AIADMK merger row: Twists, turns and manoeuvers in Tamil Nadu's fertile ground of political opportunism

Eager to reach a compromise to retain power, the two AIADMK factions have, for now struck a unique deal which appears to a tenuous alliance at best

FP Politics August 22, 2017 08:41:02 IST

Over six months after a bitter split, rival AIADMK factions merged Monday following a power-sharing arrangement under which K Palaniswami will remain the chief minister and O Panneerselvam will be his deputy. Panneerselvam, who was twice chief minister when Jayalalithaa was jailed and again after she died in December, will also get back his finance portfolio. He had quit as chief minister the last time in February following differences with Sasikala, a long-time Jayalalithaa aide.

The merger of the two factions came after weeks of hectic parleys, overcoming the acrimony and a last-minute tough bargaining by the Panneerselvam group which insisted on an announcement about Sasikala's removal. She is now in a Bengaluru jail after she was sentenced to four years in a disproportionate assets case.

The much-awaited coming together of the two factions was announced at a function at the AIADMK headquarters where Palaniswami disclosed the changes within the party.

The chief minister will be the joint coordinator while Panneerselvam faction leader KP Munuswami and Palaniswami faction leader and MP Vaithyalingam will be the deputy coordinators. However, the fact that neither leader is willing to give full control of the party or the government to the other shows that the distrust runs deep.

AIADMK merger row Twists turns and manoeuvers in Tamil Nadus fertile ground of political opportunism

File image of Panneerselvam and Palaniswamy. PTI

A no-gain deal for OPS faction?

After much debate and deliberation, when the merger was finally announced, it was mildly surprising that an earlier unrelenting Panneerselvam had ceded ground on most issues of conflict.

Eager to reach a compromise to retain power, the two factions have, for now, struck a unique deal. The two party stalwarts, each keen to inherit Jayalalithaa's legacy at one time, have worked out a formula to play second fiddle to each other alternatively in the party and the government.

Panneerselvam, a three-time chief minister, and Jayalalithaa's trusted aide will now play second fiddle to Palaniswamy, a first-time chief minister who was ironically propped up by Sasikala, who was the reason Panneerselvam rebelled against his own party.

Although Panneerselvam was able to negotiate some control over the party as coordinator of AIADMK, the command that he may actually wield over the party also remains questionable.

The post of joint coordinator, to be occupied by the chief minister, comes closely behind Panneerselvam's official designation of AIADMK coordinator. It would be unsurprising if Palaniswamy, who is the face of the government and who exercises the right to allocate plush cabinet portfolios, in practice wields more control over the party MLAs than Panneerselvam.

Two leaders from each faction are given the post of deputy coordinators and an 11-member steering committee will be formed to 'guide' the party.

In such a scenario, OPS supporters rejoicing over the merger would secretly ask themselves, why did the Palaniswamy-led faction cleverly circumvented the traditional head post of general secretary and created a new structure that would efficiently de-centralise control over the party.

In the government, on the other hand, there is no question as to who is in command for the simple reason that the roles of chief minister and deputy chief ministers are strictly defined, unlike flimsy party positions coined by politicians as and when it serves a political purpose.

The dual power centre, both within the party and the government, has created a tenuous arrangement for now, but the political stability of the reunited factions will remain questionable after seven months of bitter animosity.

On the question of Sasikala's ouster, another key demand by the Panneerselvam-led faction, the two leaders have chosen to formally remain quiet. But word is going around that the Palaniswamy group has managed to convince Panneerselvam to wait for the Election Commission's decision as Sasikala is a convict in a graft case and the matter remains subjudice. As of now, despite the talks of her ouster, Sasikala remains the general secretary of the party.

The only demand of the OPS faction that was met in its entirety was the call to launch a probe in Jayalalithaa's death as the state government has already announced an inquiry and has declared that Jayalalithaa's Poes Garden residence would be taken over from Sasikala and turned into a memorial.

Sasikala faction makes dramatic come back, likely to spell trouble for newly merged AIADMK

Eighteen MLAs supporting the TTV Dinakaran and Sasikala faction have reignited the political debate in Tamil Nadu, just when the dust was starting to settle on the high-decibel AIADMK merger.

The MLAs visited the Amma memorial, which has recently become the stage-setter for all political drama in the state and sat in meditation. They also raised pro-Sasikala slogans, while announcing that they will meet the governor tomorrow at 10 am.

