The sharp, unexpected attack against ally BJP by senior AIADMK leader C Ponnaiyan recently was representative of the churning happening within the ranks of the Tamil Nadu party over its ties with the Delhi-centric BJP. With DMK leader and Chief Minister M K Stalin consolidating his position, there are increasing voices within the AIADMK over the need to assert itself as a separate entity within the alliance – especially when the DMK is gaining from the rising tensions between the state and a Narendra Modi-led Centre.
The AIADMK is seen to have come under the influence of the BJP since the demise of supremo J Jayalalithaa. While her stature made her the dominant partner in any tie-up, the BJP has used her absence to make quiet inroads into Tamil Nadu riding on a weakened and divided AIADMK.
On Tuesday, while addressing party cadres, and later talking to The Indian Express, Ponnaiyan, an AIADMK veteran and the party organisational secretary, accused the BJP-led Centre of “stealing” the state’s revenues and of “anti-Tamil” policies, and blamed it for the AIADMK’s poll defeats and the turning away of the minority voters from the party.
Ponnaiyan said he was only voicing what others too felt, and the AIADMK needed to assert itself while there was still time to prepare cadres for the 2024 elections. “Closed-door meetings of the party are happening all over the state. We have feedback from ordinary cadres,” he said.
But asked whether it meant the AIADMK would cut ties with the BJP, Ponnaiyan said: “We will decide that at the right time.”
Multiple AIADMK leaders told The Indian Express that Ponnaiyan’s statements were in line with a formal decision by the party to overcome an “existential crisis”. At meetings, leaders have lashed out at the AIADMK top brass for being “dormant” even as the BJP “grows on our shoulders”.
Apart from ties with the BJP, there is strong discontent among party cadres over the “indifference” and “negligence” of the AIADMK leadership towards performing its role as the chief Opposition, the leaders said. Many pointed out how the BJP’s relatively novice state president K Annamalai has emerged as the chief Opposition face, due to his high visibility on issues of Tamil Nadu, unlike AIADMK leaders. “Many cadres are leaving the party for the DMK as the top leadership is inactive, cold and half-hearted,” said a leader, calling it “the AIADMK’s slow death”.
Annamalai, a 38-year-old former IPS officer of the Karnataka cadre, is believed to have been brought into politics and the BJP by senior leader B L Santhosh. Even if some of Annamalai’s statements are seen as juvenile, the party doesn’t mind the same, for keeping it in the news.
A former minister said: “Cadres and local leaders who have stood with the AIADMK through difficult times feel the party has surrendered fully before the BJP, with the leadership becoming dormant.”
However, another former minister, who sided with Palaniswami in his tussle with V K Sasikala over control of the AIADMK after Jayalalithaa’s death, said it would be wrong to see Ponnaiyan’s statement as a prelude to snapping ties with the BJP or as a signal to Delhi. He said no leader could afford to do that, given the apprehension “of serious consequences if we went against Delhi”.
“The purpose of Ponnaiyan’s statement was to remind our cadres that the leadership is still active,” he said.
A senior AIADMK leader said Ponnaiyan would not have acted on his own. “While his statement was not exactly a planned one, he has been given the green signal by the party to go on the offensive against the BJP,” the leader said. Within the AIADMK, Ponnaiyan is seen to have the backing of Palaniswami, who controls the party.
Another leader acknowledged the difficulty in which the AIADMK found itself. Despite not contesting the recent local body polls with the BJP – after contesting the Lok Sabha and Assembly polls together – the leader says they don’t have much bargaining power. “We can haggle with the BJP state leaders on the number of seats etc, but not Delhi,” the leader said.
Annamalai has been claiming that the local poll results showed that the BJP was now the third-largest party in the state, though most of the BJP’s gains were in one district of Kanyakumari.
Annamalai wasn’t available for comment, but a senior leader who works with him pointed out that the BJP had nothing to lose in Tamil Nadu. “It is about making the people of the state familiar with the party. Annamalai has been successful in that, compared to his predecessors,” the leader said.