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Edappadi K Palaniswami: The survivor

N Ramakrishnan | Updated on May 08, 2020 Published on May 08, 2020

Cultivating an image: Tamil Nadu chief minister Edappadi K Palaniswami (with a green shawl) projects himself as someone who is equally at home in an agricultural field in a folded dhoti, as he is travelling the world in suits to canvass for investments   -  PTI

His own party did not give him more than a few weeks, while the Opposition licked its chops in anticipation of his fall from his accidental elevation. Three years on, Tamil Nadu chief minister Edappadi K Palaniswami is having the last laugh, as he tightens his grip on both the government and the ruling AIADMK party. What explains his incredible staying power even as the state and the country have been swirled by some of the most challenging events in recent times? And what lies ahead for this survivor CM and his party as the countdown begins for the next Assembly elections a year from now?

Edappadi who?

It wouldn’t have been amiss if you’d asked this question before February 2017. Edappadi K Palaniswami was then a low-key minister in the Tamil Nadu government. But events conspired to put him on the centre stage of the state’s politics; and over the last three years, the TN chief minister, who was sworn in under dramatic circumstances, has proved friends and foes wrong.

Not many thought he or his government would survive, let alone see through the remainder of the regime’s term. But today, Palaniswami is well and truly entrenched; both the government and the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) party are firmly under his control.

Palaniswami has made peace with his predecessor and erstwhile rival O Panneerselvam, united two warring factions of the party, shown the door to Sasikala, companion of the late chief minister and party supremo J Jayalalithaa, and kept at bay another key potential challenger, Sasikala’s nephew TTV Dhinakaran, forcing him to float his own party.

From attracting investments to leveraging governance systems during the Covid-19 pandemic (though the Opposition has accused him of mismanaging it and there has been a big spike in cases) to maintaining a delicate balance of being assertive in the state without making Delhi uncomfortable, he is now a regional satrap who can hold his own in the TN political arena.

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Palaniswami was No. 4 in the Jayalalithaa Cabinet that assumed office after the May 2016 Assembly elections, designated as minister for highways, public works and minor ports. If Jayalalithaa had not suffered a fall and died after just eight months in office, in all probability Palaniswami would have continued with the portfolio he was allocated. But that was not to be.

In a dramatic move, Panneerselvam, who had earlier stood in for Jayalalithaa when she had to step down due to court cases, was sworn in CM around midnight, shortly after Jayalalithaa’s death was announced. He too would have, in all probability, completed his term, but for Sasikala, who wanted the CM’s chair for herself. Panneerselvam revolted and, in a memorable gesture, sat on meditation near Jayalalithaa’s burial space. The Supreme Court put paid to Sasikala’s hopes of becoming the CM when it sentenced her to four years in jail on a corruption case, leaving her unfit to hold any public office for 10 years.

The ruling AIADMK was a split house. Panneerselvam found himself in a minority. MLAs were spirited away to a resort on Chennai’s scenic East Coast Road. Even as sections of the party propelled Palaniswami to the top post on February 16, 2017, few believed he would last beyond weeks.

Political pundits forecast early elections. Some believed that the principal rival party Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), then led by the ageing patriarch M Karunanidhi, would succeed in breaking the AIADMK to pull the government down.

Palaniswami, however, ended up having the last laugh. He patched up with Panneerselvam, accommodating him as deputy chief minister and party coordinator. By all accounts, Palaniswami — now commonly addressed as Edappadiar, with the respectful ‘ar’ suffixed to Edappadi, his place of origin — has a sure grip on the reins of power for now.

What has kept the Palaniswami government going? There are many factors. One, no one wanted an early election in the state. A lot of time and money had already been invested in the 2016 elections, so not many were in a position to fight yet another electoral battle. Two, Karunanidhi was a pale shadow of his former self and his son MK Stalin was more or less calling the shots. For the DMK, the numbers just didn’t add up for a shot at government formation. With Sasikala away in a Bengaluru prison, Palaniswami and Panneerselvam got together and expelled her nephew Dhinakaran from the party. While Dhinakaran formed his own party and won the by-election for the seat formerly held by Jayalalithaa, he could not make much of a dent otherwise.

Then there are those who say that Palaniswami takes care of the interests of all MLAs, irrespective of party affiliation.

His critics derisively dismiss him and the government as supplicants of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Centre. It is true that Palaniswami has not been critical of the National Democratic Alliance government. But what his detractors don’t remember is that the AIADMK founder and late chief minister MG Ramachandran never took on the Centre; he maintained cordial relations with the party at the Centre, even if he opposed them at the state level. It did the state a world of good too.

While the DMK and its allies have been levelling charges of corruption and poor governance against the Palaniswami government, a big black mark against it will be how it mishandled the Covid-19 pandemic, especially after it seemed to have things under control in the initial stages. The CM had made it a point to personally inspect arrangements at the government-run canteens in Chennai that provided free food to the needy. He also oversaw preparations for the care of stranded migrant workers.

