For more than 40 years since the Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (later All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam or AIADMK) defeated the DMK in the 1977 Assembly election, Tamil Nadu’s electoral politics has been a direct battle between these two major Dravidian parties.
The hopes and aspirations of every other political party, including the national parties—for long only the Congress and, since the late 1990s, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)—have been dependent on either of these parties and the alliances led by them.
In 1977, M.G. Ramachandran or MGR, who founded the AIADMK, swept the election, with the alliance led by his party winning 144 of the 234 seats in the State while the DMK won only 48. In the subsequent elections too, the AIADMK-led alliance posted landslide victories, winning 162 and 195 seats in 1980 and 1984, while the DMK-led alliance could only garner 69 and 34 seats respectively. The only consolation for the DMK was the 1980 Lok Sabha election, when it allied with the Congress and win 37 of the 39 seats in the State.
In 1989, with the AIADMK divided after MGR’s demise, the DMK-led alliance came to power with a brute majority, winning 150 seats. Even then, the second largest party was a faction of the divided AIADMK. Just two years down the line, the first AIADMK government under Jayalalithaa was formed in 1991 in the wake of the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, for which the DMK was held responsible without basis. It marked a clear break from the MGR era. But the fact remained that the fight was between the two major Dravidian political parties.
Also read: No room for a third front in Tamil Nadu
Despite attempts to alter the bipolarity of Tamil Nadu politics, the AIADMK and the DMK continued to hold away in the State. Two such significant attempts were the formation of Vaiko’s Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) in 1994 after he broke away from the DMK, and the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK) led by the actor Vijayakant in 2005.
By May 2021, when the term of the 15th Legislative Assembly ends, the AIADMK would have been in power in the State for seven terms (including one truncated term) and the DMK for three (including one truncated term). (The undivided DMK was in power for two terms—1967-71 and 1971-75).
In the post-Jayalalithaa scenario, there is no doubt that the 2021 Assembly election will be different and the status quo in Tamil Nadu is unlikely to continue. This is because the AIADMK is conflict-ridden since Jayalalithaa’s death in December 2016. There have been a series of events and changes at the top of the AIADMK hierarchy, which indicate that the party is no longer in control of its destiny.
For instance, the party’s leadership changed from senior AIADMK leader O. Panneerselvam to Sasikala (one-time aide and close confidante of Jayalalithaa) to Edappadi K. Palaniswami in a matter of just 10 days in February 2017. The party was further destabilised when Panneerselvam broke ranks to strike out on his own after Sasikala was jailed and Central agencies raided the offices and residences of top-ranking bureaucrats of the State.
Apart from this, the BJP kept a close watch on the AIADMK and pressured it into giving up most of the gains made by the Jayalailithaa regime, including exemption from the National Entrance Eligibility Test (NEET) for admission to courses in medicine and allied subjects.
At the time of Jayalalithaa’s death, Panneerselvam was the Chief Minister. However, on February 5, 2017, he stepped down abruptly citing personal reasons. Later, he said that he was forced to resign. The same day, Sasikala, who then lived in the AIADMK supremo’s Poes Garden residence in Chennai, was elected leader of the AIADMK Legislature Party. Three days later, Panneerselvam began a ‘dharma yuddham’ from Amma Memorial—the memorial to Jayalalithaa on Chennai’s Marina beach—to “reclaim Jayalalithaa’s legacy” and broke ranks with AIADMK, which had unanimously chosen Sasikala as its leader. He also sought a probe into the circumstances leading to the death of Jayalalithaa.
Also read: Jayalalithaa’s legacy
This was when things went out of control for the AIADMK party leadership. Within just 10 days, the Supreme Court sentenced Sasikala to a jail-term for four years in a case related to amassing assets disproportionate to her known sources of income, after a very long delayed hearing.
Panneerselvam’s “dharma yuddham” turned out to be an operation planned and executed by the Sangh Parivar through the chartered accountant S. Gurumurthy, who also associated with the Sangh-affiliated outfit called the Swadeshi Jagaran Manch.
Although Edappadi K. Palaniswami, installed by Sasikala as Chief Minister, survived a confidence motion in February 2017 (with 122 voting for him in a House where any party needs 118 for a win) and got the government in order, the damage was done: Sasikala was in prison and the AIADMK government, it appeared, was at the BJP’s mercy since it did not have the numbers for a clear majority if Panneerselvam’s faction did not support it.
Unprecedented scenes followed in Tamil Nadu, which time and again showed that the AIADMK government was at the mercy of the BJP-led Central government: A Union Minister (M. Venkaiah Naidu) conducted a review in the State Secretariat in June 2017, which would have been unthinkable had Jayalalithaa been alive, and the Income Tax department raided the office of the Chief Secretary in the Secretariat in December 2016.
