If there was an award instituted for the most fascinating electoral contest in Tamil Nadu, it would go to Theni Lok Sabha constituency. The political theatre of this constituency is replete with all the ingredients of a Kollywood potboiler. There is a rags to riches story, the theme of loyalty, a mother figure, a falling apart between friends, a dramatic twist in the story, a son rise, revenge and action.
At the heart of the election are two of the favorite `sons’ of late chief minister Jayalalithaa. On one hand is O Panneerselvam, who was chosen by Jayalalithaa to stand in for her as Tamil Nadu CM on both occasions she had to step aside. His loyalty gene is so divine that he, like Bharat to Lord Ram, worked with her photograph by his side and never sat on her chair. Panneerselvam’s son, P Raveendranath Kumar is contesting the election from Theni.
Raveendranath is pitted against Thanga Tamilselvan of the Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam (AMMK), the party promoted by jailed VK Sasikala and her nephew TTV Dhinakaran. Tamilselvan got into Jayalalithaa’s good books when he vacated his Andipatti seat in 2001 when the AIADMK supremo expressed a desire to contest from the assembly seat represented by her mentor MG Ramachandran between 1984 and 1987.
Tamilselvan’s dislike for OPS is the worst-kept secret in AIADMK circles. After Jayalalithaa’s demise, he was among the first to ask OPS to step aside as chief minister to pave the way for Sasikala’s ascension to the chair. Subsequently, OPS staged the mother of all revolts, Sasikala went to jail in the Disproportionate Assets case, her supporters were shown the door from the AIADMK and the rest is history.
2019 is therefore time for revenge. And no one is more thirsty to show OPS his place than Tamilselvan’s political boss, Dhinakaran. For it was Dhinakaran who as MP from Periyakulam (it has now become Theni constituency after delimitation) in 1999 helped OPS rise up the political ladder and get into Jayalalithaa’s good books. OPS who started off as the owner of a tea shop, was Chairman of Periyakulam municipality between 1996 and 2001. Despite being a first-time MLA in 2001, he was chosen to become CM when Jayalalithaa was barred from holding office by the Supreme court. Dhinakaran and Sasikala reportedly had a hand in that decision.
Which is why two AIADMK candidates are on Dhinakaran’s radar are Raveendranath and Jayavardhan (son of Fisheries minister D Jayakumar) in south Chennai. Dhinakaran looks at Jayakumar too as a traitor to Sasikala. In poll symbol language, nothing would make Dhinakaran more happy than giving OPS a return gift. The `gift pack’ is the common symbol allotted to Dhinakaran’s candidates.
On the campaign trail in Theni, Dhinakaran who has not forgotten how OPS positioned himself as the man who will save Tamil Nadu from the Mannargudi clan.
“OPS rebelled against the AIADMK, saying the party was in the clutches of a family. Is his son getting election ticket not family politics,” asks Dhinakaran.
Into this contest involving two sons of the soil is an “outsider” to Theni, EVKS Elangovan of the Congress. But then it would be ironic to term the grandnephew of EV Ramasamy `Periyar’, the father of the Dravidian movement as an outsider in any part of Tamil Nadu. Politically speaking however, the Congress is largely dependent on DMK support to pull it past the finish line. Elangovan, known for his firebrand speeches, will also hope his victory will lie in the split of the traditional AIADMK vote between Raveendranath and Tamilselvan.
The caste narrative is woven into the contest. Through this southern belt of Tamil Nadu, Dhinakaran’s candidates are not just eating into the AIADMK votebank but also the Thevar community vote which for years has been the AIADMK political backbone.
In Theni however, the divide runs deeper. Though both OPS and Tamilselvan belong to the Mukkulathor community (also known as Thevars), OPS is from a sub-sect called Maravars while Tamilselvan is a Kallar. Theni has therefore become an intricate Maravar vs Kallar political battle as well.
Last year, Dhinakaran created a stir when he revealed that OPS had reached out to him in July 2017 asking his help to oust chief minister Edappadi Palaniswami. OPS did not deny meeting Dhinakaran but denied any plot against EPS and the AIADMK accused Dhinakaran of trying to create a controversy. The underlying theme was to paint OPS as an untrustworthy leader.
Theni has been in focus with both Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi touching down on the constituency, an indication of the importance they give to the contest. On Saturday morning when Modi was in Theni, it was an opportunity for OPS to demonstrate his closeness to Modi. Not a surprise because since his Dharmayuddham (holy war) revolt in February 2017, OPS has behaved like the BJP’s man in the AIADMK.
“End the dynastic rule of corrupt families,” said Modi at Theni. While his reference was obviously to the DMK and the Congress, the irony of saying it in Panneerselvam’s backyard was not lost on anyone. In July 2018, the Madras High court had ordered a probe into allegations against OPS of amassing wealth beyond his known sources of income.
Categories: Tamil Nadu