However, just when all seemed to be going well, for no plausible reason the government suddenly announced on April 24 a complete lockdown from April 26 to April 29 in three municipal corporation limits including Chennai. Thousands of people thronged shops and vegetable markets in sheer panic. All social distancing norms were thrown to the winds and even the Chennai Corporation’s belated clarification that vegetable markets would remain open for restricted hours, failed to help matters.

For some inexplicable reason, the government did not anticipate that the wholesale vegetable and fruits market at Koyambedu, a western suburb of Chennai, would be a potential hotspot. By the time this was realised, the area had already become a cluster for coronavirus infections. The move to curtail retails buyers and shift the market to another location further away in the suburbs, against stiff opposition from the perishables traders, came too late.

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For Palaniswami, the three years at the helm have been challenging in many ways. The CM took some time to find his moorings. Having assumed office under exceptional circumstances, he had to tread cautiously within the party and the government before he could assert himself. He has maintained the core of the Cabinet formed under Jayalalithaa, barring one or two changes necessitated by political circumstances.

Bureaucrats say that he is easily accessible, understands issues and gives them a free hand to run the administration. Officials, serving and retired, speaking under the condition of anonymity, say that he relies on a small group of hand-picked bureaucrats in key posts to ensure the administration goes about its job without too much of a fuss. Quite a few of his decisions have surprised even his political opponents.

For instance, when least expected, the government announced that the Cauvery delta — the granary of the state — would come under a Cauvery Delta Protected Special Agricultural Zone, thereby preventing any kind of industrial or commercial activity. This was at a time when there was growing opposition to the Centre’s move to further explore for hydrocarbons in the delta. The Centre had earlier relaxed the guidelines for exploration activities in the delta, which Palaniswami had disapproved of and, anticipating heightened protests, declared the entire delta a protected agricultural zone. There is already a refinery in the delta — CPCL’s Cauvery Basin Refinery. This and other existing projects may be allowed to continue, but there is no prospect for any fresh industrial activity in the delta, now that the TN Assembly has passed a bill to that effect.

A long way from his rather unsure beginnings, Palaniswami has grown so much in confidence that he even went on a three-nation tour accompanied by four ministers to canvass for investments — the first chief minister from TN to do so in a long time. He visited the UK, the US and Dubai during August-September 2019 and, at the end of the trip, said the government had signed agreements for investments totalling ₹8,830 crore in various sectors. The Opposition questioned the rationale behind the foreign trip when nothing tangible had materialised from the two much-publicised Global Investors’ Meet that the AIADMK government had organised in Chennai. He, in turn, pooh-poohed the criticism.

Man of the world: Palaniswami (in a blue vest), accompanied by four of his ministers, at an investors’ meet in Dubai in September 2019   -  SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

 

Images of the CM dressed in formal suits on his trip abroad are juxtaposed with those of him standing in an agricultural field in a traditional dhoti folded up to the knees, a towel wrapped around his head and a farm implement in his hand. The messaging is clear — his publicists seek to stress that he is as much at home in western wear as he is in getting his feet dirty in a field.

This has struck the right chord, going by the endorsement he gets from industrialists in the state. N Srinivasan, vice-chairman and managing director of The India Cements, says the CM comes across as someone with an open mind and one who seeks to resolve an issue once he has got to the root of it.

A case in point is Chennai’s Chidambaram cricket stadium, where three stands were sealed by the authorities back in 2011. While the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association (TNCA) tried to have the stands reopened, its lease over the stadium expired. The CM was apprised of the issue. The government renewed the lease, and the stands have now been handed over to the TNCA.

The TN government comes across as industry-friendly and more accessible than earlier regimes. The credit for this, says AV Dharmakrishnan, CEO of Ramco Cements, the flagship company of the Ramco group, which has various businesses including textile mills, should go to the CM, who has hand-picked officials with proven administrative capabilities for key posts, empowering them to take decisions and be proactive.

M Ponnuswami, a first-generation entrepreneur, chairman and managing director of Pon Pure Chemicals, and a former chairman of the Confederation of Indian Industry Tamil Nadu State Council, says the CM goes to the root of a problem and seeks to solve it at the earliest. He is also rooted to his humble beginnings, always standing up to greet visitors and to see them off, Ponnuswami adds.

Other industrialists say, off the record, that Palaniswami’s approach is in sharp contrast to Jayalalithaa’s. It was difficult getting an appointment with the late CM; often even officials did not have access to her. Now, top officials are just a phone call away and requests from industry leaders for appointments with the CM are quickly acknowledged.

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Unlike in many other non-BJP ruled states where the CMs are at loggerheads with the governors, Palaniswami maintains a cordial relationship with the governor, again a la MGR.

