Tamil Nadu

A survivor named Edappadi Palaniswami

In January 2017, at a conclave organised by a media group in Chennai, VK Sasikala, then newly crowned as the general secretary of the AIADMK was the chief guest. Much before she arrived, all the ministers and secretaries in the Tamil Nadu government had trooped into the venue. Among the first to take his seat was Edappadi Palaniswami, then the PWD minister in the O Panneerselvam cabinet.

“Will this arrangement of a dual power structure, with Sasikala as party chief and OPS as CM continue or will there be a change soon,” I had asked EPS, given that the whisper campaign to make Sasikala the CM had already started.

EPS flashed his toothy smile, with a mild shake of his head. 

“Everything Chinnamma (Mother’s younger sister, a reference to Sasikala) will decide,” he said in Tamil, pointing to the empty chair on the dais where Sasikala was to sit. 

A month later, the political dynamics in Tamil Nadu had changed dramatically. Following Panneerselvam’s revolt after moves to remove him as CM and Sasikala’s conviction in the Disproportionate Assets case, EPS was pitchforked into the top job. 

No one gave EPS much time. He was derided as a “timepass CM” by his detractors, who would not manage to stay on, in the face of Panneerselvam’s “dharmayuddham”, BJP’s aversion to him because he was Sasikala’s choice and TTV Dhinakaran’s opposition. But if there was an award instituted for the survivor in Tamil Nadu politics, EPS would be a frontrunner.

Nothing has shaken his position. Not AIADMK’s humiliating defeat to Dhinakaran in the RK Nagar byelection. Not the fact that his name also figured in the list of ministers who were allegedly to distribute money ahead of the election. Not even probes by agencies into dealings by people close to him. Not the court order nixing the 8-lane project from Salem to Chennai. Not Panneerselvam’s proximity to the BJP leadership. 

What makes EPS tick? The secret lies in his backyard. In 2016, the AIADMK won 41 of the 47 seats in western Tamil Nadu. EPS as the leader ofn this patch thus played a crucial part in Jayalalithaa’s triumphant return to power. EPS since February 2017 has ensured the west sticks by him to enable him to rule in Chennai in the east. 

Woven into this is the caste factor. EPS belongs to the Gounder community, dominant in western Tamil Nadu. The AIADMK thanks to the presence of leaders like Sasikala and OPS has always been dominated by the Thevars, populated more in south Tamil Nadu and the Gounders even though backing the party, have had to play second fiddle. Palaniswami’s ascent has given the Gounders a sense of power and pride. 

What has worked for EPS also is that he has kept the party together, managing to neutralise Dhinakaran’s so-called “sleeper cells” and attempts to break the AIADMK. He has bought peace with the Sasikala loyalists within the AIADMK, by constantly invoking Jayalalithaa, referring to his regime as “Amma’s government”. His decision after Karunanidhi’s demise not to allot land at the Marina for the burial site until the DMK withdraw cases objecting to Jayalalithaa’s memorial, won him admiration within the party. Plus his focus on developmental projects – roads, bridges, flyovers – have strengthened the narrative of a CM focused on performing in office.

“Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi are leaders of the past. The future political battle in Tamil Nadu will be fought between EPS and MK Stalin,” says Arun Krishnamurthy, political analyst and psephologist. 
Krishnamurthy points out that Palaniswami is focused on ensuring the NDA alliance does well. 

“EPS has given an ultimatum to district secretaries that they will be in political trouble should a NDA candidate, belonging to any alliance partner, lose in their districts. Which is why you see the AIADMK legislators and secretaries constantly campaigning with the BJP, PMK and DMDK candidates even when they are likely to lose. They are working hard on the ground,” says Krishnamurthy. 

But not everyone in Salem, Palaniswami’s home district, is taken in by the CM’s development template. 

“Yes, a road was constructed and we all have benefited from it. But why was it built? It was done so that the CM when he visited his home in Nedanchalai Nagar, a congested area in the heart of Salem, was not put to inconvenience. It was only for his easy access,” says Chandramohan, environmental activist based in Salem. 

Political analyst S Shankar says while it is true that the Gounder businessmen who have flourished with Palaniswami’s benevolence will rally behind the CM, the risk of the anti-Gounder vote consolidating against the AIADMK cannot be ruled out. 

Opinion is also divided over whether the caste affinity will trump the aversion to the BJP government at the Centre especially among the farmers and the entrepreneurial class. GST and demonetisation are issues in this part of Tamil Nadu, especially Tiruppur and Salem.  The impression one gets is that the pride of a fellow Gounder becoming CM would matter more in an assembly election than now when much of the electorate is clear that their approval or disapproval of Narendra Modi is the core issue.

“Many sago factories for which Salem is famous, have been adversely affected, the prices have fallen steeply,” says Shankar. In Tiruppur, N Elangovan, a steel trader points out that they have to bear the brunt of the customer annoyance when the GST burden is passed on to them.   

The farmers have been put off by the government’s attempts to acquire land for the 8-lane Chennai-Salem expressway. The Madras High court recently stayed the land acquisition. 

Then there is the Dhinakaran factor. Even though the Thevars are not a force to reckon with in this part of Tamil Nadu, Dhinakaran is still seen as an alternative to the existing AIADMK leadership. So those unhappy with the EPS-OPS combo, will veer towards Dhinakaran. 

This election has not been personally pleasant for EPS, with DMK chief MK Stalin calling him an “earthworm”. 

“I accept it as earthworm is useful to farmers and I am a friend of farmers,” said EPS. “But Stalin is a virus who deserves to be eradicated from politics just like pests are destroyed to save crops.”

Though Palaniswami’s critics predict that his political obituary will be written on 23 May, the sense one gets is that his future will be linked more to the results of the 22 assembly byelections than the Lok Sabha polls. Significantly, most of the bypolls are taking place in the southern and northern belt of Tamil Nadu. And given his political, financial and community muscle in the Kongu belt, it would be imprudent to write off EPS.

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