For Palaniswami, it will be a crown of thorns
by Sandhya Jain on 21 Feb 2017 11 Comments

Jayalalithaa loomed so large in the psyche of her supporters that she was destined to be the irreplaceable leader; hence unfolding events in Tamil Nadu are not surprising. A fierce power struggle which can tear the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) apart has begun, and the controversial vote of confidence for Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami is only the first battle. The new regime is safe from challenge for the next six months, but the animosity between the AIADMK camps hints at a difficult road ahead.


Unlike M.G. Ramachandran, who had made her the party propaganda secretary (the ‘successor’ post), the late Tamil Nadu Chief Minister did not designate a political heir, but did indicate that O Panneerselvam enjoyed her complete trust. Twice appointed Chief Minister in her lifetime, he was the natural choice to be entrusted with her portfolios during her last and fatal illness.


Although Panneerselvam was unanimously elected Chief Minister in Jayalalithaa’s final hour, and the Centre (via Union Minister M. Venkaiah Naidu) had expressed interest in continuity and stability, the challenge from V.K. Sasikala was inevitable. As many MLAs owed their tickets to her influence, calibrating their defection was easy.


Yet it was Sasikala’s haste to monopolise power in the party and government that triggered her fall. Perhaps she did not expect the Supreme Court to indict Jayalalithaa after her demise, and hoped to be exonerated as well. Perhaps she thought she would be entitled to better facilities in jail if arrested as a sitting Chief Minister. Or perhaps her husband, M. Natarajan, believed to be the brain behind her, was in a hurry to consolidate his power. Certainly Natarajan and his family - exiled by Jayalalithaa in her lifetime - lost no time taking centre-stage at her funeral.


That the confidence vote had to be postponed twice on Saturday morning hints at the rough journey ahead. It was only after two adjournments, eviction of the DMK members and walkout by the Congress and Indian Union Muslim League, that Speaker Dhanapal declared Palaniswami as having won with 122 votes for and 11 against. The media was denied access throughout, even the audio feed was cut off, and the proceedings rushed through.


This is a poor beginning and reveals the fragility of the regime. The united anti-AIADMK camp includes DMK 98, Congress 8 and IUML 1 (total 107). If we add 11 MLAs of the Panneerselvam camp and Arun Kumar (AIADMK, Coimbatore North) who abstained, then Palaniswami has a slender majority of three. This could easily change when the MLAs (who were kept in a private resort with security provided by the Sasikala camp, and herded to the Assembly in small batches under private security cover) return to their constituencies and receive public feedback.


Intra-fighting could take a toll on governance. The Panneerselvam camp has challenged the legality of Sasikala taking over as AIADMK interim general secretary before the Election Commission, as the party constitution stipulates that no one can hold any party office without an unbroken membership for five years. Undaunted, Sasikala appointed her nephew, T.T.V. Dinakaran, as acting deputy general secretary before leaving for Bengaluru to surrender; he had been expelled by Jayalalithaa in 2011. Now, amidst mutual recriminations, both sides have expelled each other’s leaders from the party.


But the more momentous development is Sasikala’s decision to accord primacy to the powerful Gounder community as opposed to the hitherto preeminent Thevars. Both Sasikala and Panneerselvam belong to different sub-castes of the Thevar community; their quarrel has split the group. The rise of the Gounders under Palaniswami could fracture the AIADMK vote base, unless equity is assured to all vote-banks. The Gounder community, led by Lok Sabha deputy Speaker M. Thambidurai, had lobbied for more power after Jayalalithaa’s demise. The new presidium chairman, K.A. Sengottaiayan, also hails from this community, all of which is likely to create uneasiness in other groups.


Other prominent groups in the State include Vanniyar, Nadar and Vellalar (Mudaliar, Pillai). While both Dravidian parties have support across castes, the Thevar and Gounder have mainly voted for the AIADMK, the Nadar for the DMK, while Vanniyar are divided among smaller caste parties and the DMK. Now, with Jayalalithaa gone and Karunanidhi seriously ill, both Dravidian parties may be in meltdown mode. As DMK has a clear leader in Stalin, it is keen to precipitate a mid-term poll to encash the growing disarray in the AIADMK. Among national parties, the Congress seems on firmer ground due to its alliance with the DMK. However, the caste-based parties could also make some gains.


Palaniswami has a hard task ahead. He has to win public trust and legitimacy through governance. Public confidence in his mentor, Sasikala, is low and had she managed to be sworn-in as Chief Minister and stood for elections from RK Nagar (Jayalalithaa’s constituency), it would have been an uphill battle.


The public reaction to the swearing-in of the new government in Chennai can be gauged from the fact that the MLAs were booed as they emerged from the resort to visit Raj Bhavan on Thursday, 16 February. It remains to be seen how people will accept being governed by a puppet Chief Minister controlled from jail by Sasikala, and her proxies.


There are other complications. Palaniswami has reportedly been mentioned as a partner in crime in an affidavit filed by investigating agencies in a case concerning raids in the residences and business establishments of Shekhar Reddy and Chandrakant Ramalingam, across three cities. Reddy and Ramalingam are PWD contractors, and when two top bureaucrats were arrested in Bangalore on charges related to road projects, the nexus between the contractors and Palaniswami reportedly came to light.


The new government is also tainted by a case of kidnapping filed against Sasikala and Palaniswami by S.S. Saravanan, MLA of Madurai South, who had managed to escape from the Golden Bay resort where the MLAs were segregated prior to the swearing-in of the new Chief Minister.


As the new government tackles the agrarian crisis amidst the worst drought in a century, Panneerselvam can bask in the successful handling of the Jallikattu issue. He is also free to tour the State and muster public support against V.K. Sasikala and her family rule. The by-elections to RK Nagar constituency may give some indication of the public disposition. 

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