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Has the Modi-Shah Duo Underestimated Tamil Nadu Politics?

There seems to be no end in sight to the tumult in the state’s politics since Jayalalithaa’s death last year, with the forces the BJP has been trying to crush only getting stronger.

Tamil Nadu politics

O. Panneerselvam, E.Palanisamy, T.T.V. Dhinakaran and V.K. Sasikala. Credit: PTI

Chennai: In barely a week, the mood in Tamil Nadu has swung 180 degrees. As the political turmoil continues in the state, even legislators belonging to the opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) brim with something akin to righteous anger – that the T.T.V. Dhinakaran-led rebel group of the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) has been “backstabbed”, as one DMK MLA put it.

Since former chief minister J. Jayalalithaa’s demise in December 2016, Tamil Nadu has faced tumult. A party with a majority in the state assembly – 134 MLAs out of the 234-strong house – found itself splintered first into two factions and later into three.

Since February this year, it was former chief minister O. Panneerselvam (OPS) versus Jaya’s close aide V.K. Sasikala, with the former managing to get 11 MLAs and five MPs on his side in what he called a “dharmayuddham” (righteous war) to “save” the party. On February 14, Sasikala was jailed for four years in Bengaluru in a corruption case, placing her loyalist Edappadi Palanisamy (EPS) as chief minister and her nephew Dhinakaran as the party’s deputy general secretary.

By mid-August, it was clear that the rift was deeper. Chief minister EPS did a volte face, reaching out to the OPS camp, venturing halfway to meet their conditions for a merger of the party. OPS and team walked the remaining mile quickly, shaking hands and lapping up the deputy chief minister portfolio, along with a host of other ministries.

The EPS-OPS joint front is now facing a furious Dhinakaran team. “They are betrayers,” is a common refrain heard from the now-common voices from the Dhinakaran camp – Nanjil Sampath, Thanga Tamilselvan (the Andipatti MLA), Vetrivel (Perambur MLA) and Pugazhenthi (Bengaluru wing leader), amongst others.

And Tamil Nadu does not like backstabbers.

While the mood among the cadre of the 1.5-crore strong AIADMK was mostly anti-Sasikala immediately after Jayalalithaa’s demise, this has now been turned on its head. “I was backing OPS after our Amma (Jaya’s moniker) died, because I thought the family (the Sasikala family) should be kept out of the party. But now, I think it is OPS and EPS who have betrayed Amma and the party. They are dancing to the tunes of BJP. EPS was given the chief minister’s post by Sasikala and he has not remained loyal to her. How can we trust any of them now?” asked a party worker on condition of anonymity.

The move by OPS to join hands with EPS has led to a lot of heartburn and discontent amongst his silent supporters. Many now feel betrayed – “stuck between a leader (OPS) who acted for his own benefit and another leader (Dhinakaran) who we cannot go to.” So the largest party in the state now has a split right down the middle, with sympathies increasingly moving to the side of the “betrayed” Dhinakaran camp.

The numbers game

The EPS-led government simply cannot afford to head into a vote of confidence in the house at present. Dhinakaran currently has 22 MLAs who are openly in support of him. The opposition DMK-Congress-Indian Union Muslim League combine has a total of 98 seats (89+8+1). Of the 234-member house, two votes are absent – one, the R.K. Nagar seat which lies vacant following Jaya’s demise and the other of DMK chief M. Karunanidhi who is unable to vote due to ill health.

This leaves 232 seats, with the halfway mark at 116. In the case of a vote of confidence, the EPS-OPS camp need 117 seats to retain power. If the Dhinakaran camp votes against the government along with the opposition, the tally against EPS comes to 119 – four votes short of a crucial majority.

Apart from the legislators openly in support of Dhinakaran, a number of them have remained silent, preferring to adopt a wait and watch position to see how the drama unfolds. Significantly, at least 20 MLAs, who are supposed to be in the EPS-OPS camp, did not attend a meeting called by the chief minister at the party headquarters in Chennai on Monday. The meeting resulted in four resolutions –

(a) That the instructions, postings and statements issued by Dhinakaran are invalid,

(b) That legal measures would be taken to “retrieve” party organs Jaya TV and the Namadhu MGR newspaper,

(c) That the general council of the AIADMK would be convened and

(d) To safeguard the party and government formed by late chief minister and AIADMK founder MGR. and his successor Jayalalithaa.

When questioned about the absentee MLAs, AIADMK Rajya Sabha MP R. Vaithilingam told reporters, “There were about 115 MLAs present. Nothing is wrong.”

The Dhinakaran camp hit back with Tamilselvan leading the charge. “How can they take over Jaya TV and Namadhu MGR.? It is a private firm, not a government firm. If they say that the appointments of Sasikala are invalid since her post as interim general secretary is not recognised by the Election Commission (EC), then the appointments of EPS as chief minister, K.A. Sengottaiyan (as school education minister) and Dindigul Srinivasan as treasurer (of the party) are all invalid?” he asked at a press conference in Puducherry.

Jaya TV, meanwhile, was blacked out of the government-run Arasu Cable in most parts of the state. The channel is owned by Sasikala and her sister in law Ilavarasi. Responding to this move by the EPS-led government as well as the resolution passed by them, managing director of Jaya TV, Vivek Jayaraman, Ilavarasi’s son, issued an official statement in Tamil condemning both. “We have no reason to fear anyone. If false cases are foisted on us, we and our staff will battle it legally. In the words of the late Amma, as they say “baptism by fire” in English, Jaya TV’s birth itself was from fire. Jaya TV is battling against political enemies, trouble from the Centre, abuse of power, enemies from within and without and swimming against the tide. This is the only answer I would like to give everyone today.”

