Guest Column

Decoding the political craft of Edappadi Palaniswami

By A Shankar

In the first week of November, ADMK’s Coordinator and Tamil Nadu deputy CM O Panneerselvam and Joint Coordinator and CM Edappadi Palaniswami announced that the General council of the party will be held on 24 November. 

Soon after the announcement, OPS left on an official trip to the USA along with his son and ADMK’s lone Lok Sabha MP O P Raveendranath.  Though this trip was termed as an official trip to attract investments into Tamil Nadu, coming so soon after Palaniswami’s American trip, it has been seen as an “I can do better than you” kind of competitive exercise. Some kind of political muscle-flexing to counter Palaniswami’s trip to Yankee-land. 

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Sample this. In October during his trip, EPS was conferred with a Honorary doctorate by the Dr MGR Deemed University. OPS during his trip too was conferred with an awards with a pompous title that said `International Rising Star’ – `Golden Son of Tamil Nadu’ etc. This, party insiders feel, is to show that when it comes to the cabinet at home, OPS has as many American trophies as EPS. 

O Panneerselvam in the USA receiving an award

Though EPS and OPS merged their factions on paper in August 2017, with a forceful nudge from the BJP, the two groups were never one in letter and spirit and the fissures still exist. As part of the deal following prolonged negotiations, OPS was made Deputy Chief Minister with the heavyweight portfolios of Housing, Town Planning, Urban Development, CMDA along with Finance. He was also made the Coordinator of ADMK.  

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But that did not mean EPS took a backseat. Being a canny politician, he continued to assert himself and sidelined most of Panneerselvam’s supporters who ditched the party during his infamous “Dharma Yudham” in February 2017. ADMK leaders like PH Pandian, KP Munusamy, Dr Maithreyan, Manoj Pandian and several others who threw their weight behind OPS during Dharma Yudham are now on the fringes of the ADMK. Dr Maithreyan who was thrice nominated by the late Jayalalitha to the Rajya Sabha was not re-nominated. Instead EPS chose his loyalists A Mohammed John and N Chandrasekaran.   

Palaniswami in the USA

The impressive victory of the ADMK in the by-elections in Vikkiravandi and Nanguneri constituencies in October – seats that were earlier held by the DMK and Congress respectively – helped assert Edappadi Palaniswami’s position as the only leader who can take the party to victory in 2021.   

That is a significant transition in reputation for Palaniswami who was considered as a stopgap arrangement when he was anointed CM by jail-bound VK Sasikala. But EPS has surprised most by proving to be a savvy politician by outmanoeuvring his opponents both within and outside the party. And he understands the grammar of politics. It was EPS who insisted on DMDK’s presence in the alliance because he valued their votes in the 22 constituencies where byelections were held along with the Lok Sabha elections this summer

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A person close to Palaniswami said, “His only aim is to retain his Chief Minister post. He is very keen on that. Who became MP was immaterial to him. He knew that assembly by-polls are more important to his government’s survival than the Lok Sabha elections. That is what he focused on. In most of the assembly constituencies which faced by-polls, the campaign by ADMK cadres was ‘you vote for anyone in Lok Sabha polls. But vote for two leaves in the assembly byelections’. This was the message by ADMK cadres when they distributed money”. 

Winning 9 out of the 22 assembly by-polls that were held in May 2019 helped stabilise the ADMK government. That put an end to  speculation that the EPS government would fall anytime. 

What has also helped EPS is that the hearing in the disqualification case of eleven ADMK MLAs is lying idle in the Supreme Court now for more than a year. A senior advocate who was in the legal team for the DMK said, “In spite of repeated mentioning by senior advocate Kapil Sibal, the matter was never listed by the SC registry. One of the judges who heard the case was Justice Sikri and he retired in March 2019.” 

Subsequently, the then CJI Ranjan Gogoi on 2 July 2019 said the case would be listed soon, according to a report in The Hindu. (read here) But the matter is yet to be listed.

The recounting in Radhapuram assembly constituency ordered by the Madras High Court had also been stayed by the Supreme Court on 4 October 2019. DMK candidate Appavu who lost to the ADMK candidate Inbadurai by a margin of just 49 votes had challenged the verdict.   The Madras HC ordered recounting of postal ballots and while the counting of votes was going on in Madras HC, the Supreme Court stayed publication of the result, which is being extended periodically. 

It in this political climate that the ADMK general council is to be held next Sunday. There is speculation within the ADMK circles that OPS will be stripped of his coordinator position in the party. The reason they cite is that Raveendranath is keen to get a cabinet berth and is mounting pressure on his father. Panneerselvam’s younger son, Jaya Pradheep Kumar is rooting for the post of President post of Periyakulam Municipality. If EPS has to agree to the two wishes, OPS would be asked to sacrifice something in return. 

But opinion is divided within the ADMK on whether any kind of turbulence is desirable ahead of the local body polls. 

“It is true that EPS wants to completely wrest control of the party. But just ahead of local body elections, any disturbance in the party leadership may prove counterproductive,” said a senior ADMK leader. 

There is another reason as well and this concerns Palaniswami’s other senior colleagues. EPS is also keeping an eye on Local Administration Minister SP Velumani and Power & Excise Minister Thangamani who have been trying to open separate channels in Delhi with the BJP leadership. This is something EPS doesn’t appreciate. He has made it clear to both ministers that any contact with the BJP leadership should be routed only through him. Wary that the duo could join hands with OPS, given Panneerselvam’s proximity to the BJP, EPS is not expected to do anything to upset the deputy CM for the moment. 

There is evidence to suggest EPS is not keen to irk OPS right now. According to sources, Velumani’s Local administration Ministry has sent a proposal to take away the planning approval powers from Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA) and delegate them to Chennai Corporation which comes under his Ministry. Approval for high-rise buildings in Chennai city is a cash cow and removing it from Panneerselvam’s control would reduce his clout. But the chief minister has neither rejected this proposal nor accepted it, keeping both Velumani and OPS on tenterhooks.

The immediate test for Palaniswami would come in the form of seat distribution in the local body polls. Of the 12000-odd local body posts, ADMK’s major ally Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) would demand a lion’s share in the northern districts where it has its roots. ADMK cadres who are waiting for an opportunity to contest in local body polls in these areas may sulk and even revolt. Another ally with a big brother attitude, the BJP is likely to seek three Mayor posts in corporations. That may prove tricky as EPS realised in the Lok Sabha polls that the BJP is a liability. Seats have to be allotted to DMDK too which considers itself as a big player in Tamil Nadu.  

The results of the local body elections may well decide whether Edappadi Palaniswami goes from strength to strength, positioning himself well for 2021 or remains a lameduck CM in the last year of the present term. 

(Shankar is a political commentator based in Chennai. He tweets at @Savukku. The views expressed in this guest column are solely those of the author)

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