Not all is well in the AIADMK. Five years after they arrived at a truce and decided to adopt a dual-leadership model, the party faction led by former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister and AIADMK co-coordinator Edappadi K Palaniswami is locked in a battle with former deputy CM and AIADMK coordinator O Panneersevelam about transitioning to a single-leadership structure.
The latest dispute started after a party meeting on June 14. At the meeting, AIADMK district secretaries and other senior party members spoke out against the “dual leadership” system and called for a single strong leader. They blamed the current structure for the party’s troubles in recent polls. The current system came into place in 2017 with the help of the BJP, which had helped resolve the dispute between the factions at the time.
Palaniswami, who is popularly known as EPS, and his faction have been pushing for the change in the leadership structure given that the former deputy CM, who is popularly referred to as OPS, has become weak within the organisation. According to party insiders, of the AIADMK’s 75 district secretaries, hardly 10 support him. Of the party’s 66 MLAs, only five MLAs are reportedly on OPS’ side and less than 20 per cent of the party’s general council members back him.
A senior AIADMK leader and former minister close to EPS said single leadership was required to “rescue” the party before the 2024 Lok Sabha polls and pointed out that calling it a factional feud would be superficial. “We realise that AIADMK has been not able to take swift and prompt actions or decisions due to this dual leadership,” said the senior party functionary. “The complex leadership system has been delaying and slowing down everything, it has demotivated party hierarchies and functions since 2017. Some of the most embarrassing controversies that shook the AIADMK government were also due to this dual system. The unusual delay in deciding the two Rajya Sabha MP candidates is the latest example.”
Senior leaders backing the former CM said since major elections were two years away now was a good time to install EPS as the undisputed leader of the AIADMK and set things right. Even at the cost of trouble in the short run.
With a decision on the matter likely to be taken on June 23, when the party’s general council and executive meetings are held in Chennai, it almost looks certain that EPS will be the only man left standing at the top of the AIADMK hierarchy. But he has to contend with the fact that his former deputy has had the backing of the BJP in the past and is increasingly becoming friendlier with the family of V K Sasikala, Jayalalithaa’s associate whom the two had ousted in a leadership struggle after the former CM’s death.
Multiple sources in the state BJP said OPS was their man in the AIADMK but things might be changing now. “The BJP’s state and central leaderships are closely watching this situation,” said a senior party leader.
Unlike leaders in Delhi or Chennai who earlier spoke to OPS, the veteran BJP leader said that current state BJP chief K Annamalai was closer to EPS because of several factors, including the fact that both of them are from the Kongu region in western Tamil Nadu. “The question is not about EPS or OPS, but EPS or Sasikala,” the BJP functionary added. “Delhi, as well as the state BJP, prefers EPS over Sasikala as she will be detrimental to our alliance as well as the current equations. Handling EPS would be easier than handling a party under Sasikala.”
He admitted that recent anti-BJP utterances by the AIADMK might have been part of EPS’ plan to negotiate with the BJP while asserting his party’s identity.
Another accusation levelled by the faction led by the former CM is that the current DMK government is going soft on OPS. This theory gained ground when the former deputy CM was the only former Cabinet minister in the AIADMK who was not raided by the state authorities earlier this year. O P Raveendranath, the AIADMK’s only Lok Sabha MP and OPS’ son called on Chief Minister M K Stalin last month at the secretariat, irking the EPS camp.
“He claimed that he met Stalin to demand more nurses and doctors for a district hospital in his native town. The lame reason he cited is similar to a police sub-inspector in Chennai meeting the Union home minister and seeking a table and chair for his police station,” said a former AIADMK minister who is being probed by the state government.
The former deputy CM has been citing a 2017 resolution that had brought about the truce between the two sides. The resolution declared Jayalalithaa as the “permanent general secretary” of the party and introduced the dual leadership system for the party’s functioning. “Plans to revive that post again will be a betrayal to Amma (Jayalalithaa),” OPS has said.
The power struggle between the two sides spilled out on the roads on Thursday when OPS’ supporters attacked former minister and party organisation secretary D Jayakumar who is a key member of the EPS camp. Jayakumar’s car was forcefully stopped at the party headquarters and the senior leader was heckled and abused. “Like in 2017, he might also try to flaunt a morally superior face,” said a senior AIADMK leader who was with OPS for a long time before switching sides.