Though another 75 candidates are also in the fray, the Elangovan-Thennaruasu fight has become a prestige battle for the DMK and AIADMK, points out N Sathiya Moorthy.
Details do not matter. But coming as it does less than five days ahead of the all-important Erode East assembly by-poll in Tamil Nadu, Thursday’s Supreme Court verdict in the AIADMK case should set at rest all speculation about the future of the party leadership, full five years after Jayalalithaa Jayaram’s death in December 2016.
If the party wins the by-election, it would sound a no-holds-barred bugle against the ruling DMK, with or without the Lok Sabha election a year from now, and could involve some tough talking by the leadership of former chief minister Edappadi K Palaniswami (EPS), even to the BJP ally ruling the Centre, in terms of seat-sharing and the like.
In simple terms, a division bench of Justices Dinesh Maheswari and Hrishikesh Roy upheld the Madras high court verdict that had validated the party general council meeting, but remitted the resolutions passed, including EPS’s election as ‘acting’ general secretary, to a single judge, already hearing the matter.
The rival faction led by three-time chief minister and the post-Jaya party coordinator, O Panneerselvam (OPS) had contested the general body meeting, held in their absence, in the high court.
It has now decided to appeal the Supreme Court verdict, which means the leadership issue may drag on for some more time at the very least.
Independent of the court proceedings, all along, it was becoming increasingly clear that EPS alone had the numbers.
Even those that had aligned with OPS initially possibly for their own reasons, began deserting him, after finding out that he did not have their interests and growth in his mind, only that of the self and family.
Even in the days before the court verdict, news reports said some OPS office-bearers and rank-and-file members had crossed over, almost on a daily basis, not to the ruling DMK, as earlier, but to the EPS camp.
Incidentally, the very same Supreme Court bench, disposing of an OPS’ plea, on the choice of candidate and allocation of the party’s ‘Two Leaves’ symbol in the Erode East by-poll, had directed AIADMK presidium chairman A Tamizhmagan Hussain, a known EPS camp-mate, to take charge, temporarily.
In such other cases, though not always involving political parties and legislative elections, courts have invariably appointed lawyer-commissioners for the purpose.
In this case time, the time factor too mattered.
The EPS faction is jubilant about the verdict. Ordinary party cadres, especially those from an earlier generation, upset over the ceaseless infighting in MGR’s party, are relieved.
There is a general perception that the leadership question is now only a formality, and that the party name and the ‘Two Leaves’ election symbol would rest in EPS, even if it took some more time.
The cadres were familiar to the Janaki-Jayalalithaa faction-feud after founder M G Ramachandran’s death in December 1987, which went on until after the 1989 assembly polls which they lost to the rival DMK that was forced to sit out for the previous 13 years.
But the current dispute dragged on for nearly thrice as much time, and had demoralised the traditional supporters more than even the committed cadres of either faction.
All of it means, even a defeat for AIADMK nominee K S Thennarasu, a party and legislative veteran, would not adversely affect EPS’s leadership.
Now that the OPS faction is down and all but out, there would not have been anyone to attribute the defeat to the leadership, and demand a change of any kind.
Yet, some in the OPS camp would try and ‘fix’ responsibility, claiming that they were kept out of the campaign so very completely.
Conversely, a victory for the AIADMK would immediately be hailed as a larger endorsement of EPS’ leadership after he had lost the 2021 assembly polls, as chief minister.
Needless to say, the AIADMK in the company of the even more acerbic BJP ally would go hammer and tongs, with the sole aim of putting the ruling DMK leadership of Chief Minister M K Stalin on the defensive, all through until after the Lok Sabha election — and leading up to the assembly polls, due only by the summer of 2026.
No one would wait any more for the ‘resolutions case’ verdict and possible appeals thereof.
Yet, pending the final verdict, EPS could not initiate disciplinary action against OPS and his three faction friends who are all MLAs, or party MPs that are on the latter’s side.
