Exactly a year ago, on the night of February 7, it was like a bolt from the blue when the then ‘outgoing Tamil Nadu Chief Minister’, O. Panneerselvam, visited the Jayalalithaa mausoleum on the Marina in Chennai, ‘meditated’ for 40 minutes, and came out against V.K. Sasikala, considered to be his benefactor till then, with all guns blazing.
Mr. Panneerselvam, who earlier resigned from his post after attending a meeting of the party legislators to elect Sasikala as the new leader, made a dramatic statement claiming he was “compelled to quit the post and humiliated.”
With that move, he outsmarted Sasikala momentarily. His rebellion and the Supreme Court’s verdict in the disproportionate assets case prevented her from becoming the chief minister. Sections of the media and supporters even hailed Mr. Panneerselvam as a “people’s leader” and a “true successor of Amma [Jayalalithaa].” For the next four or five days, a large number of visitors made a beeline to his residence to meet the “man of the moment.”
But in politics, numbers alone matter. To succeed, a rebel leader should enjoy the confidence of a substantial number of MLAs, if not Members of Parliament (MPs) and members of the general council of the parent party. Mr. Panneerselvam, whose popularity overshadowed all others’ in the party a year ago, was, however, short of numbers. He could muster the support of only a dozen MLAs besides a few MPs and district secretaries, while the predominant section of the party was behind Sasikala.
Eventually, some months later, he had to compromise and accept the number two position in the Cabinet headed by Edappadi K. Palaniswami and remain contended with the isolation of the Sasikala family.
“He is not leadership material. That is why he has not been able to sustain himself,” says Dalit Ezhilmalai, former Union Minister who calls himself a “cadre” of the AIADMK.
But, a Minister, who has all along been a part of the Edappadi camp, feels that it was the reach of the “high pitch campaign” launched by Mr. Panneerselvam against “the dominance of Sasikala and her family” that convinced the Chief Minister and others to go in for a “merger.” There is also a widely held perception that the BJP played a major role in bringing the two factions together.
“Over the months, we have drawn closer to each other. It is bound only to grow in future,” says J.C.D. Prabhakar, a former MLA who represented the Villivakkam constituency.
Mr. Prabhakar, who was part of the Panneerselvam camp during the split, asserts that there can never be a “compromise” with the Sasikala family as the cadres and people alike are “pathologically averse” to any such move.
However, P. Vetrivel, one of the disqualified legislators owing allegiance to MLA and former AIADMK leader T.T.V. Dhinakaran, ridicules the slogan of “dharma yudham” raised by Mr. Panneerselvam and his followers a year ago. “By releasing a video footage in December, I had disproved his [Mr Panneerselvam’s] charge about the health of Amma [Jayalalithaa],” he says.
“They [Mr. Panneerselvam and Mr. Palaniswami] may be in power, but the party workers are with us. The people’s acceptance was evident in the victory of Mr. Dhinakaran in the R.K. Nagar by-election.”
For the time being, Mr. Panneerselvam appears to be playing second fiddle to Mr. Palaniswami in the government. Loyalists of the party are also confident that the “dual leadership” – an experiment in the 45-year-old party which, till Jayalalithaa’s death in December 2016, centred around either M. G. Ramachandran or Jayalalithaa – will stabilise in due course of time.