The Independence Day celebrations, subdued as it was due to the COVID-19 lockdown, was mellowed further in Tamil Nadu with the ruling AIADMK caught in an early pre-election war on who would be its chief ministerial candidate for 2021.
Elections to the Assembly are still eight months away, but on Saturday, even before Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami could hoist the Tricolour, posters appeared in Deputy Chief Minister O Panneerselvam’s hometown in Theni projecting him as the next CM candidate. The posters, which read ‘CM for OPS’ (sic), were removed following an effort undertaken by a group of ministers to diffuse the situation.
Amidst repeated shuttling of convoys of cars carrying ministers between the official bungalows of Panneerselvam and Palaniswami, the two AIADMK leaders called an uneasy truce. They issued a joint statement restraining all functionaries from expressing any opinion to the media and warned of action if the diktat was violated.
The shadow battle began about a week ago when Cooperation Minister Sellur Raju out of turn declared that the next chief minister will be chosen by the AIADMK legislators after the 2021 general election. A day later, Dairy Minister KT Rajenthra Bhalaji, also a loose cannon, tweeted that Palaniswami will be the party’s chief ministerial candidate.
This had upset the erstwhile rebel Panneerselvam, who had two years ago merged his faction with the majority AIADMK faction led by Palaniswami and settled to be a Deputy Chief Minister, despite having worn the crown of Chief Minister thrice in the past. As a compromise, he was made coordinator of the AIADMK and Palaniswami appointed co-coordinator, both newly created post, and the supreme post of general secretary held by late leader J Jayalalithaa was abolished.
Sources said Panneerselvam was angered that the chief minister did not reprimand Bhalaji or speak his mind on the issue. Where Panneerselvam had two days ago tweeted reminding cadres of “duty, dignity, and discipline”.
“What created further rift was the posters in support of Panneerselvam that appeared in Theni. Hence, a group of ministers took the initiative upon themselves to bring about a truce between the chief minister and his deputy. However, it is sad that all this happened with public knowledge. It puts the ruling party in poor light, especially in the midst of a pandemic and Independence Day,” a second line AIADMK leader said requesting anonymity. The two ministers – Raju and Bhalaji – who had triggered the row were not part of the group which met the two leaders separately twice during the day.
For now, the issue has been “put off” but it is far from settled.