Music, dance, celebrations, and firecrackers marked the festivities in the Eadappadi K Palaniswami (EPS) faction on Thursday, 23 February, as the Supreme Court upheld his election as Interim General Secretary of the AIADMK.
In contrast, the residence of Ottakarathevar Panneerselvam (OPS) sported a deserted look and was shrouded in eerie silence.
These images would have you believe that the leadership tussle in thenAIADMK has decisively ended, but there may be more things at play.
From the legal options before OPS to a change in the equations of the AIADMK-BJP alliance in Tamil Nadu, and even EPS’s ability to fight for the party’s Two Leaves symbol — quite a few challenges lie ahead for the AIADMK.
The Supreme Court’s verdict on the leadership tussle in the AIADMK was not merely about a clash between two heavyweights, but could affect the future of a party which has ruled Tamil Nadu for nearly 30 years.
Also Read: The Golden armour of Muthuramalinga Thevar and why AIADMK leaders are fighting over it
Court backs EPS
The Supreme Court has upheld the order of a Division Bench of the Madras High Court, but has also added that it was not dealing with resolutions passed by the AIADMK General Council. The council meeting in 2022 passed resolutions electing EPS as Interim General Secretary and expelling OPS from the party, among others.
“We have upheld the order of the Division Bench of the High Court dated September 2, 2022, and made our earlier interim order permanent. We have not dealt with the matter of resolutions before the party that was being heard by the single judge. We leave it open for the said resolutions to be dealt with by law. We do not seek it necessary to allow the impleadment applications.” the Supreme Court said, allowing space for legal remedies.
This “space” has given some hope to OPS, although the EPS faction is convinced it is futile.
“The Supreme Court has upheld the order of the Madras High Court and the Madras High Court had not closed the doors for OPS and the scope of the case in the high court is whether the General Council Meeting is valid or not,” advocate T Rajesh, who practices in the Supreme Court, told South First.
Advocate Olirajan, who has been following the AIADMK’s case right from the beginning, said that both the high court and Supreme Court took the above view as the single judge went beyond the scope rather than trying the validity of convening the General Council Meeting on the specified date.
This is the reason why the single Judge order was set aside, he told South First,
He added that the Division Bench of the high court and the Supreme Court had told both OPS and EPS to settle the tussle before a civil court, which means there is an upper hand for EPS because the Division Bench of the Madras High Court had set aside a single-judge order that had, in effect, quashed the appointment of Edapaddi K Palaniswamy as Interim General Secretary, that was upheld by the apex court.
What are the options before OPS?
Members of the legal fraternity as well as political observers insist that Panneerselvam may have the space to explore other legal remedies to keep the power tussle going.
“The appellate court (high court or the Supreme Court) would not be interfering with the exercise of discretion by the court of first instance and substitute its discretion, except in cases where discretion was shown to have been exercised arbitrarily, capriciously or perversely or against the settled principles of law,”, said advocate T Rajesh.
Although the Supreme Court dismissed Panneerselvam’s plea, it has not interfered in the resolutions made in the General Council meeting.
“The main contention of the OPS faction is that the by-law created by the founder of the party MG Ramachandran (MGR) cannot be changed in terms of electing the ‘general secretary’ of the party. It can be done only by party members and not by the other bodies of the party,” the advocate added.
The operative portion of the judgement — “In the interest of justice, we leave all the related aspects concerning the said resolutions open to be agitated, but strictly by law; and all the objections and rebuttals of the contesting parties are also kept open” — opens up options for OPS.
Civil court option
Journalist Thuglak Ramesh, a keen observer of Tamil Nadu politics for over four decades, told South First that the apex court had said that the resolutions passed by the General Council which are “agitated” by OPS can be dealt with in the appropriate forum.
“OPS may approach the civil court and speed up the case that he filed earlier and even knock the doors of the Election Commission of India and ask them not to approve the new resolution passed in the General Council meeting that held on 11 July (2022), pointing out that the case is pending in a civil court,” he said.
