AIADMK merger: BJP's hand in reuniting factions reveals party's long term plans in Tamil Nadu

A week ago, a close aide of O Panneerselvam pointed to two photographs shot in August in New Delhi around the time Venkaiah Naidu was sworn in as vice-president. The first one was of Tamil Nadu chief minister Edappadi Palaniswami greeting Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the other of OPS with Modi.

"In the photograph of EPS with the PM, he exists in the frame. But in the photograph of OPS with PM, the proximity is evident," he said.

This chemistry, according to the OPS camp, is at the heart of the dharma yudham success story. Which is why even though numerically, OPS was only a 10-MLA faction, he was treated like a CM-in-waiting by New Delhi. Sources say OPS was told earlier this month that he need not worry and that he would be taken care of.

Panneerselvam's dramatic revolt in February was not in keeping with the sycophantic character he had displayed all through his political career, given to prostrating before party boss Jayalalithaa at the first sight of her feet. In Panneerselvam 2.0, the BJP had found a vehicle to drive a wedge in the AIADMK to purge the party of the Mannargudi clan.

O Panneerselvam (left) with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. PTI

O Panneerselvam (left) with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. PTI

But what was the BJP's interest in doing so? The reasons, one suspects, were both political and personal.

The story goes that thanks to his friendship with Jayalalithaa, Modi knows more than most about the manner in which the Mannargudi family operated and therefore has no love lost for Sasikala and company. When Sasikala and family were banished from Poes Garden in December 2011, Modi had reportedly sent across a senior bureaucrat from Gandhinagar to Chennai to oversee alternate arrangements. Cooks and domestic help from Gujarat handled Veda Nilayam, Jayalalithaa's residence for over three months till Sasikala staged a comeback.

It would seem the powers-that-be were convinced that the AIADMK had to be purged of the family. The manner in which the entire clan surrounded Jayalalithaa's casket at Rajaji Hall in Chennai before her last rites to visibly demonstrate their clout, was like the last straw. The seeds of Operation Throw Out Mannargudi were sown then. It helped that the Supreme court verdict in the disproportionate assets case was just round the corner and finally went against Sasikala.

But February did not entirely go as planned. It was expected that a majority of the MLAs would flock to the OPS camp but Panneerselvam's backers had not factored with Team Sasikala's ability to herd her MLAs to a resort outside Chennai and keep them hostage for a week. Despite the best efforts of the Panneerselvam camp, his numbers did not swell. Incharge Governor Vidyasagar Rao's reluctance to fly to Chennai Raj Bhavan, where he holds additional charge, also added to the suspicion that Delhi wanted to give OPS maximum time to woo legislators to his side.

The bypoll in RK Nagar gave the anti-Sasikala camp another chance. The skeletons in the TTV Dinakaran camp came tumbling out as the Income Tax department seemed to have found evidence of wrongdoing. Top leaders, including EPS, were suspected of being part of a plan to bribe voters. The fear of the state machinery made the chief minister rush to kowtow to the Delhi durbar.

The reported role played by an RSS ideologue in thrashing out a power structure with representation to both sides is a pointer to the BJP's role in unifying the AIADMK. The fact that Amit Shah's visit to Chennai on 22 August, that was postponed at the last minute, was seen as a deadline to merge, is another indication of the BJP role.

But Monday's swearing-in ceremony where OPS was sworn in as deputy chief minister is by no means, the last word in the AIADMK churn. It is only the first step towards ensuring that Panneerselvam, who in the last six months has gained the reputation of being Delhi's man in Chennai, gains control of both the party and the government.

For the record, the BJP that does not have a single legislator in the Tamil Nadu Assembly and secured less than 3 percent vote share in the 2016 elections, denies having anything to do with the turmoil in the AIADMK. But it has made it clear that it would want a unified AIADMK in Tamil Nadu and then be drafted into the NDA. The intention is to put in place a rainbow coalition that can defeat the DMK + Congress combine in 2019.

The BJP, so long as Jayalalithaa was alive, could never make a foray into Tamil Nadu. Despite Jayalalithaa's personal friendship with Modi, she threw her hat into the ring in 2014 as a prime ministerial candidate. She ended up sweeping Tamil Nadu, winning 37 of the 39 Lok Sabha seats at the height of the Modi wave.

Jayalalithaa's absence now gives the BJP an opening, given that the AIADMK lacks a strong leadership. The first step of removing the Mannargudi family has been achieved. Modi's tweet soon after Panneerselvam was sworn-in was an expression of the BJP's happiness at having added one more state to the NDA kitty.

The BJP would like this government to stabilise itself in the next one year so that the BJP+AIADMK alliance along with Rajinikanth and Vijaykanth as NDA partners can present themselves as an alternative to the DMK in both the 2019 Lok Sabha and the next Assembly elections. The BJP's strategy is to piggyback on the AIADMK's cadre base, something it lacks and bring in Rajinikanth to make up for its inability to throw up a pan-Tamil Nadu leader. Ensuring a unified AIADMK was important so that the party's voteshare, that is roughly 35 percent, does not get split threeways.

It is obvious that the AIADMK in Tamil Nadu today is not the AIADMK of Jayalalithaa. That AIADMK is dead. Eight months after Jayalalithaa passed away, Chennai's lifeline is in Delhi's hands.

Updated Date: Aug 22, 2017 14:22 PM

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