If Tamil Nadu politics were a five Act play, sample all that took place in the arena in a couple of weeks.
Act One: After four years in Bengaluru central prison, VK Sasikala, a former aide of Jayalalithaa, steps out. The optics of the kind of rapturous welcome she receives gets wide attention on TV channels and the road journey from Bengaluru to Chennai that should not usually take more than six hours, takes 20 plus hours.
Act Two: In a parallel development, ahead of VK Sasikala’s release, the Edappadi Palaniswami government decides to shut down the newly unveiled Jayalalithaa memorial for repairs. How does the public interpret what comes across as a churlish move? To prevent Sasikala from having a photo-op at the samadhi. Senior ministers also complain to the Tamil Nadu police chief against Sasikala sporting the AIADMK flag on her vehicle.
Act Three: O Panneerselvam’s son VP Jayapradeep tweets, wishing Sasikala a speedy recovery. The message raises eyebrows given how his father had revolted against the Sasikala-led AIADMK in February 2017 and launched a Dharma Yuddham against her. Jayapradeep later clarifies that his message was humane and not political. A Freudian slip to admit that the two do not co-exist.
Act Four: Sasikala claims she will remain in active politics. Chatter begins on how AIADMK, if defeated in the assembly elections, could splinter with much of it gravitating towards Chinnamma as she is referred to.
Act Five: Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits Chennai on Valentine’s day and holds hands of both EPS and OPS together to symbolise they can both be winners only if they fight together. Bonhomie is in the air and the deputy chief minister praises EPS saying he is ruling Tamil Nadu like Jayalalithaa used to.
Though picture abhi baaki hai with Assembly elections a couple of months away, the threat of a formidable common foe, with more than a nudge from the BJP top leadership, is compelling EPS and OPS to bury their differences. At least for public consumption.
Both have reasons to. Cut to Flashback. Over a period of a decade and a half, both Sasikala and nephew TTV Dhinakaran have had a role to play in boosting Panneerselvam’s political career. He was chosen as the person to stand-in for Jayalalithaa when she had to step aside as CM. Yet in Sasikala’s book, OPS bit the hand that had fed him.
EPS, on the other hand, fell at Sasikala’s feet, got endorsed as chief minister and once she was behind bars, got back together with OPS on his terms and threw Chinnamma out of the party. The crown, the party and the two leaves of the AIADMK were all his.
EPS and OPS have been in politics long enough to know that should the glue of power desert them post-May, their political fortunes could nosedive. And Sasikala would be keen to settle scores.
Which is why the need to press the reset button. 2021 cannot be 2017 revisited. Both EPS and OPS have realised the value of a truce even if it is a temporary overture.
EPS has the most to lose should the AIADMK do poorly in May 2021. He is aware about Panneerselvam’s cosy relationship with the BJP top brass and knows his deputy would not be averse to encashing that goodwill to secure a better political deal for himself. That there is a trust deficit between the two leaders, is the worst kept secret in Chennai.
Not that OPS has it easy. The southern Tamil Nadu citadel of the AIADMK was breached in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections and OPS has to ensure the summer of 2021 does not see a repeat. Between OPS and Sasikala-Dhinakaran, it is also a critical fight for the Thevar community vote. If his community decides not to sail with OPS and instead invest in Sasikala, Panneerselvam could become a political has-been.
What then are the realistic options before EPS and OPS? Despite efforts by OPS to leave the leadership question open-ended, Palaniswami managed to ensure that he was projected as the chief ministerial face should the AIADMK return to Fort St George. But that was the easier part. The tough part is to prevent a repeat of 2019 in 2021 when the DMK-led alliance swept 38/39 Lok Sabha seats in Tamil Nadu.
To understand why Sasikala’s return has made EPS and OPS close ranks, you need to understand the nature of the 2019 verdict. Dhinakaran, even though he came a cropper, secured 5.27 per cent vote share in the Lok Sabha elections, faring well in the rural pockets in south Tamil Nadu. In a fight for top honours in the assembly polls, even a thousand votes moving towards Dhinakaran, could compromise AIADMK’s winning chances, more so, if the leadership is divided.
In the past few days, EPS also has sharpened his attack on Dhinakaran. Palaniswami’s plan, it would seem, is to ensure that Sasikala does not politically align herself with Dhinakaran and help him boost AMMK’s chances. It also seems to be driven by a desire to block Dhinakaran’s lateral entry into the NDA.
The 2016 assembly elections saw Jayalalithaa do an MGR – return to power for a second successive term. Sasikala Returns, so far is proving to be a more tantalising potboiler.