Besides, the State government was forced to accede to much of the Centre’s demands, including filling up medical seats in Tamil Nadu via the NEET route in 2017. This followed a Supreme Court order, as the BJP has been quick to point out whenever criticism is directed at it.
There have been several such instances which indicate that the the BJP has virtually been managing the AIADMK in the State. The most telling instance was the Legislative Assembly Speaker’s disqualification of 18 MLAs owing allegiance to Sasikala’s nephew, T.T.V. Dinakaran, in September 2017. The disqualification was not overturned in a court of law even though it was not confined to the MLAs’ conduct on the floor of the House. On the other hand, a case relating to Panneerselvam and 11 MLAs voting against the AIADMK in February 2017, which should result in automatic disqualification under the anti-defection law, is yet to come to a conclusion at the Supreme Court.
Return of the rebel
Barely six months after leaving the AIADMK , Panneerselvam rejoined the party in August 2017 after the BJP brokered a compromise. It left Panneerselvam in charge of the party and Palaniswami in charge of the government. A weak AIADMK also allowed the BJP and Sangh Parivar outfits to grow in the State. A survey by a private agency in late 2020 said support for the BJP in the State had risen from 3 per cent to more than 6 per cent.
Part of the BJP’s process of taking control of the AIADMK involved pushing out those who were marked as potential dangers to its plan for Tamil Nadu. One such person was T.T.V. Dinakaran, Sasikala’s nephew. After Sasikala’s incarceration, he tried to unite the party, and declared that he would contest the R.K. Nagar seat vacated by the death of Jayalalithaa. The election scheduled for April 2017 was abruptly postponed in view of large-scale bribing of voters.
The same month, Dinakaran was remanded to custody in Delhi after he was charged with trying to bribe the Election Commission to get back the two leaves symbol of the AIADMK. (It was frozen at that time by the Election Commission on a complaint from Panneerselvam). The strange fact about this case is that even three years later, there is no identified bribe-taker.
Dinakaran was expelled from the AIADMK in August 2017, but he still decided to contest the postponed R.K. Nagar byelection in December 2017. He won the byelection by a handsome margin—a rare instance of an independent winning a byelection, especially in in Tamil Nadu. Although Dinakaran tried to make overtures to the BJP by his acts such as supporting the BJP’s candidate for President, the BJP did not reciprocate. In 2018, he launched a political party called the Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam but has since maintained a rather low profile, barring a brief period ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha election.
Also read: Deepening divide
An uneasy calm prevails ever since Panneerselvam became part of the Cabinet as the Deputy Chief Minister, despite Palaniswami proving to be a smooth operator. With guile, and by doling out favours, Palaniswami has won over several Panneerselvam supporters. Even the earliest supporters of Panneerselvam, such as K.P .Munusamy, Member of Parliament, P.H. Manoj Pandian, former MP, and State Minister ‘Ma Foi’ Pandiarajan, made peace with Palaniswami, while a few others, such as V. Maithreyan, a three-time MP, have been inactive.
With the BJP leadership being focused on the 2019 Lok Sabha election, Sasikala in prison, and Dinakaran largely silent, Palaniswami saw the opportunity and began a period of consolidation, aided by a few Ministers, including S.P. Velumani and P. Thangamani, who were given a free pass to consolidate their bases in their respective regions.
An AIADMK leader said that Palaniswami also took care to consolidate his base among his Gounder community in the western region of Tamil Nadu, adding that this was also his failing since he did not reach out to the other major caste groups such as Thevars to forge a viable coalition to push the party forward.
Meanwhile, the State BJP upped its ante by raising its old slogan “Kazhagangal illadha Thamizhagam” (a Tamil Nadu without the Kazhagams). The strategy appeared sound on paper: it argued that both the AIADMK and the DMK are corrupt and have been responsible for the State’s ‘regression’ and that the BJP was the alternative that should be voted into power to ensure better integration of the State with the rest of the country. However, the strategy has not paid any dividends but the party has not forsaken the idea.
The AIADMK’s governance has been among the worst that Tamil Nadu had seen, especially during 2017-18, and this has helped the BJP’s campaign. In early 2017, the police mercilessly thrashed pro-jallikattu protesters at Chennai’s Marina beach and other locations, despite the protests being staged peacefully.
In September 2017, a 17-year-old Dalit girl named S. Anitha, a medical aspirant and the State’s mascot in its fight against NEET, committed suicide, leading to Statewide anger against the Centre. Until September 2020, as many as 13 students had killed themselves, unable to handle the stress of preparing for NEET. Opposition parties hold the AIADMK and the BJP responsible for their deaths.
