After days of dilly-dallying, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam factions led by Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami and former Chief Minister O Panneerselvam formally announced a merger on Monday afternoon, predictably stating that they have come back together to fulfill the dreams of their leader and former Chief Minister Jayalalithaa.
The merger was made possible after Palaniswami relented and agreed to remove VK Sasikala from the post of general secretary. While Panneerselvam wanted a resolution to be passed immediately, AIADMK officials said a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh ideologue managed to persuade him to drop the demand of a resolution and take the matter up jointly with Palaniswami before the Election Commission of India. Panneerselvam had already contested the elevation of Sasikala as general secretary in January, arguing that the election was against party norms. According to the AIADMK’s constitution, a general secretary has to be elected by all primary members of the party and not just the general council.
While Panneerselvam later tweeted that a huge burden was off his chest, the uneasiness among the AIADMK leaders was palpable when the merger announcement was made. Even as Palaniswami and Panneerselvam were paying tributes to Jayalalithaa, at least 15 MLAs were still present at the residence of TTV Dinakaran, the nephew of Sasikala who still leads a rival faction. In the meantime, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam president MK Stalin said the “anti-people” AIADMK government has to go, fueling speculations that the DMK could take advantage of a seething Dinakaran to topple the regime.
The compromise between the two factions took a lot of time to fructify. A senior party official said the merger was finalised on Thursday night. It was agreed that Panneerselvam would be made the coordinator of the party and would be drafted into the Cabinet as deputy chief minister. In addition, it was also decided to jointly approach the Election Commission with a fresh petition to retrieve the “two leaves” symbol, which is currently under suspension.
The official said the Palaniswami faction wanted Panneerselvam to not insist on the immediate removal of Sasikala from the party, as they were unsure on the number of MLAs supporting her nephew Dinakaran. By pushing the decision, Palaniswami felt there was a danger to the government and wanted time to persuade legislators supporting Dinakaran to jump boats.
“Palaniswami also felt that the momentum of the merger will bring all MLAs together,” the leader added.
Panneerselvam relented for a bit. But when he placed the decision before his loyalists, a few senior revolted. In particular, former ministers KP Munusamy and C Ponnaiyan were dead against a merger without the assurance of removing Sasikala. “Munusamy said unless a public assurance is made to remove Sasikala, Panneerselvam would earn the ire of the people,” the official said.
Further, the senior leaders also wanted him to get them positions, including three Cabinet posts. This, though, was not accepted by the Palaniswami team, who said altering the Cabinet drastically would result in dissent from ministers who would have to be sacked. “This, they felt, will defeat the very purpose of merger and strengthen Dinakaran,” the official claimed. Palaniswami was not ready to even tinker with portfolios. For example, when Mafoi Pandiarajan, the former minister, joined the Panneerselvam team, he held the school education portfolio. This was later given to KA Sengottaiyan, who is even senior to Palaniswami in the AIADMK. It was clearly communicated to Panneerselvam that this portfolio will not be changed and a smaller ministry would be allocated to Pandiarajan.
Following the demands from his supporters, Panneerselvam decided to call off the merger temporarily on Friday evening.
In the meantime, speculations were rife that an RSS ideologue was approached to resolve the issue. Though AIADMK leaders refused to reveal what exactly was discussed, it seems that the RSS person managed to persuade Panneerselvam to go ahead and take up the question of Sasikala’s removal as the general secretaty unitedly with the Election Commission. A Tamil television channel reported on Monday that members of the AIADMK faction met the RSS member on Monday morning just hours before the merger was formally announced.
With the main factions together, party leaders said winning the case before the commission would be a lot easier. Further, the Palaniswami faction felt that calling for a meeting of the general council immediately will add more pressure on the party as members could use the situation to demand positions and favours. It was also not clear how many in the general council were still backing Sasikala.
Matters moved quickly after Sunday evening, with acting Tamil Nadu Governor C Vidyasagar Rao being requested to be in Chennai on Monday for the expansion of the Cabinet to include Panneerselvam as the deputy chief minister. He reached Chennai on Monday morning.
Party officials said while Panneerselvam has been made the chief coordinator of the party, he would eventually take over as the general secretary whenever the elections to the post are held.
However, the merger is no guarantee that it would be a smooth-sailing for the AIADMK. For the first time since it was founded in 1972, the party will have two power centres. Both Palaniswami and Panneerselvam come from powerful communities – the former a Gounder and the latter a Thevar. Much may depend upon how the party performs in the impending municipal elections, which the Madras High Court is pushing the state to conduct as soon as possible.
In the short-term, the DMK has already indicated that it may move a no confidence motion in the Assembly, which the government has to survive. When he won the confidence vote in February, Palaniswami had 122 legislators supporting him, which included those backing Dinakaran. The halfway mark in the Tamil Nadu Assembly is 117. Currently, the Panneerselvam faction claims to have the support of 10 MLAs. On Monday, at least 16 MLAs met Dinakaran at his residence. This puts Palaniswami in a difficult position as the numbers add up to 116 (122+10- 16) only.
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