Now, 18 happens to be the exact number needed to topple the AIADMK government in the 235-member Assembly. All that the Dinakaran camp has to do is submit a no-confidence resolution to the governor. However, Dinakaran's supporters have refrained from spelling out the agenda of the meeting. This could only be a warning call, a show of strength by the Mannargudi clan to remind Palaniswamy, what is at stake if he chooses to go ahead with Sasikala's ouster.

Leaders of the faction attacked both Panneerselvam and Palaniswamy. Pugazhendi, president of the AIADMK's Karnataka unit, said the Dinakaran faction would not allow the government to continue.

What's next for a reunited AIADMK? 

For the beginnings, the party has announced it will focus on getting back the two leaves election symbol that was lost when the two factions announced the split. The next step would be to take a decision on the Mannargudi clan's fate in the party with the OPS faction unrelenting on the demand for their ouster. The party will either wait for the Election Commission to take a call on Sasikala's fate or they could boot her out of the party after passing a resolution at the general council meeting. However, the latter solution is easier said than done as the Sasikala faction is unlikely to go down without a fight.

As this Firstpost article states, "With TTV Dinakaran holding on to his group of 20 MLAs who were by his side at the Melur public meeting last week, the AIADMK government will be short of political oxygen. It will be a minority government that can be toppled should these rebel MLAs vote in favour of a DMK-sponsored no-confidence motion. But EPS and OPS combo will hope that with AIADMK legislators not keen on facing an election, the benefits of power will be a seduction hard to resist."

For now, the Sasikala camp seems to have adopted the wait and watch policy, as they dropped enough hints that they have enough support within the party to foil the merger attempts if the party goes ahead and ousts Sasikala.

Flaying the move to merge the OPS and EPS factions of AIADMK, after seven months of bitter animosity, Dinakaran's faction said that their leader "has the ability to put a full stop" to whatever decision that could be taken related to a merger.

Dinakaran appears to have a support of about 20 legislators and six MPs, who participated in his rally held at Madurai, last week.

Is the party headed the NDA way?

Talks of an invisible hand pulling the strings of the Tamil Nadu political drama, ever since Pannerselvam's open rebellion from AIADMK, has been around. BJP's extraordinary interest in the situation had given political pundits a fair chance to propose that the saffron party may be fishing in troubled waters in the southern Indian state where it has been vying to increase its footprints.

Now, the fact that an RSS ideologue has reportedly facilitated the merger talks and that both Palaniswamy and Panneerselvam had met Prime Minister Narendra Modi before the merger talks could begin, suggests that post the high-drama AIADMK merger, it wouldn't be a surprise if the party formally announces joining hands with NDA.

The story so far

The factional feud began in February after Panneerselvam revolted against Sasikala. The former chief minister had said that he was forced to resign from his post and asserted that only a person desired by people and cadres should succeed him in the government and party.

Panneerselvam was immediately sacked from the top party post of treasurer, marking the birth of the rebel AIADMK (Puratchi Thalaivi Amma) faction. Subsequently, Sasikala named Palaniswamy as legislature party leader as she herself had to go to Bengaluru to serve a prison sentence following her conviction in the disproportionate assets case.

Soon, Palaniswamy took over as the chief minister and his government was ridiculed as a proxy of Sasikala by rebel Panneerselvam and Opposition parties led by DMK.

In April this year, in a political twist, the Tamil Nadu Cabinet gave indications of sidelining Sasikala and Dinakaran. Palaniswami gradually emerged as the leader of a faction of about 122 MLAs in the 234 member Assembly. The OPS camp had nine MLAs, including himself.

Palaniswamy and his Cabinet colleagues took a stand against Dinakaran in April for the first time after the bypoll to RK Nagar Assembly constituency, represented by late Jayalalithaa, was canceled. They were also on the same page after Dinarakan was named in a case of trying to bribe Election Commission officials in April.

Further hardening the stand against Dhinakaran, AIADMK leaders, after a 10 August meeting chaired by Palaniswamy, said his appointment went against party bye-laws, setting the stage for a formal merger. Following it up, the government also announced an inquiry into Jayalalithaa's death and declared that Amma's Poes Garden residence would be taken over and turned into a memorial.

By conceding these key demands of the Panneerselvam camp, the process of unification got a fresh impetus and following several rounds of deliberations, the merger came through on Monday. The development will bring some relief to supporters of AIADMK, since the party which came to power in May 2016 has been struggling to keep its pack together following the death of party supremo Jayalalithaa in December last year.

With inputs from agencies

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