Behind EPS's All-Out Assault On OPS: A Possible AIADMK Alliance With Congress And Nervousness Over Rise Of Annamalai-Led BJP

  • EPS, who undoubtedly enjoys the support of a huge chunk of party workers and office-bearers, booted out OPS and supporters from the AIADMK and decisively ended the dual-leadership structure.
  • Swarajya StaffWednesday, July 13, 2022 5:13 pm IST
    From left to right: EPS, OPS, and Annamalai
    From left to right: EPS, OPS, and Annamalai

    While the discord between two former chief ministers and All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) leaders, Edappadi K Palaniswami (EPS) and O Panneerselvam (OPS), has been lingering for a long time, the swiftness of recent developments comes as a surprise.

    EPS, who undoubtedly enjoys the support of a huge chunk of party workers and office-bearers, booted out OPS and supporters from the party and decisively ended the dual-leadership structure by getting himself elected as the party's interim general secretary.

    EPS and OPS have both moved the Madras High Court against the sealing of the party headquarters by the Tamil Nadu government following violent clashes that broke out between their supporters. A protracted dispute is now in the offing with the possibility of the party's famed two leaves being frozen.

    So what are the factors driving EPS to go for an all-out assault on OPS and take complete control of the party?

    Alliance With Congress?

    One theory explaining EPS's recent strike is that it is a precursor to a potential tie-up between AIADMK and Congress. The arrangement, if it materialises, will dramatically reshape the state's political landscape.

    AIADMK and Congress both see a tactical convergence of interests in striking an alliance.

    A real sense of apprehension prevails among the Congress leaders that Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) will discard the party in the run-up to the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, leaving it in the lurch with no options.

    Congress strategists fear that DMK will likely offer a measly seat deal to the party for the parliamentary elections. A section of the party believes that by proactively making overtures to AIADMK, it can fire a warning shot to the ruling DMK not to take it for granted.

    "Given that so many DMK ministers are under investigation by Enforcement Directorate (ED) over serious corruption charges, the party may tacitly buy peace with Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) by keeping Congress out of the alliance. While DMK-BJP electoral alliance is next to impossible, the party can adopt BJD or YSRCP model of 'strategic equidistance' which suits BJP well," a senior Congress leader in Tamil Nadu said.

    Few political analysts suggest that any unilateral breakup with Congress seen to be initiated by DMK may cause a significant dent in the stranglehold that United Progressive Alliance (UPA) enjoys over the religious minority vote bank in the state (unofficial estimates put it at close to 20 per cent).

    While Congress is seen as an electoral liability in the rest of India, Tamil Nadu and Kerala are two states where Rahul Gandhi enjoys considerable popularity, especially among Muslims and Christians.

    Despite some inherent dangers in throwing Congress out of the alliance, DMK could still conclude that a multipolar contest in 2024 parliamentary elections may help the party win a minimum of 30 Lok Sabha seats.

    DMK's plan to maximise its electoral haul is not too ambitious, given that its principal rival AIADMK is weakened with a poor presence in several urban pockets of Tamil Nadu and is facing a shrinking footprint in the state's southern districts.

    DMK leaders are also confident that they will stem any electoral damage by roping in Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) and convince its arch-rival Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) to remain within the fold. Several moves are already afoot by a group of 'Dravidian' ideologues to convince Ramadoss household and VCK leader Thol Thirumavalavan to bury the hatchet.

    While there was speculation that Congress high command is distinctly displeased with DMK for its overt glorification of Perarivalan, a convict in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case, who was recently released from prison, local Congress leaders do not see the issue as creating a flashpoint, more so since the top leadership of Congress is not too riled up about it.

    A senior leader of Congress, seen as close to DMK, claimed that Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi have no significant objection to the attempts to rehabilitate Perarivalan as long as it yields electoral dividends.

    Role Of An Election Strategist

    Another interesting dimension that consistently comes out in discussions with informed political observers is the role of Sunil Kanugolu, a former associate of election strategist Prashant Kishor. He is seen as a key player in the attempts to stitch together an alliance between Congress and AIADMK.

    A former management consultant who has so far shunned the limelight, Kanugolu is a seasoned poll strategist whose multiple electioneering contracts have seen him work with BJP, DMK, AIADMK, Akali Dal, among others. Kanugolu recently took primary membership of Congress and has been tasked by the party to help regain Karnataka.

    Kanugolu, who developed close ties with EPS in the run-up to the 2021 state assembly elections, when AIADMK contracted him to manage its campaign, is said to be working to convince the former chief minster to ditch BJP and forge an alliance with Congress. According to several sources, he also appears to have made significant headway in his attempts.

