Tamil Nadu and its Dravidian politics are once again at the centrestage of national politics. What began as a battle for the legacy of Amma, the late J. Jayalalithaa, in early February, has now turned into open haggling for the Chief Minister’s chair at Fort St George, the seat of power in Chennai. This time the protagonists are ousted Chief Minister-turned-rebel-for-a-cause, O, Panneerselvam (OPS), who desisted from sitting in Jayalalithaa’s chair twice, when he got the opportunity to do so, and current Chief Minister and confidant of jailbird V.K. Sasikala till the other day, E. Palaniswamy (EPS). To add spice to the drama are Sasikala’s nephew and deputy general secretary of the undivided All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, T.T.V. Dinakaran, and two unidentified ministers in the Union Cabinet who are said to be pulling the strings of this puppet show being enacted in the political theatre of Chennai.
Things began to unfold in the state capital after a middleman, allegedly acting at the behest of Dinakaran to bribe certain Election Commission officials to obtain the “two leaves” symbol for his faction of the party, was held with Rs 1.5 crore from a posh hotel in New Delhi. Much before this EC, had scrapped the byelection in Jayalalithaa’s RK Nagar Assembly constituency, following revelations of Himalayan scale bribing of voters there.
Sasikala’s handpicked Chief Minister EPS and 19 of his ministers, who did not even raise a finger at the time of campaigning when money flowed like the waters of Koovum river and the subsequent scrapping of election in RK Nagar, suddenly woke up following the Delhi raid and decided to “delink” Sasikala and her family from the affairs of the party. Though EPS himself did not make any statement, his Finance Minister, D. Jayakumar was forthright when he told newspersons, “Sasikala’s family will be delinked from the party affairs. More than 1.5 crore of AIADMK cadre wish that the family of Dinakaran should be kept out.” It has been claimed that the majority of the 122 ruling party MLAs and ministers are in favour of keeping Sasikala and her family “out of power in the party”. But no one knows whether the rank and file of party workers, who, till the other day, were all for Chinnamma, favour a “Sasikala-mukt” AIADMK. Panneerselvam, who still has only 12 MLAs with him, soon joined issue saying the ouster of Dinakaran, and through him Sasikala, is just the first salvo in their “Dharam Yudh” against a family taking a stranglehold over the party. He offered wholehearted support to Palaniswamy for his efforts to clean the party stables of the “poisonous venom” spawned by the Mannargudi clan. However, insiders say that any compromise formula, if at all chalked out by OPS-EPS factions, will not be easy. For, while Panneerselvam is angling for nothing less than the Chief Minister’s job, Palaniswamy is bent upon holding on to it.
It had been smooth sailing for Sasikala and company in the immediate weeks following the demise of Jayalalithaa. She was named Chinnamma overnight, with hordes of followers still milling outside Jayalalithaa’s Poes Garden residence to have a glimpse of Sasikala, who continued to live there with her immediate family. Chief Minister Panneerselvam and his colleagues in the Cabinet made a daily beeline to get her darshan and nod for their decisions. For some time, she was the centre of power without holding any post in the party. Even when she wanted to become the general secretary of the party, there was not a murmur of dissent. But the moment Sasikala thought she could fit into Jayalalithaa’s shoes, things started going wrong. Her wanting to become the Chief Minister was her undoing.
If the glue that has held AIADMK together for years was Jayalalithaa, it is going to be power that will define the existence of the party in future. During the short duration of campaigning in RK Nagar, both OPS and EPS factions must have realised that the relevance of Amma will not hold for ever. That is why they clamoured so much for the election symbol of “two leaves”. It is a motif which has become etched in the minds of millions of Tamils, who used to rally behind their Amma. Imagine M. Karunanidhi’s Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam without its symbol of the “rising sun”. Even if one goes back to the visuals of Jayalalitha’s election campaigns, one can see that at the end of all meetings she used to raise her two fingers not as a sign of victory but to signify the “two leaves” of MGR. Now in the absence of Amma and without that symbol, AIADMK loses its identity. It is this very existential question that has prompted Panneerselvam and Palaniswamy to join hands. Sasikala and her Mannargudi Mafia were just a catalyst. But will that do for AIADMK to survive as one entity in coming years? Or will a lotus bloom between the two leaves?