Edappadi K Palaniswami has grown into his role as Tamil Nadu CM I Opinion
Once dismissed as a mere puppet of Sasikala Natarajan - the now jailed aide of former AIADMK supremo J Jayalalithaa - Edappadi K Palaniswami or EPS as he is popularly known, has grown in political stature as Convener of the AIADMK as well as into his role as the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. During the long reign of Jayalalithaa as the head of AIADMK from 1989 till her death in December 2016, most leaders including the senior most in the party were dispensable. They survived and served at her mercy. A smile or a frown could make or destroy a political career. Little wonder they would carry her photos in their pockets and wouldn’t hesitate to publicly genuflect at her feet.
EPS even during the Jaya era was a canny survivor and in his favour, he used to back her from the very beginning. After the death of party founder, the larger-than-life MG Ramachandran (MGR), when a succession struggle broke out between his widow Janaki Ramachandran and Jayalalithaa, EPS had the foresight to back the winning horse. For which he was duly rewarded too. He was even sent to Parliament in 1998, but that was short-lived. Though EPS is often hailed as the ‘political strongman of Salem district’ – from where he hails – this in reality has not always been the case. This is because EPS is a Kongu Vellala Gounder in an area which has a strong presence of Vanniyars and the party which claims to represent their interests PMK. Between 1996 and 2011, the constitutency Edappadi represents was actually won by the PMK.
While in the previous Jayalalithaa government too he held important portfolios like highways and minor ports and was a close confidante of hers, it was sheer serendipity which landed him in the CM’s chair. After Jaya’s death, O Pannerselvam (OPS) who had twice stood-in for Jaya during her prison stints became the CM. But when an internal power struggle broke out with Sasikala wanting to become the CM, a court judgement intervened. She was sent to prison in a disproportionate assets case. Sasikala, a Thevar herself, did not want another member of her own community OPS to continue in the CM’s post. She chose to back EPS which is when the image of him being a mere front for her got created. He was not expected to survive beyond a few months given the internecine feud which was consuming the party. However, power is a great glue to hold together disparate interests.
Slowly and surely EPS has broken away from being seen as somebody under Sasikala’s thumb. He also quietly sidelined OPS who is seen as being more sympathetic to the AIADMK having a deeper alliance with BJP. While the Lok Sabha polls were a complete whitewash with the party losing 38 of the 39 seats in the state, the surprising win of 9 of the 22 assembly seats that went to by-polls not only ensured the government’s survival but also EPS’s hold on the party. Even though OPS was successful in ensuring his son was the sole AIADMK candidate to win the Lok Sabha poll, the fact that he was not able to get him a ministerial position at the Centre is an indication of his reduced bargaining power within the party, as EPS wanted some AIADMK RS members to get that post.
The TN CM has become so confident that he embarked on an international visit to UK, US and Dubai to attract investments to the state, without even officially indicating that during his absence, his official deputy OPS will stand in for him. From being seen as this rustic, district level leader, EPS has carefully tried to change his image to a pan-state one. From preferring mostly silence or at best cryptic utterances, he has become a more confident speaker stridently attacking the Stalin led opposition.
With assembly polls though just 20 months away, EPS still faces significant challenges. One of the castes which have solidly backed AIADMK since inception have been the Thevars also called Mukkulathor – which include the Agamudyar, Kallar and Marvar sub castes who are concentrated in Southern and Central TN. However EPS’s two closest ministerial aides and the most powerful ones in the cabinet – S P Velumani and P Thangamani – both are Gounders like himself. So EPS will have to ensure that his administration is not seen as only taking care of his community’s interests, specially as AMMK will play the Thevar card. Also the succession in DMK has gone off more smoothly than anticipated and Stalin with a thumping victory in the Lok Sabha polls is rearing to face the assembly polls.
While MNM the party of Kamal Hassan as well as AMMK the breakaway faction of TTV Dhinakaran – Sasikala’s nephew - barely made a mark in the recent polls, a wild card could still be the possible entry of Rajnikanth and his new party. Sasikala who is due to come out of prison before the polls may further disrupt the current peace that EPS has established between competing factions. The single biggest asset that EPS and the official AIADMK have is the popular two leaves symbol with its wide brand cachet as well as the vote bank nurtured by MGR and Jayalalithaa.
For now though, EPS has proved to be a better survivor than what most analysts thought. Whether he will be able to pull off a surprise in 2021 remains to be seen.