AIADMK tussle: Trust deficit between OPS, EPS camps breaks down merger talks
Panneerselvam's associates are convinced that the disassociation from Sasikala and TTV Dinakaran is a set-up
The tone from Greenways Road, O Panneerselvam's official residence, was anything but conciliatory. Former minister KP Munuswamy, one of the senior leaders in the Panneerselvam camp, ridiculed Lok Sabha Deputy Speaker Thambidurai calling him a person with no following, labelled Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswamy a Sasikala appointee and admonished Finance Minister D Jayakumar for his comments. At the heart of the hard talk is a feeling in the OPS camp that Palaniswamy is taking them for a ride.
Panneerselvam's associates are convinced that the disassociation from Sasikala and TTV Dinakaran (also spelt as Dhinakaran) is a set-up. Independent sources also indicate that Dinakaran was told that if he is seen as throwing in the towel easily, the ruling party could at a later date, use its good offices with Delhi to help water down the cases against him. With his back to the wall, Dinakaran agreed to lose the battle today with an eye on winning the war for AIADMK at a future date.
"It is a conspiracy," said a senior OPS camp leader to me, requesting that he should not be named, "Dinakaran is the mastermind. They have just stepped aside for some time. They will still control the affairs of the party without appearing to do so."
What has got the OPS camp annoyed is Palaniswamy's refusal to cede the chief minister's chair. With Dinakaran having softened his stand, the MLAs loyal to him are also expected to fall in line and this will mean Palaniswamy's group of 122 MLAs will stay intact, with no threat to the government.
Which is why within the EPS camp, many of the constituents of which do not like the way Panneerselvam's stature has risen in the past two months, the question being asked is whether they really need OPS to survive. They feel that after declaring a divorce from Sasikala and family, they too have been washed of the Mannargudi taint. And that OPS has no locus standi to call himself the only Mr Clean.
The problem with that position is that the public does not buy into it. And while EPS could carry on as chief minister, he will have to spend much of his time looking over his shoulder for any MLA turning into a black sheep. Just half a dozen legislators could terminate his innings in the top job.
Then there is the elephant in the room: The Income Tax Department. More than anything else, the Damocles sword of an I-T raid has got many seniors worried, especially those whose names are believed to be under the radar. The I-T raid on Health Minister C Vijayabaskar's properties rattled them and anyone with skeletons in his cupboard, feels he could be next. It is this group that is pushing EPS, trying to convince him to hold merger talks and accept the formula of OPS as chief minister and Palaniswamy as his deputy. Except that there is no precedent of a chief minister stepping down to become a deputy.
But those opposed to this idea ask if OPS can be trusted to ensure that tainted ministers will not get a knock on their door if they are on his right side. The trust deficit is extreme on both sides.
As far as Panneerselvam is concerned, until two days ago, he was reportedly open to the idea of becoming only general secretary. But others around him convinced him that he would be writing his political obituary by not insisting on the chief minister's chair. They told him that if the EPS government is bad, he cannot defend it at election time. The OPS group also feels that it can draw power only if their man is the chief minister.
The hard talk is dictated by the OPS camp belief that at this point in time, a snap poll will be in its interest. They feel nothing much is going to come out of the merger and even if they do under pressure from Delhi, the OPS aura will only lose momentum by 2021 — when the next Assembly election is due. They feel now is the time to encash the goodwill OPS has and try to form the government without the baggage of the Palaniswamy camp and Sasikala. An alliance with the BJP is part of that plan, although to offset the drop in vote share, Panneerselvam may have to woo other smaller parties like the PMK and the DMDK to its fold.
Which is why OPS is making it tough to arrive at a reconciliation by insisting on a CBI probe into J Jayalalithaa's death and that the Mannargudi clan should be publicly humiliated by being shown the door. The Palaniswamy camp argues that it has already declared Sasikala persona non grata on its own and not at Panneerselvam's bidding.
With both sides hardening their positions, the ball, rather ironically, is in the court of a third political party. If it reads out the riot act and insists on a merger by laying down the conditions on the table, errant politicians could be forced to fall in line. The future of the AIADMK will then depend on how the mediator sees its own political future in Tamil Nadu.
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