Two leaves, one leader, and a party reborn

‘The rise of Mr. Palaniswami has largely been a bloodless coup’

‘The rise of Mr. Palaniswami has largely been a bloodless coup’ | Photo Credit: PTI

With the consolidation of political power in the hands of Edappadi K. Palaniswami, former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, who has been elected as interim General Secretary of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), a complex process of paradigmatic transition in Dravidian politics is more or less complete, and a new era is set to begin in earnest.

It was clear that a profound change was coming, starting in late 2016, with the passing of former AIADMK chief Jayalalithaa. When the era of M. Karunanidhi, former President of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), also passed into the history books in late 2018, there was little doubt that the 50-year Dravidian mobilisation project would cease to be dependent purely on the whims and fancies of strongman — and strong-woman — leaders. Now, performance in office and the delivery of good governance, policies that matter to the citizenry’s daily lives, matter more than ever before.

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To better understand the prognosis for this unique social movement, which has produced unprecedented socio-economic outcomes, including poverty alleviation, nutritional achievements, and pedagogical innovation in primary education, without ignoring the imperatives of economic growth and industrial development, it is worth considering why the balance of power in State politics has come to such a pass.

Centralisation of power

The recent meeting of the AIADMK General Council, which saw the apotheosis of Mr. Palaniswami and the reconfiguration of the top posts within the party structure, offers hints about the direction in which the leadership plans to steer the organisation in the years ahead. The ground was set for epochal transformation, first through the Council’s unanimous repeal of Rule 20, which had since its introduction in 2017 assured that Jayalalithaa would remain the “eternal General Secretary” of the party. The rescinding of this rule deals a double blow to the old ethos of the AIADMK.

On the one hand it implicitly acknowledges, more than five years after Jayalalithaa’s death, that she was not so much a god as much as her name — “Amma” — continues to be a politically useful rallying cry to mobilise women, the destitute, and other vulnerable groups, and minorities in the State; and the symbol of the party’s promise to deliver to them the mass welfare policies that have historically been the AIADMK’s wont.

On the other, and through the mechanism of the new Rule 20A, which sets out the qualifying criteria for the now-revived post of General Secretary in terms of minimum length of party membership and service in senior office-bearing capacities at the party’s Chennai headquarters, the latest changes ensure that only Mr. Palaniswami shall hold the reins of the AIADMK organisation, going forward.

Notwithstanding several incidents of violence in Chennai and some regions across the State linked to this reconfiguration of power within the AIADMK, the rise of Mr. Palaniswami has largely been a bloodless coup. Yet a democratic coup it was, for it brings to an abrupt end an unstable era of dual vectors of power within the party, an arrangement that was a necessary compromise to accommodate both Mr. Palaniswami and Mr. Panneerselvam at the apex of the State government and not throw away the electoral victory that Jayalalithaa had bestowed as a final act before her health declined.

New era, new rules

This brings us to the question of why the ecosystem that Mr. Palaniswami now finds himself in is different from the one that his predecessors enjoyed. During the nearly four years that the duumvirate held sway after Jayalalithaa’s demise, Mr. Palaniswami made a mark for himself from the Chief Ministerial seat, primarily by going beyond the long-standing impulse toward competitive populism in Tamil Nadu politics to support good governance. This meant ensuring that the State government delivered robustly on everything from crop insurance for farmers in drought-affected regions of Tamil Nadu and the second Global Investors Meet held in 2019, to procuring and distributing safety gear and managing critical goods supplies during a brutal first year of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Yet this apparent commitment to a high standard of performance in delivering substantive, pro-people, pro-growth policies was not so much a choice as it was a compulsion of the political environment. Given the sheer autocratic style of party administration of Jayalalithaa, who deliberately degraded multiple rungs of the green shoots of leadership beneath her, the likes of Mr. Palaniswami and Mr. Panneerselvam never stood a chance at wielding whole-party control that was essential to keep the flock together and prevent squabbling, factionalism, and dissent from causing deep fractures in the organisational structure, with potentially catastrophic consequences for the AIADMK’s grip on power.

It must also be said that for the best part of the half-century that M.G. Ramachandran, Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa ruled Tamil Nadu, grand corruption in high office was rampant, leading to party luminaries acquiring vast amounts of illicit private wealth. The people of Tamil Nadu, earlier resigned to the Faustian bargain of receiving mass welfare goods while allowing their masters to loot the public exchequer, have now woken up to a new reality, where they demand greater accountability from the government and reward strong performers.

In this new context, Mr. Palaniswami, has had to forge a consensus among various caste and regional leaders from across the State, which was built both on his power to persuade but also on shrewdness in distributing the largess of government and striking bargains toward maintaining stability of rule.

While it is a different matter that the AIADMK was ousted from power in the 2021 State Assembly election — an outcome that also reflects voter’s concerns about the party’s and Mr. Panneerselvam’s perceived closeness to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — what matters most in the present context for the party is that those years in government were Mr. Palaniswami’s opportunity to demonstrate his skill in the subtle art of political accommodation.

The proof of that pudding lies in the fact that now a majority of office-bearers and district secretaries within the party have placed their confidence in his ability to lead the AIADMK single-handedly into the future, taking on the mantle of main opposition in the State, and challenger to the DMK in the 2024 Lok Sabha election and the 2026 State Assembly election.

Back to competitive populism

However, a future of political glory is by no means assured for Mr. Palaniswami, and his talent as a broker of political arrangements will be tested to the limit, owing to several external threats to the AIADMK. First, Mr. Panneerselvam is bent on exhausting every legal avenue for appeal of the General Council’s actions and will leverage his influence with the BJP leadership to push hard on this count. Second, even if he runs out of legal options, Mr. Panneerselvam’s proximity to the BJP makes it impossible to rule out the use of raids by the Income Tax Department or Enforcement Directorate to destabilise the functioning of the AIADMK under Mr. Palaniswami. Third, it is possible that along with V.K. Sasikala, Jayalalithaa’s confidant, her nephew T.T.V. Dhinakaran, and his party, the Amma Makkal Munnettra Kazagam, Mr. Panneerselvam may seek to build a coalition to capture the vote of the Thevar caste that dominates some sections of the southern districts of Tamil Nadu, potentially eating into the vote share of the AIADMK.

Even if he survives these likely hurdles brought by Mr. Panneerselvam, Mr. Palaniswami’s final challenge will be to clarify to voters what ideology and policies the AIADMK stands for in the aftermath of Jayalalithaa — with the two-pronged objective of clearly delineating his party from the DMK and of taking a firmer line against Hindutva politics seeping into the chinks in the armour of Dravidian exceptionalism.

Whatever the details of the strategies Mr. Palaniswami adopts in this regard, one thing is clear — the politics of competitive populism will rise once again with each major Dravidian party headed by a single leader holding a mandate to steer the ship as they deem fit. In the process, even while it remains a challenge for Dravidian party leaders to effectively stem grand corruption in public office, it is likely that there will remain a broad focus on growth-spurring policies and mass welfare schemes for the poorest sections.


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Printable version | Jul 15, 2022 4:57:37 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/two-leaves-one-leader-and-a-party-reborn/article65640228.ece