Autumn for Two Leaves? Palaniswami Faces an Uphill Task of Keeping AIADMK Flock Together

·7-min read

During the Lok Sabha elections of 1999, my journalist friends and I on the campaign beat had stopped at a little town close to former Union Minister P. Chidambaram’s Sivaganga constituency, to let the driver catch a breath and grab tea from the roadside shop, and to pick a few straws in the wind. A young woman outside her tiled house offered us a sembu (a small round vessel) of water, and as we stretched our feet on the thinnai (a raised platform outside the house for sitting/sleeping) told us in an emphatic tone it would be the ‘two-leaves’ symbol of MGR all the way. But then, the ‘two-leaves’ had no candidate for Sivaganga, we reminded her. The AIADMK had given the seat to its ally, the Congress, whose Sudarsana Natchiappan was taking on P. Chidambaram of the Congress’ splinter group, the Tamil Maanila Congress, and the BJP’s H. Raja. It did not matter who the candidate was and which party he belonged to, as long as he had MGR’s approval, he would get their votes, she shot back.

But then, M.G. Ramachandran or MGR had died in 1987, one of us egged her on. She looked into the house and pointed to an elderly man resting on an easy chair in the courtyard. ‘Go in and tell him MGR is no more, if you have the guts,’ I recall her telling us. And when one of us went up to the man and asked him why people still voted for MGR’s party long after his death, he exploded in anger. MGR was very much there and we journalists were spreading lies, he yelled us out, insisting that the two-leaves (the AIADMK symbol) would always rule the people’s hearts.

The MGR magic continued to hold sway over the people of Tamil Nadu, particularly in the rural areas, as the hero was deified as an embodiment of compassion and honesty—as in his do-gooder roles in movies where he fought the wealthy evil villain to save the poor people—so much so that his branding of friend-turned-foe M. Karunanidhi heading the rival DMK as the ‘theeya-sakthi’ (evil force) stuck to the poor man like an obstinate glue despite his better administrative skills.

As it turned out, Chidambaram ended up third in the 1999 polls. The winner, of course, was Natchiappan with H. Raja as the runner-up, reiterating the political truth that MGR’s magic with the masses had continued with his protégé J. Jayalalithaa, who had further expanded the public support for the party and its ‘two-leaves’. At one point, she had claimed that the AIADMK cadre strength was 1.5 crore (Tamil Nadu’s total electorate is 6.26 crore as of January 2021) and her party would remain invincible forever and voters would never accept the ‘theeya-sakthi’. But then, in a party that was driven by personality cult and lacked principled cadre-base, as seen in the DMK, her death in December 2016 caused a sharp drop in those numbers.

Keeping the House in Order

By the end of the thrice-extended membership drive in June 2018, then Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami, aka EPS, looked distraught admitting there were only 1.10 crore members in the AIADMK. He vowed to take the score beyond 1.50 crore in six months, but the downslide continued thanks to the infighting—deputy CM and party coordinator O. Panneerselvam, aka OPS, would not cease sulking—and the looming threat of Jayalalithaa’s friend Sasikala Natarajan staking claim to the leadership at the end of her four-year jail term in the Disproportionate Assets case.

Sasikala came out of prison in January this year and contrary to expectations, withdrew quietly into her new house, arranged adjacent to a niece’s place in Chennai’s T. Nagar. It is now an open secret that her post-release political ambitions were reined in by Delhi to ensure EPS did not suffer a split in the AIADMK votes. Although she issued a statement saying she was not interested in politics and would lay no stake to the AIADMK leadership, the AMMK party under her nephew TTV Dhinakaran did put up candidates and would have taken away considerable AIADMK votes in the southern districts where the Mukkulathor community (to which Dhinakaran belongs) is strong.

True, EPS now has bettered the loser’s score of 61 under Jayalalithaa (2006) by five seats (AIADMK’s current seat tally stands at 66), but that’s way below the 135 she had won when storming back to power for a second consecutive term in 2016. He has also managed to put up a good show in his Kongu belt in northwest Tamil Nadu even as OPS barely managed to win his own seat down south. While consolidating his leadership position in the party, Palaniswami must now focus his politics on the increasingly difficult task of keeping the house intact as the DMK’s ‘Rising Sun’ (party’s symbol) has risen over Fort St. George.

An Autumn for AIADMK?

MGR had a magnetic charm over the masses that not only ensured support for his rebellion against Karunanidhi, eventually leading to quitting the DMK and launching his own AIADMK, but helped him remain undefeated till death (December 1987). Jayalalithaa had charm and guts to not just preside over her partymen with an iron hand but also win election after election.

EPS has neither that sort of charm nor the grit to weather any impending storm. If he maneuvered the post-Jayalalithaa phase well, for himself and the party, that was because the AIADMK was in power and he could ‘manage’ the ministers and other lieutenants ‘to the best of their satisfaction’. However, since those ‘perks’ of office are no longer available to them, there could be a mass migration to ‘greener pastures and safer homes’.

Chief Minister M. K. Stalin could unleash the government law agencies to probe corruption in the EPS regime as that most certainly will cause cracks in the AIADMK and significant erosion in the archrival’s ranks—which will ultimately help his son Udhayanidhi, the DMK’s heir-apparent. And don’t forget the swashbuckling movie hero Vijay, an expert in waltzing duets in the woods; he too could pick some of those fallen ‘two-leaves’ from the AIADMK’s autumn to prepare his political plot.

If and when some of the AIADMK heavyweights seek his shelter, Stalin is naturally expected to be choosy. That he has given ministerial berths to a few ex-ministers of MGR-Jayalalithaa who crossed over to the DMK and served the party well over the years—S. Muthusamy, KKSSR Ramachandran, Raja Kannappan, Senthil Balaji and Anitha Radhakrishnan—will not go unnoticed.

But Stalin will have stiff competition from the BJP in this ‘hunt’ for good political meat from the AIADMK. The saffron party has a negligible cadre base in Tamil Nadu and continues to have less than three per cent vote share. It would do its best to woo the unsettled AIADMK members, nurtured by their leaders MGR and Jayalalithaa through a socio-political culture that’s most allied to the BJP in the tough Dravidian political turf, as these men and women would come as ‘readymade’ army to help the BJP realise its Tamil Nadu 2026 mission.

Some say the BJP will get Sasikala-TTV led AMMK to merge with the AIADMK and strengthen the anti-DMK opposition, but that somehow does not make political sense. Why would the BJP repeat the ‘mistake’ committed by then Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, when he backed Jayalalithaa in the succession war between her and MGR’s widow Janaki, and quickly lost control of the AIADMK leadership? After becoming the CM in 1991, Jayalalithaa claimed in the Assembly that her poll victory was her own hard-fought achievement and had nothing to do with the sympathy wave post-Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination.

The author is a senior journalist. Views expressed are personal.

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