In May 2018, the police opened fire on a protest against the Sterlite copper smelter plant in the southern port town of Thoothukudi, leading to the death of 13 persons.
In 2017-18, the government announced its intention to construct an eight-lane highway to cut the travel time from Chennai to Salem, the Chief Minister’s home district, from six hours to three. Since this involves taking over nearly 3,000 hectares of land, farmers and landowners in the region concerned protested against the move. But the government persisted. Work on the highway was stalled by a Court stay, but that stay was vacated in 2020, and the government is now trying to speed up the process of land acquisition.
In early 2019, the State was rocked by what is known as the Pollachi rape case—-a racket in the west Tamil Nadu town in which girls were lured into sex, filmed and left in the lurch. In January 2021, the Central Bureau of Investigation, which was given responsibility of probing the case, arrested three AIADMK men, including the local student wing secretary, causing considerable embarrassment to the government.
Also read: Pollachi case: Sex and sleaze
The anger against the government on account of various issues was visible in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, when all but one AIADMK candidate lost the elections. The DMK candidates won by huge margins, indicating the people’s wrath.
Damage control by government
The only solace for the Palaniswami government was the AIADMK’s victory in nine of the 22 Assembly byelections, which ensured its stability for a full term. In this, the AIADMK saw an opportunity to hide its drubbing at the Lok Sabha election. With a pliant media and vast resources at its disposal, the party went on a campaign overdrive to push the message that people wanted the AIADMK to continue. It also helped when the DMK managed to win the postponed Vellore Lok Sabha election only by a slender margin of 8,000 plus votes. The election was held in August 2019 after huge amounts of unaccounted cash was seized allegedly from a DMK candidate’s office. Later in October 2019, the AIADMK won two more byelections, in Vikravandi and Nanguneri, giving the government more ammunition.
Despite the success in the byelections, the Palaniswami government was taken to task by non-governmental organisations and civil society representatives over several corruption charges. Even as these were peaking, the COVID-19 pandemic hit India, forcing a lull in the attacks. Although the State’s initial handling of the pandemic drew a lot of flak, it is generally acknowledged that the government managed to do a good job later on. The government stepped up its game with cash doles, rice and supply of other essential commodities for those with ration cards, and took steps to help the migrant workers who were walking from Tamil Nadu to their homes over 1,000 kilometres away.
In May 2020, Sunil Konelelu, a political strategist who had previously worked with the BJP and the DMK, took charge of the AIADMK campaign for the 2021 election. He rebranded Palaniswami and the AIADMK government and has been successful in getting the message out that the government was stable, caring for the people and quick to react to issues that confront the State.
However, the uneasy truce between Panneerselvam and Palaniswami remains. The tension surfaces every now and then. Even as Palaniswami was consolidating his base, the first public hint of the rivalry surfaced on August 15, 2020, when a group of 10 Ministers shuttled between the residences of the Chief Minister and the Deputy Chief Minister, over what one source described as “problems caused by those outside the party.”
It was then that the the differences between the two spilled out into the open; the differences had grown over several months to such an extent that neither was willing to sit with the other to sort issues out. After some back and forth, a temporary truce was in place, with Palaniswami ceding some ground that he had occupied in the past few years, which put him back on an equal footing with Panneerselvam.
Taking on the BJP
It was apparent later that the Chief Minister’s decision to take a few steps against the BJP’s over-reach in the State had not gone down well with the BJP’s staunch cheerleaders within the AIADMK. One step was the Tamil Nadu Cabinet rejecting the three-language formula as envisaged in the New Education Policy and decreeing that Tamil Nadu will follow only a two-language policy. Secondly, on August 17 last year, when BJP leaders met the Chief Minister and requested him to allow the Vinayaka Chaturthi procession, he plainly declined permission.
Before the meeting, the State government had pre-empted the BJP with an August 14 order that barred the installation of idols in public places and the immersion of such idols in water bodies, in view of the pandemic. The government stood firm on its order, and ended up exposing the BJP.
Also read: In Tamil Nadu it is AIADMK vs AIADMK vs BJP
Apart from this, Palaniswami also wrote two letters to the Prime Minister. In the first one he demanded that the Central government part with funds from the PM-CARES corpus for buying COVID testing equipment. The second one made his government’s displeasure clear on the issue of Goods and Services Tax and rejected the solutions put forth by the Narendra Modi government.
