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Relentless political drama in TN

Fragile accord to save ruling AIADMK emerges.

Relentless political drama in TN
Two power-driven factions of ruling AIADMK, a magnificent political structure that late J Jayalalithaa, popularly known as 'Amma', created in her lifetime, were nearly bringing down the edifice, before agreeing to a truce on April 22, though with substance yet to be negotiated.

For months as the rival groups, merrily engaged in their games, governance in Tamil Nadu was at a standstill, a State wracked by the worst drought and widespread water crisis in a hot summer.

This unprecedented political crisis in Tamil Nadu, also fiscally strained and highly indebted, was viewed more as an opportunity by M K Stalin, DMK leader, with credible numbers to step into a potential vacuum. The only other expectant force thirsting for political space, BJP has been equally active, so much so that other state parties saw the hand of BJP at the Centre manipulating the course of AIADMK developments in Tamil Nadu including a tax raid.

Income tax authorities raided the residence of one of the Ministers Vijayabaskar who was allegedly trying to arrange distribution of Rs. 86 crores among voters in RK Nagar, a North Chennai constituency, where by-election had been called for April 12 but cancelled subsequently amid widespread reports of cash distribution to voters.

Though denied by Central Ministers, Tamil Nadu matters critically for Prime Minister Narendra Modi both for the July Presidential elections and even more for his second enthronement in 2019, with a friendly AIADMK, given the significant numbers AIADMK command. (In 2014, the late Jayalalithaa took away 37 out of 39 TN seats in Lok Sabha). Both Panneerselvam (while in office) and his successor of the Sasikala faction, Chief Minister E Palaniswami, have had meetings with Modi on state issues.

The three-month long crisis in Tamil Nadu was triggered when Chief Minister O Panneerselvam resigned in January and raised a banner of revolt against efforts of Amma's closest aide V K Sasikala, already General Secretary, to take over leadership of Government. And with the support of a majority, Sasikala met the Governor to stake her claim.

Panneerselvam (OPS) had the backing of about a dozen MLAs and some MPs and other senior cadres, and claimed he was engaged in a "Dharma Yudh" to see that Sasikala (now in jail after a Supreme Court verdict) and her nominee and family member Deputy General Secretary TTV Dhinakaran were thrown out of AIADMK. He has other tough demands.

In recent weeks, some of the Ministers (Sasikala faction) and the Panneerselvam group began to realise that in the evolving political situation with serious problems ahead including local body elections to follow within two months, they must try to restore the original stature of AIADMK and stand united. Otherwise, the AIADMK Government cannot last its full term till 2021 and both factions will have to sink together.

Strangely, Panneerselvam, who hardly spoke or made decisions whenever Jayalalithaa had asked him to look after her portfolios, turned quite hawkish this time and set stiff pre-conditions for talks with the Palaniswami group. Apart from sacking Sasikala and family from the party, which has been agreed to by the Ministerial side, he also wanted a CBI inquiry into the treatment and circumstances of her demise on December 5 in Apollo Hospital.

The Palaniswami Government, with a majority of barely five or six MLAs, is highly vulnerable to confidence votes demanded by Stalin - and 11 MLAs of rival camp could also switch sides - and the Party also needs the frozen "Two Leaves" symbol, for local body elections.

Palaniswami has taken the initiative and offered to step aside in favour of Panneerselvam (being restored as Chief Minister) while he would settle for the party's highest post of General Secretary. Both groups have formed seven-member teams with leading party leaders on both sides to thrash out remaining, some undoubtedly tough, issues.

Dhinakaran, already having to fight old and new cases in different courts for FERA violation and also his alleged attempt to bribe EC to ensure allotment of AIADMK symbol to Amma DMK which he sought to represent in the byelection, seems to have taken the new development in stride. He is yet to take soundings from Sasikala, serving her four-year jail term in a Bengaluru prison.

Panneerselvam had at an early stage taken the factional battles to the Election Commission raising the legitimacy of Sasikala's appointment as General Secretary in the first instance and thereby he could claim AIADMK symbol "Two Leaves" for his group candidate who was to face Dhinakaran (backed by Ministers of the Edappadi Palaniswami Government).

The Election Commission has given time till June 16 to the two factions in the AIADMK to submit the documents and affidavits supporting their claim of numerical strength in the party to claim the two leaves symbol. It is unlikely that RK Nagar byelection would be held soon. The State electoral officer is under pressure from the High Court not to delay the local body elections deferred on more than one occasion, now likely by the end of May.

Radhakrishnan Nagar constituency had elected Jayalalithaa twice, once after her acquittal in the Disproportionate Assets Case by the Karnataka High Court in 2015 and again in the 2016 Assembly elections, which renewed her mandate for a second successive five-year term (2016-2021).

The unexpected cancellation of the RK Nagar bypoll was a shock not only to the rival camps battling for legitimacy, as the actual heir to Amma Jayalalithaa's legacy, but even more to the major opposition DMK leader Mt M K Stalin, who had hoped to wrest the AIADMK stronghold for his party and turn it a vote of no-confidence against the Palaniswami Government.

Stalin has been desperately attempting to rally all political forces, other than BJP and two factions of AIADMK, and emerge as the principal political voice of the State's interests, especially the distressed farmers in Cauvery delta, awaiting the waiver of loans and other relief measures to meet the water crisis enveloping Tamil Nadu.

Now that the Palaniswami government ministers themselves have distanced themselves, Dhinakaran says he is no longer doing work of the party. The latter was expected to meet Sasikala and discuss the future course of action. A few voices are still being raised in her support here and there. Panneerselvam already tastes victory in his "Dharma Yudh".

(The views expressed are strictly personal.)
S Sethuraman

S Sethuraman

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