The EPS faction is not, however, buying any of this. AIADMK spokesperson Kovai Sathyan, in fact, said the era of “EOPS — End Of Panneerselvam” had begun.
“He is a self-centered person who thinks only about his family had put the career and ambition of 1.5 crore cadres at stake for his selfishness. He will be a political orphan,” Sathyan told South First in an interview.
But the view from the OPS camp is, not surprisingly, entirely different.
R Vaithiyalingam, an incumbent MLA and a staunch supporter of OPS, told South First said that Supreme Court had reiterated what the Madras High Court had said, and that no one can claim or lead AIADMK without the support of OPS.
Challenges galore for EPS
“Whatever Palaniswami prayed for, he got. Now it is for him to deliver at Erode East byelections,” said RK Radhakrishnan, a senior journalist who has had a tap on AIADMK issues from its inception.
“Now it is for him to earn the confidence of the people and the voters,” he told South First, adding that he Erode East bypoll is a prestige battle for Palaniswami who holds sway in the region.
“There were 11 resolutions passed at the General Council meeting, include appointing EPS as the Interim General Secretary of the party. This means, they can be revisited in the civil court and OPS will challenge the resolution. It will be a real test for Palaniswami,” Radhakrishnan opined.
Apart from this, the main challenge before EPS is to protect the Two Leaves party symbol which is the magic wand for the AIADMK. The party’s symbol has been frozen by the Election Commission of India in the past when leadership tussles had split the party.
While speaking to reporters soon after the Judgement was delivered, Vaithiyalingam MLA said that Palaniswami could use the Two Leaves symbol only in the Erode East by-election, but and it will be a challenge for him to claim the symbol for future elections.
This clearly indicates that the OPS faction will stake claim to the party symbol.
Impact on AIADMK-BJP alliance?
One of the strongest criticisms against OPS was that he was “too friendly and dependent on the BJP”.
Palaniswami, in contrast, is seen by cadre as a more assertive leader. With EPS solely at the helm of affairs, questions have been raised on whether it will impact the status quo in the AIADMK-BJP alliance.
“I don’t think Palaniswami will dodge the BJP as of now. Since he is now the single leader of the party, he will try to take advantage. He will perhaps offer only a few — even just single digit — seats to the BJP in the upcoming parliamentary elections,” Thuglak Ramesh opined.
For the BJP, which has been playing “big brother” in the internal matters of the AIADMK, a more assertive Palaniswami could be a thorn in the flesh, as the party is still very much dependent on AIADMK in Tamil Nadu.
Ramesh believes that Palaniswami will try to maintain a cordial relationship with BJP state president Annamalai, especially as he is vocal in opposing the DMK. It is a wait and watch to see if Palaniswami will also double down on his attacks against DMK.
“Only a united AIADMK, with a powerful alliance, can defeat the DMK,” Ramesh opined.
Hinting about the future relationship with the BJP, a former minister from the EPS camp told South First that earlier BJP leaders used to meet OPS too while dealing with alliance or AIADMK party issues.
He pointed to a recent example when BJP national general secretary and Tamil Nadu in-charge for elections CT Ravi and K Annamalai met Panneerselvam over the Erode East by-elections.
“Now, such a scenario should not happen and that is what we expect from them. In case it does, it will not be tolerated,” he added.
Reiterating the same, Kovai Sathyan said that, in the coming days, the political narrative of Tamil Nadu will be decided by the AIADMK.
“We will not allow other parties to ride on our shoulders,” Sathyan said. The AIADMK has to put up a strongman perception to woo disillusioned cadres.
It is still EPS vs OPS
The reactions of the two leaders after the judgement should be considered carefully.
Palaniswami was in Madurai when the verdict came. Speaking to media persons, he reiterated that he “will never induct Panneerselvam, Sasikala, and Dhinakaran into the party”.
Later in the evening, in Theni, Pannerselvam said: “Let the grassroots cadre of the AIADMK decide the leader of the party.”
Both statements, though oft-repeated by both leaders, show that the claim for the party will continue.
“OPS will not give up and EPS will not give way,” an AIADMK leader said.