There is never a dull moment in Tamil Nadu politics. Drama is now unfolding in the opposition AIADMK that is witnessing a churn within — two of its top leaders pulling in opposite directions on the re-entry of VK Sasikala, a close aide of former chief minister J Jayalalithaa, into AIADMK.
Former Tamil Nadu chief minister Edapaddi Palaniswami and former deputy chief minister O Panneerselvam are positioning themselves on the opposite sides when it comes to allowing Sasikala back into the party fold, long after expelling her from the primary membership of the party.
Sasikala, widely perceived as the power behind the throne during the reign of Jayalalithaa, very nearly became the chief minister but conviction in the corruption case put paid to her dreams and she ended up as a prisoner serving out her four-year sentence in a Bengaluru jail in 2017.
Ever since her release from prison after serving out her sentence, Sasikala began moves to enter the political arena, though electoral space is barred for her due to her conviction. But she stepped aside on the eve of the 2021 general elections to Tamil Nadu Assembly elections but had vowed then to return to the party if it lost the elections.
After the drubbing, the AIADMK got in the Assembly elections and now in the local body polls, Sasikala swiftly moved in for the kill, so to speak, and anointed herself as the general secretary of AIADMK in a plaque that she unveiled at MGR Memorial on the Golden Jubilee celebrations of the party.
An act that drew sharp reaction from AIADMK — headed by Edapaddi Palaniswami and O Panneerselvam — and it also filed a case against her. Incidentally, the AIADMK had officially done away with the post of general secretary and instead now has a praesidium headed by two co-coordinators to run the party.
After the AIADMK officially put up a “House-Full” board and blocked Sasikala's entry into the party, fissures between the two top leaders have begun to appear. While Palaniwami declared that Sasikala was no longer in the party and dismissed her claim that she was the general secretary, his perpetual challenger within the party and his deputy Panneerselvam came out with a surprising remark that the party will take a view on Sasikala’s entry after a thorough discussion.
Incidentally, Panneerselvam’s only condition for the merger of his breakaway AIADMK faction with the party back then was that it must distance itself from Sasikala and her relatives.
n this context, his nuanced stance on Sasikala is something that analysts do not find surprising. For Panneerselvam, anything that gives him a chance to upstage his co-coordinator is good enough. His statement on Sasikala that the party would discuss if she could be allowed back has been welcomed by her nephew TTV Dhinakaran. More importantly, two senior AIADMK leaders — JCD Prabhakar and A Answar Raajhaa — supported the OPS stand, indicating a restless nervousness among the party leaders on the issue of Sasikala.
But officially, the AIADMK has warned its members to distance themselves from Sasikala and her ilk or face disciplinary action. All district units have passed unanimous resolutions to keep Sasikala out of the party and treat her as a closed chapter.
Given this scenario, will Sasikala be able to make a comeback to the party? It appears not only difficult but impossible at this stage unless Panneerselvam manages to convince others.
But, it is clear that Palaniswamy will not allow it, come what may. He and his supporters will even risk another split in the party, fully secure in the knowledge that it is the two leaves symbol that will help them politically. Moreover, in the Assembly elections, Palaniswami held his ground and won in the western belt and has also consolidated his hold over the party.
The big fight, in the eventuality of Sasikala’s entry, will be for the two leaves symbol that is firmly under the control of the two co-coordinators of the AIADMK. The EPS-OPS duo is authorised by the Election Commission and the law as the custodians of AIADMK.
After Sasikala was lodged in jail, Edapaddi consolidated his hold over the party and later he along with OPS expelled Sasikala and her relatives from all party positions and weeded out her supporters. Her nephew, TTV Dhinakaran, had to float his own party and failed miserably with less than two percent vote share.
Sasikala knows that her re-entry into politics has to be through AIADMK alone, and hence her forays and aggressive moves. “She can make aggressive moves, but the net result will be zero,” said a political analyst, adding: “There is no space for her in the current scheme of things in AIADMK. Today with the party firmly under the control of EPS and OPS, they will not listen even to MGR and Amma if they ask them to hand over the party to Sasikala.” But it remains to be seen if OPS gathers enough guts and forces a split in the party and if Palaniswami gives in.
The ongoing drama and infighting in the AIADMK can only help the ruling DMK, which has recently swept the local body polls too. Moreover, as the AIADMK gets busy fighting itself, the Opposition space is being slowly occupied by the BJP, which is increasingly visible as the only party challenging the government on every issue.
Clearly, the BJP has got its route chart right, and it remains to be seen as to how much the AIADMK will slip up and allow its alliance partner to grow — at its own expense.
The writer is a senior journalist tracking social, economic, and political changes across the country, especially Tamil Nadu. The views expressed are personal.