With only nine months before Assembly polls in Tamil Nadu, posters projecting Deputy Chief Minister O Panneerselvam as the ruling AIADMK’s chief ministerial candidate have created ripples within the party.
A group of senior ministers have been shuttling between the residences of Mr Panneerselvam and Chief Minister E Palaniswami since 11 AM, meeting them separately.
On Saturday evening Mr Panneerselvam and Mr Palaniswami issued a joint statement in which they said that all key policy decisions would be taken democratically, and cautioned “functionaries against sharing personal opinions”.
“Party’s decisions, including alliance, will reflect cadre sentiment. All cadres should work unitedly for victory. Functionaries ought to avoid sharing personal opinions. Action will be taken against those violate this,” the joint statement said.
Elections are due in May next year but the topic of the chief ministerial candidate made headlines after Co-operatives Minister Sellur Raju this week said a decision would be taken after the polls. He said the elected MLAs would decide on their chief minister.
A few days later another minister – KT Rajenthra Balaji – named Mr Palaniswami, the current chief minister, as the party’s candidate for the top spot.
Mr Panneerselvam responded by urging his MLAs to focus on winning a third successive term.
“The AIADMK’s target is to win a third successive term. That was Amma’s (former Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa, who died in December 2016) dream. My kind appeal is that everyone should work with decorum, responsibility and discipline,” he tweeted.
Until the death of the former chief minister, it was standard practice for the AIADMK to name the party chief to the top spot in the state.
When she had to step down following convictions in a corruption case, Jayalalithaa twice hand-picked Mr Pannerselvam as the stand-in Chief Minister. After her death too Mr Pannerselvam was made Chief Minister.
However, there was tension within party ranks after Jayalalithaa’s close aide, Sasikala, became party chief and she made a play for the chief minister’s position. Her wish was scuttled after she was convicted in a disproportionate assets case.
Sasikala then hand-picked Mr Palaniswami to become the chief Minister, triggering a rebellion from Mr Pannerselvam, who sat on a dharna at Jayalalithaa’s grave.
Mr Pannerselvam also voted against the Palaniswami government, along with ten others.
In August 2017 both camps worked out a deal and a collective leadership mechanism, under which Mr Pannerselvam settled for the position of Deputy Chief Minister and Mr Palaniswami agreed to be No 2 in the party.
This was after cancelling Sasikala’s appointment as interim General Secretary and nullifying her decisions, including appointments and expulsions.
The deal also led to Sasikala’s nephew, TTV Dhinakaran, being ousted; Mr Dhinakaran had been made AIADMK Deputy General Secretary.
The Chief Minister is backed by Tamil Nadu’s western block – this largely consists of the financially powerful Gounder community (to which he belongs). In doing so, he has also dented the erstwhile domination of the AIADMK by the Thevar community, to which his deputy belongs.
As state elections move steadily closer, both sides have already begun flexing their political muscle, in a bid to not only ensure the AIADMK, an ally of the BJP, remains in power, but to ensure that their chosen candidate occupies the chief minister’s chair after the dust settles.