OPS Vs EPS rift stands to hurt the AIADMK along caste lines

Jayalalithaa loyalists will stand with O Panneerselvam as he was the most trusted lieutenant of AIADMK supremo Jayalalithaa, say analysts.
Edappadi Palaniswami and O Panneerselvam
Edappadi Palaniswami and O Panneerselvam
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On June 26, hours before AIADMK Coordinator O Panneerselvam (OPS) landed in Madurai to a grand gala reception, Edappadi K Palaniswami’s camp gave three former AIADMK Ministers RB Udhaykumar, Sellur Raju and C Vijayabaskar, all from the Thevar community, an important job. The optics was quite simple: while OPS, also a Thevar, embarked on a journey to prove his support base in southern districts of Tamil Nadu, the former AIADMK Ministers were mandated with the task of holding press conferences to convey that prominent leaders from the Thevar community wanted AIADMK Joint Coordinator Edappadi K Palaniswami (EPS), a Gounder, to be the undisputed leader of the AIADMK.

"MGR and Amma's supporters are on my side," was one of the few comments made by O Panneerselvam (OPS), co-ordinator of AIADMK, at an event in Madurai. This was after he walked away from the general council meeting held at Vanagaram in Chennai on June 23. During a visit to his home district Theni, he garlanded the Muthuramalinga Thevar statue, an icon of the Thevar community. The press conferences by leaders like Vijaya Bhaskar, Sellur Raju were largely seen as an attempt to counter O Panneerselvam in his home turf by EPS camp.

Sources in the AIADMK say that the rift between OPS and EPS over who will control the AIADMK, has once again triggered fear of yet another split in the AIADMK. Political observers predict this current rift between these two leaders would impact caste-based vote banks. EPS has been repeatedly asked how he intends to obtain the support of the Thevar community to which OPS belongs, if he continues to sideline him. TNM spoke to political observers and caste based unions to know the pulse of supporters and community members and their perspective on the party in the near future.

"Edappadi Palaniswami and O Panneerselvam, are like MGR and Karunanidhi. They are pan-Tamil Nadu leaders and the faces of AIADMK. We cannot say their split or current rift can impact south and west regions, only on caste-based lines. Across Tamil Nadu, the AIADMK vote bank would split between MGR loyalists and Jayalalithaa loyalists. Jayalalithaa loyalists would stand with O Panneerselvam as she selected him to be the Chief Minister, when she couldn't be in the chair and to her, he was a trustworthy partyman,” said Ravindran Duraisamy, a political observer.

Impact on 2024 general assembly polls feared

“CV Shanmugam and KP Munusamy are in the EPS camp, but it doesn't mean their community voters would vote for EPS. For instance, the cadres who don't like Edappadi Palaniswami, even if they belong to the same caste, would stand with OPS if they are not ready to switch their support to DMK. The 2024 election results only decide which leader has the support of Tamil Nadu people. But again, the impact would be felt across the state, not just the south or west regions of the state," he further added. 

At this juncture, political observers don't know how long the party would survive if it goes ahead with the split between factions and the impact on the general elections in 2024 is hard to predict. The 2021 state assembly election results reflected the disappointment towards OPS and gained support towards EPS. AIADMK won 33 seats out of the 54 seats in the western region which is seen as being represented by Edappadi Palaniswami and dominated by the Gounder caste. But in the south, out of 60 seats, AIADMK managed to capture only 16 seats. The southern districts are dominated by Thevar community and OPS is seen as the representative of Thevar community.

"To take the party under his leadership, the EPS camp might have pushed OPS on the edge, but we cannot say all the leaders from the Thevar community have been sidelined. OPS supporters from southern districts didn't take the recent events lightly, but it doesn't mean that all the AIADMK supporters from the south are standing behind OPS,” said political analyst Aazhi Senthilnathan.

On the impact of the rift in the 2024 elections, he said that the disappointment over the dual-leadership was already reflected in the 2021 elections, where AIADMK scored well in western districts and failed to capture many constituencies in southern districts. "To tackle this and to efficiently manage the party, regardless of west, south division, everyone expects single leadership," he further added.

Vanniyar reservation hurt the party

Apart from the anti-incumbency factor, the alliance with BJP and last-minute internal reservation to the Vanniyar community hurt the party. The Vanniyar community are categorised as MBC and share 20% reservation with Kallars and Maravars, the dominant sub-castes of Mukkulathor also known as Thevars. The Sterlite shooting incident, custodial deaths and the developments in the party after the death of Jayalalithaa, also ruptured the reputation of AIADMK in the south. The internal reservation played in favour of EPS as west regions of Tamil Nadu are dominated by the Vanniyars and negatively impacted OPS, as south regions are dominated by Thevars.

"We cannot say Vanniyar reservation alone led to the failure of AIADMK in southern districts. People wanted the change," said Velmurugan, general secretary of Maruthu Senai. Maruthu Senai is a caste-based political outfit that concentrates on the welfare of Agamudayar, one of the Mukkulathor sub-castes. "For the last four days we have been discussing who to support in AIADMK. Organisations like Akhila India Agamudayar Kootamaippu (Agamudayar caste-based outfit) and Mukkulathor Kootamaippu are also discussing the same matter. Mukkulathor community comprises 80% Agamudayar and some leaders from our community support EPS, while others are inclined towards OPS, despite Mukkulathor Koottamaippu asking community members to support OPS only. We cannot back only one leader as our community needs a lot of development and representation. Favouring any one of them will be a setback for us. The talks will go on for another week, only then can we decide on whom to support," he further added.

Managing the delicate Thevar Vs Gounder equation

On sidelining leaders from the Thevar community, he said that Sasikala was the one who appointed EPS as the Chief Minister despite her belonging to the Thevar community. "She didn't prioritise castes like MGR and Jayalalithaa did. This is an internal dispute of AIADMK and one cannot approach the recent events on caste-based lines," Velmurugan said.

Gounders and Thevars make a big chunk of vote shares in Tamil Nadu. Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa belonged to communities that have minuscule vote shares in Tamil Nadu politics. But, they cultivated the votes of the Gounder and Thevar communities by announcing many schemes. In the early 90s, Jayalalithaa got overwhelming support from both communities. She swept the support of Thevars after Sasikala was associated with the party as the latter was from the same community. Even after Jayalalithaa's sudden death, the CM post and party chief post were given to two Thevars, Panneerselvam and Sasikala, even though the party had as many as 28 Gounder MLAs. "Sasikala was able to establish a good rapport with OPS even though he revolted against her in 2017. Sasikala met OPS and his son OPR after OPS lost his wife last year. There is no simmering discomfort between these two leaders and a possible coalition can be expected to show the strength of Thevars in the state," another analyst expressed his view.

In the recent AIADMK General Council (GC) meeting, OPS was humiliated and the general council members’ unanimous demand for unitary leadership made him walk away from the stage on June 23. Edappadi Palaniswami was able to turn the GC meeting into a massive show of strength where 2,190 council members demanded a discussion on single leadership. The newly elected Presidium Chairman Tamil Magan Hussain announced that the next GC meeting would take place on July 11. EPS and his camp expected him to be declared as the leader of AIADMK, but OPS approached the Madras High Court and a division bench restrained the AIADMK general council from amending the party bye-laws during that meeting. However, on June 28, Edappadi Palaniswami approached the Supreme Court seeking to stay the order by the Madras High Court that favoured OPS.

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