A sure sign that Palaniswami is his own man now is the number of vehicles in his convoy and the police personnel lining the route. Three years ago, the newly minted CM’s convoy consisted of a pilot and an escort vehicle. Today, more than a dozen vehicles pack the convoy and police personnel are positioned every 10 feet along the route. True, still not as many as Jayalalithaa’s, but in TN’s world of image-making and perception, it is a grand enough statement alright.

What does all this mean for Palaniswami’s political future? Unless something dramatic happens, he will lead the AIADMK into the elections due by May 2021. Palaniswami will turn 67 on May 12, 2021. Will the elections deliver the perfect birthday gift for him? What the stars foretell — or how politics unfurls — is a different issue.

A North Indian flavour in the TN political mix

MK Stalin, who leads the DMK into poll battle as the party supremo for the first time, has roped in the services of poll strategist Prashant Kishor
 

Beyond Big Daddy: DMK president MKStalin forged a winning alliance for the 2019 Lok Sabha polls   -  PTI


 

  • The 2021 elections to the Tamil Nadu Assembly will be a do-or-die one for Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) president MK Stalin, who has been waiting in the wings for quite some time. This will be the first time he will lead the party into the polls all by himself, without his father — the former chief minister and DMK patriarch M Karunanidhi — looking over his shoulders. Stalin took over as party president following the death in August 2018 of Karunanidhi, the incumbent president.
  • True, Stalin proved his mettle when he stitched together a formidable alliance for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, when the DMK and its allies won 38 of the 39 seats in Tamil Nadu. But whether he will be able to repeat that performance in the Assembly elections due by May next year is a million-dollar question. The Lok Sabha elections were a different ball game altogether. There is a lot of animosity and antipathy towards Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the state, which makes it difficult to predict whether or not the Assembly elections will reflect the party’s showing in the 2019 general elections.
  • The dynamics of a state election are completely different from that for the Lok Sabha, as has been proved in many states where the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance won handsomely in the Lok Sabha elections but failed to repeat the success in Assembly polls, the most recent being in Delhi.
  • Stalin, more or less, led the party’s campaign in the 2016 Assembly elections, though Karunanidhi did campaign a bit, too. His party came a cropper against the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) led by Jayalalithaa, who, despite her obvious ill-health and a curtailed campaign, won 134 seats in the 234-member house. Now, Stalin and the DMK have roped in poll strategist Prashant Kishor — who has worked with several political parties and leaders, including Narendra Modi, Nitish Kumar in Bihar and Arvind Kejriwal ahead of the 2019 Delhi Assembly polls — to help fine-tune their strategy and campaign.
  • Political observers say that Kishor’s role will be that much harder in a state such as TN. Critics were quick to poke fun at Stalin and the DMK for roping in a North Indian, a Hindi-speaker, given the party’s touted stance against Hindi imposition in any form. To boot, Kishor is a Brahmin; this irony is not lost on anyone familiar with the fact that the DMK’s entire political journey is based on vehement opposition to this caste group.
  • It will be too early to take a call on the elections, apart from saying that the ruling AIADMK and the DMK will be the leading contenders. How well they form alliances and what pans out afterwards will decide the outcome.
  • For one, there will be more players in the fray. Actors Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth will be contenders too. Kamal Haasan has floated his party, Makkal Needhi Maiam, which tested the political waters during the 2019 Parliamentary elections. Rajinikanth, however, has been ambivalent about his intentions and continues to keep his supporters on tenterhooks. He is yet to announce the formation of his party. And, in a recent interaction, surprised political observers and shocked his supporters by saying that he never aspired for the chief minister’s chair and that his intention was always to make sure that a young, capable person became the CM. Earlier, he had even hinted that he and Kamal — the two of them acted together in movies at the start of Rajinikanth’s film career before the latter chose his own path — may come together in politics.
  • One is not sure whether Rajinikanth will even enter politics. Those who know him say he is not cut out for the rough and tumble of everyday politics. There was expectation that Rajinikanth would be supported by the BJP, which has negligible presence in the state. In fact, there is much antipathy to Narendra Modi and the BJP, which is seen as a party of upper castes, confined to the Hindi heartland and a Hindi chauvinist organisation. The BJP too does not help its cause with its rather ham-handed moves in Tamil Nadu. Its decision to make L Murugan, till recently vice-chairman of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes, the president of the party’s TN unit is a rare redeeming act; it will at least help negate the perception that it is a party of the upper castes.
  • And while Edappadi Palaniswami and the AIADMK may give the appearance of being wary of the Centre and the BJP, observers say no one will be surprised if Palaniswami and the AIADMK decide to go their own way at the elections, tying up with other TN-based parties rather than forging what would, in all likelihood, be a detrimental alliance with the BJP.
  • What almost everyone in the state has agreed on is the need for a change from the kind of politics practised by the two principal Dravidian parties. Who will bring about that change is not known. It is unlikely that any pollster will stick her neck out to predict it this early.

N Ramakrishnan

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Published on May 08, 2020
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