaa, who managed to win back to back polls in the years before her demise. Pointing to the Vellore Lok Sabha polls, senior journalist Lakshmi Subramanian opines that it was in fact EPS’ political maneuvering that made it a close contest. She says, “He is a shrewd politician. When he took over, everybody thought he wouldn't be able to manage and that he would be like OPS. But EPS has kept the BJP at a distance. In Vellore, he kept the BJP away. Else, they would not have crossed two lakh votes.”

With EPS no longer being ‘unpopular’, Lakshmi believes the next steps for him would be to consolidate power within the party. “The next state assembly polls would make [his electoral prospects] clear. Electoral politics in Tamil Nadu is arithmetics and it depends how he carves out an alliance. In Tamil Nadu, the culture has always been that the leader of the party has become the Chief Minister so I believe he would be looking to push OPS out of the party and take over the reins as chief. He has to manage the party now and everyone needs to accept him as the sole leader,” says the journalist.

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What lies ahead

Speaking to TNM, Professor Ramu Manivannan, Head of Department of Politics and Public Administration of the University of Madras points out that the roadmap for EPS is clearly laid out if the aim is to survive. “EPS has nothing to lose. If he goes to the polls, the AIADMK may not win without the kind of money power and backing from the BJP. He doesn’t have to measure whom he is attacking, whether it is the DMK or anyone else,” he says. Recently, the Chief Minister made a shocking statement when he called former Union Minister P Chidambaram ‘a burden upon the earth’. Prof Ramu continues, “OPS silently surrendered his status to the BJP. Of the twin leadership in the party, at least one of them should speak. So EPS is doing that.”

With the Centre continuing to push for simultaneous elections to state assemblies, there is also apprehension of Tamil Nadu facing polls sooner than the scheduled 2021. As far as the future is concerned, the professor says, “The future for EPS involves providing ample elbow room for the BJP in the state, in order to survive. The BJP does not have a single MLA or MP in the state and yet we see their disproportionate influence. So EPS’ priorities would be widen room for them, complete his tenure in government and remove any possible future prospects for TTV Dhinakaran.”

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