Edappadi K. Palaniswami | Accidental leader, born politician

The former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, who rose to the top from the political uncertainty that followed Jayalalithaa’s death, has since won the loyalty of party colleagues, neutralised challengers and consolidated his grip over the AIADMK

Updated - April 24, 2023 11:52 am IST

Published - April 02, 2023 02:13 am IST

Edappadi K. Palaniswami. Illustration: R. Rajesh

Edappadi K. Palaniswami. Illustration: R. Rajesh

In politics, accidental leaders eventually fade away after hogging the limelight in the positions to which they were catapulted by circumstances or by their masters. Only a few manage to change the tide in their favour or outwit their political handlers.

Former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami belongs to that breed of politicians who emerge from relative obscurity and seize opportunities to checkmate opponents by making the right moves on the political chessboard. Starting off from the lower rung, he has taken over as general secretary of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), a party that had ruled the State for over 30 years. Ahead of the Lok Sabha election in 2024, this role puts him in the driver’s seat of an AIADMK-led alliance, which will likely include the Bharatiya Janata Party.

His rise was slow and steady for much of his political career, but accelerated in recent years by an element of impatience and an uncanny ability to ruthlessly neutralise opponents.

In 1989, at 35, he debuted in the Legislative Assembly with his leader Jayalalithaa, then heading a faction of the AIADMK after the death of party founder M.G. Ramachandran (MGR). The name of his constituency, “Edappadi”, got prefixed to his name. He served briefly in the Lok Sabha (1998-99), before joining Jayalalithaa’s Cabinet in 2011. Yet, Mr. Palaniswami largely remained an inconsequential political figure outside his native turf in western Tamil Nadu. There was nothing noteworthy about the performance of this jaggery trader-turned-politician in the Assembly or Parliament.

As a Minister holding the meatier portfolios of Highways and Public Works Department (PWD) and ranked within the top five in the Cabinet seniority order, he preferred to be reverent to Jayalalithaa. Till her death in December 2016, he remained out of media limelight as were most Cabinet colleagues. There were whispers in political corridors about him being one among Jayalalithaa’s kitchen cabinet members. In the party hierarchy, he was not prominent, though Jayalalithaa appointed him propaganda secretary, a post created by MGR for her in the early 1980s, and later an organising secretary.

Household name

It was only on Valentine’s Day in 2017, when he met Governor C. Vidyasagar Rao staking claim to form the government, that Mr. Palaniswami became a household name in Tamil Nadu. However, the only perception people had was that of Mr. Palaniswami being a protégé of V.K. Sasikala, an extra-constitutional authority and former close aide of Jayalalithaa. People cringed at visuals of him crawling and prostrating to seek her blessings. What no one guessed was that the rustic man, with a tinge of holy ash smeared on his forehead and a toothy smile that would become his trademark, had stooped to conquer.

The circumstances under which he emerged as Chief Minister-designate were tumultuous. Ms. Sasikala had planned to step into her “surrogate sister” Jayalalithaa’s role after getting O. Panneerselvam, hand-picked by her to be a “remote-controlled Chief Minister”, to resign. Misguided by some external handlers, he revolted. She faced another setback when the Supreme Court convicted her in a corruption case in which Jayalalithaa was the prime accused.

With a majority of the AIADMK legislators herded together in a backwater resort to prevent defections to the Panneerselvam camp, Mr. Palaniswami, regarded by Ms. Sasikala as a loyalist, made the right moves. With the backing of his Gounder community, which had a large bloc of MLAs, he opened up necessary resources to get more support. Given the precarious numbers in the Assembly, many believed Mr. Palaniswami may not last his tenure. But they were yet to see his survival instincts.

Before Ms. Sasikala headed to the Bengaluru prison, in an unexpected move, she appointed her nephew T.T.V. Dhinakaran, who had been expelled by Jayalalithaa, as the AIADMK deputy general secretary. The former MP decided to contest the bypoll in the Dr. Radhakrishnan Nagar constituency in Chennai, vacated by Jayalalithaa.

Mr. Palaniswami, a born politician, quickly sensed it will not be long before Mr. Dhinakaran came for his Chief Ministerial seat. Cognisant that he was no mass leader, he did what it took to earn the confidence of his Cabinet colleagues and legislators. He presented them with a choice — be subservient to the Sasikala family and survive on their benevolence; or stand by his side and enjoy the fruits of power. The Sasikala family was soon isolated. Thereafter, Mr. Palaniswami quelled a rebellion from 19 legislators supporting Mr. Dhinakaran, by extending an olive branch to Mr. Panneerselvam and his 10 MLAs to save the government. The AIADMK migrated to a dual leadership with Mr. Panneerselvam and Mr. Palaniswami enjoying equal powers as coordinator and joint coordinator.

Mr. Panneerselvam, a three-time former Chief Minister, appeared content with his rehabilitation as Deputy Chief Minister in the Cabinet. But Mr. Palaniswami was quietly doing everything to keep legislators and party functionaries happy and consolidating his hold on the party. This helped him foil Mr. Panneerselvam’s bid to be the party’s Chief Ministerial face in 2021.

Blessing in disguise

As an administrator, he was initially seen as weak and doing the bidding of the Narendra Modi government at the Centre. This partly led to the AIADMK alliance’s crushing defeat in the 2019 Lok Sabha election. When the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, he appeared clueless, calling it only a “rich man’s disease”. However, the same pandemic proved a blessing in disguise for Mr. Palaniswami to stabilise his administrative position. After grasping the situation, he toured Tamil Nadu overseeing measures to contain the spread of the infection. He began to confidently handle questions from journalists, taking him closer to the people who watched him on news channels. Over time, he would address meetings without speech notes.

Eventually, Mr. Palaniswami managed to give the DMK-led front a tough fight and his alliance won 75 seats – many from western Tamil Nadu – in the 234-member House. But he grew wary of the AIADMK’s dual leadership. Mr. Panneerselvam, who had fewer supporters in the party’s general council, was using his co-signatory powers to extract disproportionate benefits in matters of election ticket distribution. So, last July, Mr. Palaniswami sprang a surprise on Mr. Panneerselvam by getting his supporters to push for migrating to a unitary leadership. It was a political fight, which a miserably outnumbered Panneerselvam converted into a legal fight. It led to Mr. Panneerselvam and his supporters being expelled. With a single judge of the Madras High Court clearing the decks, Mr. Palaniswami has taken over as the general secretary, earning the acknowledgement of alliance party leaders. Mr. Panneerselvam has gone to appeal before a Division Bench.

There is little doubt that Mr. Palaniswami would have the last laugh in this matter. However, the challenge has just begun for him. His performance as the Leader of Opposition has been lacklustre. To survive in the long term, he would have to proactively take on the ruling DMK and win battles on the electoral front. The Lok Sabha polls are just a year away and he has to deliver to keep the flock together.

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