Panneerselvam is clearly uncomfortable with the party standing up to the BJP and has not let go of a chance to prove where his loyalties lie. His son and MP, O.P. Raveendranath, even has a picture of Modi picture on his letterhead, alongside that of Jayalalithaa.
Chapter Two of the power struggle between Palaniswami and Panneerselvam began in late December 2020 after the government released a series of advertisements in December and January featuring the development works undertaken in the State. The Chief Minister alone features in all the advertisements. Panneerselvam’s supporters contend that this was a deliberate attempt at sidelining their leader. “I can understand why our leader’s picture is not featured in print advertisements,” said a source close to Panneerselvam (because of a Supreme Court order on the issue). “But why can’t he be shown for even a second in the video,” he asked.
Instead of making an issue of it, Panneerselvam sidestepped the slight and released his own advertisements in a Tamil newspaper. The two-page feature did not mention the Chief Minister’s name. The advertisement was first released in south Tamil Nadu, and later, across the State. These will continue, the source said. He added: “The only difference is that government pays for the Chief Minister’s advertisements, while we pay for our leaders.”
A political analyst who works closely with a party said that Panneerselvam was certainly building his own image. “This is new. Panneerselvam does not believe in this kind of image building. He is certainly being helped. I would not be surprised if people from Delhi are involved,” he added, alluding to the BJP leadership.
These conjectures add up considering the fact that the BJP is yet to endorse Palaniswami as the Chief Ministerial candidate of the National Democratic Allance although the AIADMK has already announced that he will continue to be the face of the party as the C.M. candidate. An AIADMK Minister said: “It is a fact that the BJP is keeping its options open about who should be Chief Minister. This does not help the AIADMK or the AIADMK- BJP alliance.” The BJP-AIADMK alliance for the 2021 Assembly election was firmed up in December 2020.
The Sasikala factor
The other piece in the AIADMK puzzle is Sasikala, who is expected to walk free from a jail in Bengaluru on January 27. She has not been in touch with senior politicians for over a year, but AIADMK leaders believe that it is too early to write her off. Asked to comment on the impact of Sasikala on the AIADMK and the 2021 Assembly election, a Minister said: “Honestly, I have no clue [on what will happen]. But I am sure that she is not retiring and going away.”
In short, the AIADMK appears shaky because of its own internal issues surrounding the tug-of-war between Panneerselvam and Palaniswami, the destabilisation from outside, particularly the BJP, and the problems that are likely crop up after Sasikala’s release. Also, the AIADMK has been in power for two consecutive terms and is likely to face an anti-incumbency mood.
BJP’s game plan
The BJP knows that it will not be able to muster the numbers on its own in Tamil Nadu. Even with a coalition, like the one it forged in the 2014 Lok Sabha election with the Pattali Makkal Katchi, the MDMK, the DMDK, and some fringe parties, the BJP is in no position to win a majority. Hence, the best course for it is to cobble an alliance with the smaller parties and a faction of the AIADMK, along with a popular face. This is where actor Rajinikanth’s new role comes in, the reason why the BJP engaged Gurumurthy to rope in the film star.
Also read: DISPATCHES | Rajinikanth says no to politics, two days before he was expected to announce launch of his party
Rajinikanth announced that he would enter politics in December 2017 but dilly-dallied ever since. Finally, on December 29, 2020, he announced that he was not starting a political party. He said in a statement: “It is with great regret that I announce that I will not be able to start a political party and come into politics… To Rajini Makkal Mandram members, fans and people expecting me to start a political party, I had no intention to disappoint you. Kindly forgive me… Without entering electoral politics, I will serve the people.” Citing health reasons for his decision, he said: “I should not have constant fluctuations in blood pressure because it would affect my transplanted kidney.”
His decision has evidently put paid to the BJP’s plans.
Kamal Haasan’s role
The actor Kamal Haasan’s Makkal Needhi Maiam (MNM), formed in 2018, is also in the fray hoping to garner a portion of the anti-incumbency vote and a few seats in 2021. Kamal Haasan has vociferously denied the accusation that he was the ‘B’ team of the BJP and has attacked the BJP on some occasions. But his 2019 Lok Sabha performance was too weak (under 4 per cent vote share) to be considered a serious player in the electoral race.
Many more permutations and combinations are expected to emerge ahead of the 2021 election as the BJP tries to split the anti-incumbency vote to cut into the fortunes of the DMK alliance.
Overall, while the ruling party and much of the opposition that has the BJP’s blessings have major problems to resolve, the DMK combine seems to have fewer issues. The only problem that has cropped up is that two of its partners, the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) and the MDMK, have insisted on contesting on their own symbols. DMK leaders said that this was a minor issue that would be sorted out soon.