The leadership debate in the AIADMK hides faultlines in the party and in its ties with BJP
The raging debate that Tamil Nadu’s ruling AIADMK witnessed last week over its choice for the office of Chief Minister for the 2021 Assembly election might have been premature, but it highlighted the sharp divide between the camps of CM Edappadi K. Palaniswami and Deputy CM O. Panneerselvam. For now, the leaders have decided not to address the issue and asked party functionaries not to discuss it in public. The debate, apart from the timing, was strange as Tamil Nadu, with a history of personality cult politics, is not known to have the tradition of principal parties declaring Chief Ministerial candidates. Until the debate erupted, Mr. Palaniswami and Mr. Panneerselvam, who was briefly CM three times in the last 19 years, gave the impression of having worked out a successful cohabitation arrangement, in the party and the government. But, Mr. Palaniswami must be wondering why the issue came up. As the incumbent CM, he could have reasonably expected to be projected as the party’s nominee.
Also, the controversy has much to do with the AIADMK’s relationship with its ally, the BJP. While Mr. Panneerselvam appears to be upset over the lack of prominence given to him in government events and the delay in the constitution of a steering committee for the party, his son, O.P. Raveendranath Kumar — the only AIADMK candidate elected during the 2019 Lok Sabha election — was not nominated to the Union Council of Ministers. To date, the Union government has no AIADMK representative. Mr. Palaniswami was evidently cautious, keeping in mind the presence of seniors in the parliamentary party and also of the advisability of sending his party’s nominees to the Centre when the popular mood in the State is not favourable to the BJP. There is a view within the AIADMK that any tie-up with BJP for 2021 would be as disastrous as it was in 2019. Besides, their differences on policy matters seem unending. In recent months, the Palaniswami regime has made known its opposition unequivocally, be it on the issue of the three-language policy, or free power for agriculturists or revision of norms for determining the creamy layer among OBCs, eligible for quota in education and jobs. The BJP’s State unit too has been adopting aggressive posturing, especially on Hindu deities and religious matters. Its leaders are aggrieved that even though the police have taken action on a row over ‘Kanda Sashti Kavasam’, a compilation of Tamil hymns, the AIADMK leadership chose not to comment on the matter, but Mr. Palaniswami was quick to condemn an incident in Puducherry, of the statue of AIADMK founder MGR being draped in a saffron shawl. Whether or not the alliance survives this phase, the signals from the ground are not encouraging. Before taking a call on its alliance with the BJP, the AIADMK should set things right and settle the issue of the Chief Ministerial candidate for 2021.