    Kanugolu, a Telugu-speaker who hails from Chennai, is said to enjoy proximity to Mithun, EPS's son, who is an influential behind-the-scenes operator. He has convinced them that AIADMK's best interests will be served by severing ties with the BJP.

    A good performance in Karnataka and brokering an alliance with AIADMK, especially when allies are leaving Congress in the lurch, will ensure Kanugolu's stock dramatically rising within Congress and could also decisively end the ongoing clamour by some senior party leaders to bring Kishor as a helmsman.

    The Rise And Rise Of Annamalai

    EPS is said to have concluded that alliance with BJP is highly detrimental to his party and ending it will help recover a chunk of its erstwhile voters (belonging to religious minority groups and those who despise the saffron ideology). As part of its attempt to shore up 'We too swear by Dravidian ideology', the party recently demanded that Dravidian movement ideologue E V Ramasamy Naicker (popularly known as Periyar) be accorded the Bharat Ratna.

    However, the immediate trigger for EPS's move is more likely to be rooted in the rise and rise of former IPS officer-turned-BJP leader, K Annamalai.

    While it remains to be seen if BJP can ever emerge as a viable electoral force in Tamil Nadu, what is increasingly evident in the last few months is that the party has indisputably emerged as the second ideological pole in the Tamil political landscape, challenging the dominant Dravidian-Periyarist narrative.

    The rise of the BJP as a visible political force in Tamil Nadu can be solely credited to Annamalai, the president of the party's local unit. A cult figure among a section of party supporters and nationalist constituency in Tamil Nadu, Annamalai has placed himself as a principal player in state politics by combining outstanding articulation on various issues and an agitational approach.

    An influential businessman, known to be close to both EPS and BJP top leadership, was even more forthright.

    "Despite all the public display of camaraderie, his jealousy of Annamalai currently is consuming EPS. He feels that he does not get the spotlight despite his stature as former CM and as someone who steered AIADMK through his tough phase. For all practical purposes, Annamalai is seen as occupying the role of opposition leader. EPS feels that DMK dominated media is playing a part in creating this impression," he observed.

    A senior journalist of a Tamil magazine, who was once close to AIADMK leadership, had this to say: "While it is true that EPS still retains the support of his resourceful community, he fears that this could evaporate quickly if the charismatic Annamalai continues to occupy the centre stage of opposition politics."

    He added that a lack of ideology and years in power makes it challenging for AIADMK to function as an effective opposition party. He pointed out even the late J Jayalalithaa always retreated to Poes Garden after any defeat and used to control the party by issuing diktats. He added that the party was hit by a lot of desertions when in opposition, especially of leaders.

    "She was, however, clever enough to time her mass meetings well just ahead of elections," he said

    Given that EPS has not achieved the political stature of either late M G Ramachandran or Jayalalithaa, it may be an even more tough act for him to keep the party intact when in opposition.

    While some observers see a parallel to political churn that occurred in the 90s in Karnataka when Lingayats rallied en masse behind B S Yediyurappa when BJP was seen to be in the ascendancy, many others rubbish this possibility saying that the national party is nowhere close to gaining that level of traction in Tamil Nadu.

    A senior pollster, who spoke to Swarajya, said that while Annamalai enjoys enormous goodwill in the Kongu belt of the state, EPS is still viewed by dominant communities in that region as their undisputed leader.

    BJP Central Leadership

    BJP central leadership itself appears to be conflicted on the time horizon for the expansion strategy in Tamil Nadu, even as the party is convinced of the ideological path it seeks to pursue in the state and leadership of Annamalai.

    The party is broadly confident that the way ahead in Tamil Nadu is by combining a localised Hindutva push, highlighting the 'infrastructure meets welfarism' model of the party, promoting its brand of 'positive' social justice and exposing the 'misdeeds' and 'nepotism' of what appears to be an already listless and distracted DMK government.

    While a section feels that an inorganic, rapid growth path should be attempted by aggressively wooing committed AIADMK voters and even luring second-level leaders, another section feels that the party should focus on social engineering in southern districts of Tamil Nadu by bringing together numerous, disparate smaller communities.

    According to internal party sources, Amit Shah is convinced that Tamil Nadu (like West Bengal) is a crucial ideological battleground state for the party, but a detailed blueprint has still not been worked out.

    However, the central and state leadership has done the groundwork to enable a full-scale electoral expansion. For instance, the party no longer relies on a narrow group of self-styled ideologues for the feedback loop that was seen as hampering its growth for years.

    Shah, known to gain deep understanding of a state's social dynamics and micro-economic undercurrents before embarking on election strategies, is said to be looking at various possible social engineering and outreach models.

    The extent of the party's effort and resources it can commit to expanding in Tamil Nadu will depend on the conclusion that the party leadership and, more importantly, Shah will come to.

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