Modi-Shah flummoxed?

Tamil Nadu never was and never will be easy pickings for the BJP, at least in the foreseeable future. The party is weak at best and flailing at worst in the state. Insiders reveal that it was the prime minister and his second in command, BJP president and MP Amit Shah, who managed to push the EPS and OPS camps into an uneasy truce. The mission was to ensure no more centres of power, at least in the AIADMK, post Jayalalithaa’s death. That meant that Sasikala and her men had to be broken up.

Curiously though, the plan does not seem to have panned out quite as expected. Sasikala and Dhinakaran’s army is by no means small. While Sasikala may not be the charismatic Amma that Jayalalithaa was, she has earned enough goodwill within the party since 2012, when she practically dictated the appointments of key office bearers in the party. That she is still powerful despite being lodged in jail, is evident by the fact that no one in the EPS camp dares speak out against her either at press conferences or in resolutions. The attack is purely on Dhinakaran.

The AIADMK though, has tied itself up in knots. In late March, the two-leaves symbol of the AIADMK was frozen as the OPS faction moved the EC ahead of the R.K. Nagar bypoll, asking for the symbol to be allotted to it. The Sasikala camp, which included EPS and other ministers at the time, staked their claim to the symbol. The EC has heard both sides and is yet to arrive at a verdict. On Tuesday, leaders of the EPS camp are expected to head to Delhi to withdraw their affidavits in support of Sasikala from the EC.

“Once they do that, the commission has to give us the two-leaves symbol,” said a senior leader of the OPS team who did not wish to be named. “After that we are the real AIADMK.”

And what if a confidence vote is called for? “There will be no vote. In any case they have been saying they will not vote against the government. If they do, then the Anti-Defection law will come into effect and they will be disqualified. No MLA will want to risk losing power for four years,” said the senior leader.

But despite the best laid plans of the EPS and OPS camps, the blowback is stronger than expected. And this, according to Dhinakaran’s supporters, is only the beginning. “We have at least 50 sleeper cells,” said Tamilselvan who is a key Dhinakaran supporter.

Betrayal in Tamil Nadu is neither forgiven nor forgotten. A perceived betrayal by Karunanidhi created the phenomenon of MGR. Another perceived betrayal by Karunanidhi created Vaiko. A perceived betrayal by Jayalalithaa lost her Thirunavukkarasu who is now head of the state Congress unit. Another betrayal by Jayalalithaa in 1998 lost her the trust of the BJP and the RSS forever.

Betrayal and backstabbing is emotional in Tamil Nadu. It binds the wounded together. And in the case of the BJP, the very force they appear to be attempting to crush is gathering more strength as a result. Sasikala may be in jail for the next four years and Dhinakaran may seemingly have only a small fraction of MLAs on his side and what will happen next is anybody’s guess. But one thing is for sure – these two cannot be written off from Tamil politics for a long time to come.

Timeline of events

December 05, 2016: Chief minister and AIADMK supremo Jayalalithaa passes away in Apollo Hospital, Chennai

December 06, 2016: At a post midnight swearing in ceremony, OPS sworn in as chief minister

December 31, 2016: Sasikala is voted by the general body of the AIADMK as the interim general secretary of the party, with OPS proposing the motion

February 05: OPS resigns as chief minister

February 08OPS meditates for 40 minutes at Jayalalithaa’s memorial at Marina Beach in Chennai and announces a split from the party

February 10: Sasikala stakes claim with governor-in-charge C. Vidyasagar Rao to form the government, the governor remains silent

February 14Sasikala’s acquittal in the Bengaluru high court dismissed, she is sentenced to four years in jail

February 15After taking an oath at Jayalalithaa’s memorial, Sasikala is incarcerated at Parappana Agrahara jail in Bengaluru

February 18: EPS wins floor test in the Tamil Nadu assembly

March 22Election commission freezes two-leaves symbol of AIADMK as both OPS and Sasikala factions demand it

April 10: EC cancels R.K. Nagar bypoll, scheduled for April 12, citing rampant voter bribing

April 17: Alleged conman Sukesh Chandrasekhar arrested in Delhi for allegedly striking a deal worth Rs 50 crore with Dhinakaran to bribe EC officials for the two-leaves symbol; EPS and other ministers begin to distance themselves from Dhinakaran in the face of his impending arrest

April 25: Dhinakaran arrested in the case of alleged attempt to bribe EC officials, lodged in Tihar jail

June 01Dhinakaran granted bail by Tis Hazari court in Delhi

August 21: EPS and OPS camps come together in a merger, OPS becomes deputy chief minister and gets a host of other portfolios, K. Pandiarajan of OPS camp becomes minister for Tamil culture

August 22: 19 MLAs loyal to Dhinakaran head to Windflower Resort in Puducherry after submitting a memorandum to the governor stating that they had lost faith in CM EPS, although not in the government. They demand a change of chief minister

August 28: A meeting of the EPS-OPS camp MLAs and MPs is called for by the chief minister and four resolutions are passed.

  • ashok759

    Sooner, rather than later, a floor test will have to be held.