The Dilemma of Being Edappadi Palaniswami
A few days back, Tamil Nadu chief minister Edappadi Palaniswami (EPS) told some of his senior bureaucrats that he should not be disturbed till 12 April, the day Radhakrishnan Nagar constituency votes in the byelection. No one knows it better than Palaniswami that the result of the election could have a direct bearing not just on the future of the Sasikala faction of the AIADMK but also on his longevity as CM.
Palaniswami, a political heavyweight in his own right from Salem in western Tamil Nadu, was one of the most trusted lieutenants of Jayalalithaa. It must gall him therefore to play second fiddle in the party structure to TTV Dinakaran, who was persona non grata so long as Jayalalithaa was alive.
So far EPS has resisted pressure. For instance, not all the changes in the bureaucracy that Sasikala had reportedly asked for, were followed. The most controversial of those demands was, according to top sources in the Tamil Nadu bureaucracy, shifting out chief secretary Girija Vaidhyanathan, something EPS refused to do. The CM knows removing an honest officer will only sully his image, something he cannot afford to, especially when he is already seen as the Mannargudi family’s Panneerselvam.
Which is why 15 April, the day the results will be announced, is so important. The RK Nagar bypoll, with Dinakaran throwing his hat into the ring, literally, has meant he has gone for broke. The election has for all practical purposes become a referendum on Sasikala and Dinakaran. If Dinakaran wins the byelection, it will most certainly lend him tremendous credibility. He has taken a huge gamble by putting all his eggs in the RK Nagar basket in the hope that a win will automatically crown him as Jayalalithaa’s political heir. With Sasikala out of the electoral picture for ten years, Dinakaran for all practical purposes, owns and runs the party.
Dinakaran for now, is not counting the chicken before they hatch. He maintains his ambition is only to become MLA from RK Nagar and is not aspiring for the top job in Tamil Nadu. That is just hogwash, typical neta talk. His name figured in the list of ministers to be sworn in on 16 February and if not for Governor Vidyasagar Rao’s objection in view of his FERA case, Dinakaran would have been Tamil Nadu’s finance minister.
If Dinakaran wins, there will be a clamour to make him CM, pretty much in the same manner a chorus was orchestrated to make Sasikala general secretary and then the CM. EPS will have no option but to fall in line.
But if Dinakaran loses to the OPS camp candidate in the election, that may well lead to a collapse of the government. The AIADMK group that has cast its lot with Sasikala will realise it is not backing the winning horse and may work towards a realignment of the AIADMK forces to ensure they stay in power. EPS will try but there is not guarantee that he will head a brand new AIADMK government, especially if Panneerselvam’s candidate wins.
Even if both factions of the AIADMK do not win and the DMK gains by a split in the traditional AIADMK vote, which one of them comes second will be critical.
It is not just EPS who is worried. Many AIADMK legislators are concerned as well because of the high stakes battle RK Nagar has become. The inability of the leadership to ensure it got the two leaves symbol has led to shoulders drooping. They feel that with 122 MLAs, a majority of the MPs and a government in Tamil Nadu, the symbol ideally should not have been frozen but allotted to the Sasikala faction.
Two, on the ground in RK Nagar, the response of the electorate to Dinakaran so far, is anything but positive. Among the women voters in this AIADMK stronghold, the anger is not so much against Dinakaran but his aunt. With both factions of the AIADMK not getting the symbol, what queers his pitch further for Dinakaran is that his rival from the OPS camp, E Madhusudanan is a local who has represented RK Nagar in the Tamil Nadu assembly between 1991 and 1996.
While Dinakaran will pull out all stops to ensure a win, the man watching every move closely will be Palaniswami. He knows he is likely to suffer the collateral damage, irrespective of which way the verdict goes.