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Speaker Dhanapal, once disqualified as MLA amid faction feud in AIADMK

Veteran sided with Jaya after MGR death, among the few from that era in today’s top leadership

Written by Arun Janardhanan | Chennai |
September 19, 2017 5:42:46 am
Tamil Nadu assembly Speaker P Dhanapal, P Dhanapal, AIADMK, AIADMK MLA, India News, Indian Express, Indian Express News Tamil Nadu assembly Speaker P Dhanapal (left) with T T V Dinakaran, from whose camp he suspended 18 MLAs Monday

Three decades before he disqualified 18 MLAs of his party’s rival faction, AIADMK’s P Dhanapal had himself been disqualified under similar circumstances. Amid a crisis in the party following the death of party founder M G Ramachandran in 1987, then Speaker P H Pandian had disqualified 33 MLAs in January 1988, including Dhanapal, of the J Jayalalithaa faction. On Monday, when Dhanapal the current Speaker disqualified the 18 MLAs of the T T V Dinakaran camp, he was in the same faction as Pandian — known to be a staunch supporter of O Panneerselvam.

In a party where loyalists have far outnumbered leaders ever since it was launched in 1972, Dhanapal has largely been seen as one of the former — once a staunch loyalist of M G Ramachandran, then firmly behind MGR’s successor Jayalalithaa. At the same time, however, the career of Dhanapal, 66, who holds a postgraduate degree, has also been marked by a balance between his relatively low profile and a consistent space in the party.

Dhanapal is not seen as a leader with wide public appeal in the constituencies he has represented, yet he has enjoyed a series of victories; Jayalalithaa once described him as leader “who moves closely with the people”. In a party controlled largely by OBC Thevar and Gounder leaders, however, the growth of Dhanapal, a Dalit leader, was restricted for a long time.

It was following his appointment as Speaker in 2012 that Dhanapal came to be recognised as a familiar face in the party and the government. The big break came, incidentally, after then Speaker D Jayakumar fell out of favour for celebrating his birthday with posters in his village that projected him as a “promising” leader of the party, after Jayalalithaa.

Dhanapal represents the Arunthathiyar community, the most backward among the scheduled castes, and made headlines when he was appointed the first Dalit Speaker of the assembly after Tamil Nadu had become a state. J Shivashanmugam Pillai, Speaker between 1946 and 1955, too was a Dalit leader but the difference was that he had served in the erstwhile Madras state.

In his acceptance speech in 2012, Dhanapal had assured that he would work in a non-partisan manner and strive to uphold the ethos of the House. Now, sources in the party said, what made him disqualify the 18 MLAs of the Sasikala/Dinakaran camp was pressure from both Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami and deputy CM O Panneerselvam. Soft-spoken among his colleagues, Dhanapal has tried to project himself as a Speaker who conducts the House without being partisan. When Jayalalithaa was alive, however, he often came under attack from the DMK for his alleged loyalties and partisan decisions. He was also booed and heckled in the assembly last February, amid violent scenes during a floor test.

Dhanapal is one of the most senior leaders of the party, having joined at age 21 in 1972, the year MGR floated the party. He is one of the few leaders from that era who remain in the top leadership. When MGR took the party into its first polls in 1977, Dhanapal was the candidate from Sankagiri (reserved) constituency in Salem district, winning by over 21,000 votes. He won in 1980 and 1984 from Sankagiri constituency.

Unlike Panneerselvam and a number if others among the current crop of senior leaders, Dhanapal was with the Jayalalithaa faction following MGR’s death, against his wife Janaki. The Jayalalithaa faction was, however, defeated in the polls in late 1989, and Dhanapal himself suffered the only defeat of his electoral career. Later, he would win again from Sankagiri in 2001 and Rasipuram (reserved) in 2011.

“He was never a man who desperately tried to prove his loyalty, nor did he have any links with the V K Sasikala faction or her family. He was always a loyalist of the party, one who never went through Sasikala’s channels for party posts,” said an AIADMK MLA. Even when Sasikala’s brother Dhiwakaran tried to project Dhanapal as their choice of chief minister following a memorandum submitted by 19 MLAs withdrawing support to Palaniswami last month, Dhanapal chose to stay behind with the Palaniswami camp.

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