Ending speculation of a revolt in the party, the AIADMK has declared that it will fight the assembly polls, scheduled for May 2021, under the leadership of Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswami (EPS). The choice was endorsed by deputy chief minister and Palaniswami’s challenger, O Panneerselvam (OPS), whose faction had hinted at a leadership change. As a consolation to OPS, EPS acceded to his rival’s demand for a steering committee to decide party affairs, though the committee’s remit has been left vague. The truce in the party, however, could be tested when the late Jayalalithaa’s confidante, Sasikala Natarajan, returns to Tamil Nadu, most likely in November, after serving a four-year sentence in a corruption case in a Bengaluru prison.
It is to the credit of EPS and OPS that they managed to keep the AIADMK together after the demise of Jayalalithaa in 2016. Questions had been asked if the party could hold itself in the absence of Jayalalithaa since the latter had turned the party into an extension of her persona. Though the AIADMK claims the legacy of the Dravidian Movement, the party, from the time it was founded by film star, MGR, drew its public appeal from the charisma of its leader. After MGR’s death, the leadership mantle passed on to Jayalalithaa, who too had made her name in cinema before entering politics. In the post-Jayalalithaa phase, the AIADMK has shed its dependence on a single charismatic leader — largely because it has none — to evolve a collective leadership. Two factors have helped the party guard its ground in the past four years. One, the AIADMK managed to retain its pole position in Tamil Nadu’s bipolar polity — the DMK being the other pole — by consolidating the governance legacy of MGR and Jayalalithaa and accommodating factional interests. Two, claimants to the leadership vacuum left behind by Jayalalithaa — and DMK patriarch M Karunanidhi, who passed away in August 2018 — turned out to be pretenders, who lacked ideas, guile, and commitment to build a political party that could rival the AIADMK and DMK. Kamal Haasan’s outfit failed to excite the masses whereas Rajinikanth has not even announced his party. The Congress, BJP, and the communists continue to be dependent on the two Dravidian majors to win elections.
However, the AIADMK will need more than just a united party to win a third consecutive term in office. Anti-incumbency, even more than substantive political alliances, has been a deciding factor in Tamil Nadu assembly polls — voters have elected an incumbent party only twice, the AIADMK under MGR in 1984 and Jayalalithaa in 2016, in the past 40 years. That’s the big test ahead for EPS and OPS.
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