The cadre of the ruling All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), rival parties as well as journalists in Tamil Nadu were glued to Jaya TV, the party mouthpiece on Monday at 12.15 pm. The channel had been flashing tickers for an hour stating that a special announcement would be made at that time.
Jayalalithaa unveiled her list of candidates in this manner. The AIADMK will contest 227 out of 234 seats in the state in May, the first time the party is contesting such a large number of seats. Allies have been allotted seven seats in all. These allies too will contest under the AIADMK’s ‘two-leaves’ symbol.
As the candidates list was read out, consternation set in.
“Did O Panneerselvam get a ticket?” was the first question on every journalist’s lips. “What about Natham Viswanathan?” was the next. “Senthil Balaji?” asked one journalist incredulously. These questions have a stormy background.
“The AIADMK’s candidate list is surprising,” said R Mani, senior journalist in Chennai. “This move (to include ministers with allegations of corruption against them) shows the extreme confidence of the party leadership. Even when MGR (MG Ramachandran) was heading the party, such drastic action was not taken by him,” he said.
The “Ivar Ani”
State finance minister and proxy chief minister in Jayalalithaa’s absence while she was jailed in 2014, Panneerselvam is the consummate Amma (Jayalalithaa’s moniker) loyalist. He is one of 17 ministers to be given tickets again. Ten other ministers have been denied a ticket this year. Panneerselvam though retains his Bodinayakanur seat.
Natham Viswanathan, electricity minister who also holds the Prohibition and Excise portfolio was a powerful leader in the party by all accounts. A sitting MLA from the Natham constituency, Viswanathan has now been handed the Athur seat.
These two ministers were said to be heading the Ivar Ani — meaning the Team of Five. The other three Ministers said to be in the team are Edappadi Palanichamy, Palaniappan and Vaithilingam. Reports did the rounds that the aides of these ministers were collecting money from hapless candidates wanting a ticket in the upcoming polls. Jayalalithaa took swift action, removing partymen who were known loyalists of these ministers, sending across the message that indiscipline would not be brooked.
As a result of these rumblings, speculation was rife that the Ivar Ani would not feature in the candidate list. That was not to be. Only Minister Palaniappan did not manage to land a seat while the other four have got tickets.
“Whoever was expected to be denied a seat, has got one,” said senior journalist Mani. “For instance, former transport minister Senthil Balaji (who has corruption allegations against him) was not expected to get a seat. He has got it. A lot of names on this list are quite surprising,” he added.
The Senthil Balaji referred to by Mani was a star minister in Jaya’s team since 2011, holding the Transport portfolio. When Jaya was jailed in the disproportionate assets case, one of the names for the proxy chief minister doing the rounds at the time, was that of Balaji. One of the few ministers to hold the same portfolio for four years in the AIADMK regime, he was suddenly and ignominiously stripped not just of the ministry but also of his party post in July 2015. The reason, as explained by AIADMK sources, was that Balaji’s name figured in allegations of demands for bribes for jobs in the Transport Department.
“By giving ministers like Senthil Balaji, who have corruption allegations against them, seats, Jayalalithaa is signaling that she simply does not care,” said political critic Gnani Sankaran. “Jayalalithaa has always wanted to project her party as the largest party in the state. That is why, this time she has announced that the party would contest in 227 constituencies. These tactics are not new to her,” he added.
In 2014, Jayalalithaa pulled off a risky stunt by contesting all 37 Lok Sabha seats alone, with almost every candidate being a political greenhorn. Her party won 37 out of 39 seats in the state. “Our Amma’s signature is that she is revolutionary and fresh in her outlook,” said AIADMK spokesperson K Samarasam. “Even though seven seats are for allies, they too will contest under the AIADMK symbol. This means that in all 234 constituencies, the ‘two-leaves’ symbol will contest,” he added.
Samarasam furthers explained the strategy. “Apart from giving youngsters a chance, she has also given senior politicians like Ponnaiyan and Panrutti Ramachandran tickets,” he said. “Those ministers who did not work as well as they should have for the people, have not been given a chance again. As far as Amma is concerned, only service to the people counts.”
Jaya has thrown the ball squarely in rival Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s (DMK) court. On the day when the DMK’s seat allocation talks with Congress was finalised, Jaya went ahead, full steam, to announce candidates as well as her campaign tour plan which kicks off on 9 April. DMK leaders though feel that her strategy is not without mistakes.
“On one hand, the AIADMK continues to hold alliance talks and on the other, the candidates list is announced,” said V Kannadasan, DMK advocate. “It is all eyewash.” Kannadasan also terms the AIADMK’s move of contesting in so many seats as “a sign of overconfidence.”
What Jaya has accomplished to perfection, is to force the Opposition to scramble and get their act together in what is expected to be a hotly-contested election.
The author tweets @anandkso