Tamil politics

Panneerselvam's political future will depend on how quickly he consolidates public support

Dr RK Nagar by-election and municipal polls will determine whether Panneerselvam would be able to emerge as a mass leader.

History in Tamil Nadu has repeated in more ways than one in the last two weeks. Like 1987, when the death of its founder MG Ramachandran left the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in chaos, the passing away of former Chief Minister Jayalalithaa on December 5 has split the party into two.

Her aide of three decades, VK Sasikala, has won the latest round of this power battle by successfully installing her nominee, Edappadi K Palaniswami, as the chief minister. This victory came two days after the Supreme Court killed her dreams of ruling Tamil Nadu by convicting her in the disproportionate assets case. She will spend the next four years in prison but is likely to have a huge influence on governance in Tamil Nadu if Palaniswami manages to keep his flock together and win the trust vote in the Assembly on Saturday.

Just as Jayalalithaa took on MGR’s wife VN Janaki after his death in 1987, former Chief Minister O Panneerselvam, her trusted loyalist, chose to revolt against AIADMK’s leadership led by Sasikala. Like Jayalalithaa, he earned the popular support but could not break the legislative party to claim the chief minister’s post.

But Jayalalithaa used the positive public opinion to her advantage and emerged as the stronger faction in the 1989 Assembly elections. For Panneerselvam, the opportunity to prove his base will be presented sooner than what Jayalalithaa got after MGR’s death in the form of a by-election to Dr RK Nagar constituency, which fell vacant after Jayalalithaa’s death, and the municipal polls, which is likely to take place in July.

Following MGR

On Thursday, hours after Palaniswami took over as chief minister, Panneerselvam went back to Jayalalithaa’s memorial to pay homage to his leader. This was where he launched his revolt against Sasikala on February 7 and plunged the AIADMK into turmoil.

At the memorial, Panneerselvam said he will visit the constituencies of all the 124 legislators who supported Sasikala and urge the people to teach them a lesson for helping “those who were responsible for Jayalalithaa’s death” to capture power.

This strategy showed that Panneerselvam has a keen sense of history. In 1972, after he broke away from the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and launched the Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, MGR decided to confront legislators who were in support of M Karunanidhi, the then chief minister and DMK president. He batted for the people’s right to recall their elected representatives. But since the law did not provide people such a right, he exhorted them to gather outside the offices of these legislators in their constituencies and “wake their conscience up”. This even led to police complaints of instigating assaults against MGR, who was forced to appear before courts.

While very few in the DMK moved out with him in 1972, the trend began changing a year later when in 1973, MGR fielded a candidate for the Dindigul parliamentary by-election. The AIADMK won a landslide victory and provided the confidence that DMK leaders needed to ditch Karunanidhi and move camps.

Panneerselvam has a golden chance to repeat MGR’s feat. The Dr RK Nagar seat in north Chennai fell vacant after Jayalalithaa’s death on December 5 and will witness elections by June.

Given the swelling popular support for Panneerselvam, his supporters feel that their chance of scoring an upset and winning the by-poll is bright.

A Lok Sabha member, who is now in Panneerselvam’s team, said it was important not to waste time trying to capture the AIADMK and focus energies on launching a platform to take advantage of public support. “In 1989, Jayalalithaa won without the two leaves symbol. In the age of social media, making a new symbol popular is not too hard,” the leader said.

The parliamentarian added that a number of senior leaders, including C Ponnaiyan and E Madhusudhanan, have joined hands with Panneerselvam and there was no dearth of quality candidates. “In fact, Madhusudhanan knows Dr RK Nagar in and out and has won the seat in the past,” he added.

The by-election will be followed by state-wide municipal polls. “It is important we launch the new platform quickly,” the leader said.

However, others in the faction pointed out that Jayalalithaa was able to taste success in the 1989 polls because she managed to get the “two leaves” symbol, which had great emotional appeal as MGR’s symbol, suspended. This was perhaps why a delegation led by Rajya Sabha member V Maitreyan appealed to the Election Commission of India on Thursday to take the symbol away from the party till it was clear who had the majority support in the organisation. “Starting a new party or some kind of platform and trying to recover the AIADMK can happen parallely,” said another leader, who was part of the delegation.

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