Edappadi K Palaniswami has spent a lifetime in the shadow of former Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa, who picked him out of political wilderness three decades ago and used him as her link to the cadre.
But with his elevation as the new AIAMDK legislative party chief on Tuesday, the 62-year-old has been sprung to the spotlight and faces the challenge of quelling a raging rebellion led by caretaker chief minister O Panneerselvam.
Palaniswami, who is currently the state minister for ports and highways, is a highly influential leader from the politically powerful OBC Gounder community, who hail from the western districts of the state.
Analysts say his caste background might give him an advantage against Panneerselvam, who also hails from a politically influential OBC group, the Thevars.
Palaniswami – a leader from western Tamil Nadu’s Salem – doesn’t have large support base in his home town but might reap the benefits of being a staunch Jayalalithaa loyalist, and for his reputation as a favourite of the late chief minister.
Palaniswami was known to be a part of her so-called “Nalvar Ani” - the four member elite cabinet that Jayalalithaa had instituted from 2011-2016. The other members of the “four man army” were Panneerselvam, ex-power minister Natham Vishwanathan and ex-agriculture minister R Vaithilingam.
He was also the third choice for the chief minister’s post after Jayalalithaa’s death last December.
An AIADMK MLA from western Tamil Nadu’s Kongu Nadu belt said it was “well known among the party that when Amma wanted to pass a message along to the district level ranks of the AIADMK, it came through Palaniswami”.
Hailing from the rural Nedungulam village in Edappadi taluk, 62-year-old Palaniswami joined the AIADMK at a young age in the 1980s. He threw his weight behind Jayalalithaa when the party split after her mentor and party founder MG Ramachandran’s death in 1987.
Jayalalithaa rewarded Palaniswami for his loyalty by nominating him as the AIADMK (Jayalalithaa) candidate in Edappadi constituency during the 1989 elections, in which he was victorious. Though he was sidelined for almost a decade after failing to secure his seat after 1991, Palanisami continued to be a trusted party leader.
In the May 2016 elections, Palaniswami was fielded again in Edappadi again, which he easily won by margin of 42,022 votes.
As head of the legislature party, Palaniswami has already expelled Panneerselvam from the AIADMK.
But whether Palaniswami can muster enough strength to defeat the caretaker CM in a floor test remains to be seen, though the fact that 129 MLAs – more than the majority mark in the TN assembly -- are still holed up in Golden Bay resort plays in his favour.