Included in the list will be the lone Lok Sabha member, who is also OPS’s son.
True, the DMK is not in the fray in Erode East, but the party has justifiably or otherwise made it its own battle, as a defeat for the unwavering Congress ally would still be seen only as a mid-term referendum on the Stalin leadership.
Reading the writing on the wall, Stalin reportedly lost no time in intimating the Congress leadership that Erode East was theirs, the party having won the seat in 2021, and that the DMK would do everything possible to ensure that their candidate won creditably. Thereby hangs the tale.
Thus, even before the Congress had named its candidate, senior DMK ministers, led by K N Nehru, had landed in the constituency, holding cadre-level meetings (keeping the faction-ridden Congress out, wherever it had to be done).
The party also drew up a very long list of booth and constituency-wise poll in-charges, with a large sprinkling of state ministers and other DMK office-bearers.
Confident that the party would romp home, the Congress named former Union minister and ex-state president E V K S Elangovan in the place held by his son Thirumagan Evera, who died of a heart attack.
Elangovan was the only alliance candidate to lose the 2019 Lok Sabha poll, to OPS’s son P Raveendranath Kumar, by a relatively low margin of 75,000 votes (compared to most other alliance victories).
Initially, Elangovan had publicly declined all suggestions of contesting the by-election, and he was genuine.
However, the high command seemed to have concluded that the party could do with a forceful (and at times very controversial) voice in the assembly.
The party also found that the Congress legislative group leader, K Selvaperunthagai, has been involved in avoidable controversies in Chennai, including labour disputes in high-investment foreign-owned factories.
Though another 75 candidates, including those of the NTK and DMDK are also in the fray, the Elangovan-Thennaruasu fight has become a prestige battle for the DMK and the AIADMK.
Media reports, including social media reports, seldom talk about what the candidates were doing at campaign meetings, or had said on the latest occasion.
They are full of EPS lambasting Stalin, and state BJP President Kuppusamy Annamalai, decrying what he says is big-time ‘election fraud’ allegedly being committed by the ruling party.
According to political critics and social media posts, the ruling party has staked up pressure cookers and other costly house-hold items for ‘bribing’ voters, and have put them up in huge sheds, serving them briyani twice a day, and offering Rs 1,000 (hopefully for a family), again twice a day.
Already, EPS, Annamalai and their respective parties have demanded countermanding of polling, pending a detailed inquiry.
The Madras high court however dismissed a plea in the matter after the Election Commission promised to ensure free and fair polls.
According to a section of the national media, the DMK can replace its earlier ‘Thirumangalam model’ of alleged voter-bribing with the ‘Erode East model’.
But they are all ill-informed or motivated.
Years before the Thirumangalam by-election when the DMK was in power in 2009, the AIADMK under the Jayalalithaa government had perfected the art at the Kanchipuram by-election in 2005.
This was preceded by the Andipatti by-election of 2002, which Jayalalithaa won to return as chief minister after the Supreme Court had disqualified her, pending conviction in the TANSI land deal case, ordered by the high court.
Today, T T V Dhinakaran, the author of the Andipatti and Kanchipuram models, have lost out the race for the post-Jaya AIADMK leadership for now-estranged aunt, V K Sasikala Natarajan.
In the DMK, M K Azhagiri, then a Union minister, with whom the ‘Thirumangalam model’ is identified, is also not a party member, his late father M Karunanidhi having sacked him for good, for anti-party activities in Elections 2011.
Yet, the virus that they seemingly sowed has now grown into a huge tree, evil in form and content.
Explanations like inadequate campaign time, introduced and strictly enforced by the Election Commission, may only be one of the causes, for political parties having to find new ways to ‘reach out’ to the ever dis-satisfied voter, with a much higher aspiration-quotient than in most other states and region.
Thereby hangs a tale!
N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist and author, is a Chennai-based policy analyst and political commentator
Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com
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