From a court intervention in the early hours to the disintegration of one of its top leaders in full public view, the AIADMK leadership drama lived up to the full promise of expected fireworks on Thursday. The man standing tall as the dust settled was Edappadi K Palaniswami; the one whose defeat was total was rival O Panneerselvam.
Till the end, Panneerselvam or OPS, 71, kept fighting, and must have hoped that a court order on Thursday at 4.30 am, halting the selection of a unitary leadership in the party, as pressed by Palaniswami or EPS, 68, gave him some reprieve. However, any such hopes were dashed at the AIADMK General Council meeting in Chennai’s suburbs hours later, where the party rallied behind EPS, rejected all the 23 proposed resolutions and announced that the one and only demand of the Council was to bring in a single-leadership system for the party – or make Joint Coordinator EPS the AIADMK chief.
OPS tally at the end of the day stood at three MLAs, even as the rest of the 63 MLAs, most district secretaries and more than 2,200 General Council members backed EPS for the post once occupied by M G Ramachandran, J Jayalalithaa, and V K Sasikala.
Simmering for long, the latest crisis in the AIADMK started bubbling about two weeks ago after the EPS faction proposed that the party go back to a single-leader system to check its successive poll debacles since 2019. The current system, with OPS as coordinator and EPS as joint coordinator, had been introduced in 2017 to end disputes arising after Jayalalithaa’s death.
At the time, OPS had only 11 MLAs but was propped up by the BJP, which nosed its way into a party still reeling from Jayalalithaa’s death, and helped him secure the post of coordinator and Deputy Chief Minister through “mediation and mentoring”.
Having secured chief ministership, EPS, meanwhile, went from strength to strength, won the party to his side and managed to keep Sasikala, Jayalalithaa’s confidant, at bay. He was seen as a capable CM and administrator, a reputation that has helped sustain him even after the 2021 Assembly poll defeat to the DMK.
OPS, in contrast, could never shake off his association with the BJP, which has hurt him hard as the DMK rode and continues to play up public sentiments against an overbearing Centre led by the BJP. He was also seen as close to RSS ideologue S Gurumurthy, and later Sasikala.
Gurumurthy once claimed that it was on his advice that OPS initially rebelled against Sasikala, and that he had also told OPS to visit Jayalalithaa’s samadhi for “inspiration”.
On Thursday though, OPS stood alone. Top BJP leaders said there were no channels open for him to join them.
Even Sasikala, who still wields considerable clout within the AIADMK – a reason EPS has kept her away – may not lend a hand. Sasikala is said to be unsure of entering a bruising battle to capture the AIADMK. “Neither is OPS leader material who can launch a new party, nor does he command respect or has bargaining powers with anyone,” a former AIADMK MP said, while listing his “squandered” qualities like being soft-spoken, humble and polite.
It were these attributes that once fuelled OPS’s rise in the party. He first came into the AIADMK limelight through his association with the Sasikala family. In the 1990s, OPS got to know them when Sasikala’s nephew TTV Dhinakaran contested from Periyakulam, OPS’s native town where he was the municipal chairman.
In 2001, by when OPS was an MLA, Jayalalithaa picked him out of the blue to warm her chair as she stepped down as CM in wake of the TANSI case. It was OPS again who was her choice in 2014 after conviction in the disproportionate assets case. Jayalalithaa complimented him at the time calling him a “unique breed in politics” for returning the baton always without a fight.
OPS humbly responded that he considered opportunities such as becoming CM “bonuses” in his life.
OPS was in the chair when Jayalalithaa died in December 2016 following a long hospitalisation. His rebellion against Sasikala, then interim general secretary, cost him his post. Sasikala replaced him with another loyalist, EPS.
By mid-2017, the two men came together to oust Sasikala, whose sentencing on corruption charges also took her out of the picture .
While EPS was not as well-known as OPS, especially outside Tamil Nadu, he proved a dark horse. A politician from Western Tamil Nadu, his skills bettered OPS’s when it came to handling the party, mobilising resources during rallies, and fighting elections. A god-fearing man, he is seen as good with people.
A senior leader from the EPS camp said while he might be a man of few words, he had proved his mettle. Underlining the difference between the two, he said: “EPS is not subservient. Unlike OPS, he talks to the BJP, doesn’t go to them for ‘advice’. He wants to restore the AIADMK so that it can go it alone in the 2024 Lok Sabha polls if required.” On Thursday’s AIADMK meeting, the leader added: “What EPS probably gained was a moral and political upper hand.”
Hours later, BJP state unit chief K Annamalai along with senior leader C T Ravi called on EPS to seek support for the NDA’s Presidential nominee, Droupadi Murmu.
BJP leaders later also visited OPS.