Dhinakaran's win gives EPS-OPS combine the jitters

Dhinakaran's win gives EPS-OPS combine the jitters

December 24 is significant in more ways than one in Tamil Nadu. It marks the death anniversary of two icons -- Periyar Ramasamy, the founder of the Dravidian movement that continues to hold sway over the state's politics; and M G Ramachandran -– the legendary actor who went on to become arguably the most loved chief minister of the state. The date saw another significant event this year -- for the first time in two decades, an independent was elected in a by-election from a high-profile constituency -– Dr Radhakrishnan Nagar in Chennai. A little known and backward area in north Chennai, RK Nagar was catapulted into the limelight when the late J Jayalalithaa chose to contest from there in 2015, her last election. Grapevine has it that the former chief minister chose a constituency in Chennai due to her ill-health.

The election and its result broke many myths. It broke the myth that the ruling party always had an advantage in a by-election. In Tamil Nadu, where every by-election has remained a cakewalk for the ruling party in recent times, it took T T V Dhinakaran to break the myth. It was a do-or-die battle for the nephew of V K Sasikala, Jayalalithaa's close friend and confidante. Since Jayalalithaa's death, the family has been facing tough times.

Dhinakaran lost the party (and the government), and eventually the two-leaves symbol, in a long-drawn battle between him and the faction headed by Chief Minister Edappadi Palanisamy (EPS) and Deputy Chief Minister O Paneerselvam (OPS). Dhinakaran was also denied the 'hat' symbol that was allotted to him in April, when the election was countermanded.

Eventually, the 'pressure cooker' symbol was allotted to him, and Dhinakaran left no stone unturned to popularise his symbol. In doing so, he also busted the myth that the party symbol played a significant role in garnering votes. What was flaunted as a major victory for EPS–OPS combine in gaining the 'two leaves' symbol turned out to be short-lived momentum in the R K Nagar by-poll.

Significantly, Dhinakaran told the media after his victory that that the symbol was relevant as long as it stayed in the hands of leaders like "MGR and Jayalalithaa." "In the hands of people like P S Veerappa and M N Nambiyar (two actors who played villains opposite MGR in several movies), it has no importance."

There were allegations of distribution of cash for votes in RK Nagar, and even as the result came out, leaders started accusing Dhinakaran of buying votes. After polling even fewer votes than the NOTA (None of The Above) option, BJP leaders accused people of putting up their votes for auction.

Interestingly, the charges of distribution of cash were levelled against both Dhinakaran and Madhusudhanan, the senior leader fielded in RK Nagar by the EPS-OPS combine.  Madhusudhanan polled less than half the votes polled by Dhinakaran.

Opinion and exit polls conducted by two different organisations in RK Nagar favoured Dhinakaran, giving him over 35% of vote share. But he sprang the biggest surprise when he garnered over 50% of votes. DMK candidate Marudhu Ganesh forfeited his deposit.

While DMK leaders maintain that the election was not really significant to them, observers had opined that the party would win, given the circumstances. In the absence of a leader like Jayalalithaa and with the AIADMK in tatters, victory should have been easy for DMK. But insiders say the party did not take the by-poll seriously. The spin now is, Dhinakaran's victory will help bring the AIADMK government down and usher in fresh polls ahead of 2020.  

True to form, soon after his victory, Dhinakaran declared that the present regime will be out in three months. With an unexpectedly huge victory, he now seems confident of winning the party and the government back. According to sources, several second line leaders in the AIADMK have already sent feelers to him for a rapprochement.

While EPS and OPS maintain that the RK Nagar outcome may not be a reflection of the mood across Tamil Nadu, they perhaps have the biggest lesson to learn from the result. Clearly, the mandate delivered by the RK Nagar voters was more against the EPS-OPS combine than for Dhinakaran. Their government has been steadily falling from public grace after a series of mismanaged issues in the state, including Cyclone Ochki.

That the government evidently allowed itself to be manipulated by the BJP's central leadership has not gone down well with many voters in the state. Expectedly, the EPS-OPS combine responded to the verdict by expelling Dhinakaran supporters from the party.  

Uncertain milieu

Yet, the silver lining for AIADMK in the RK Nagar loss may be that it might bring the bickering in the party to a much-needed closure. In many ways, the bickering is reminiscent of what followed after MGR's death. It took two years and an assembly election in 1989 for Jayalalithaa to emerge as the party's undisputed leader. After managing to win only two seats in that election, MGR's wife V N Janaki conceded defeat and decided to stay away from politics. While Dhinakaran's win might have given him an upper hand over the EPS-OPS combine, it might take a general election for both factions to prove their strength. It remains to be seen if Dhinakaran can repeat the RK Nagar performance throughout Tamil Nadu.

For now, Dhinakaran has clearly emerged as the man of the moment. He has managed to shrug off the 'Mannargudi mafia' tag attached to Sasikala's family and has been able to convince voters to accept him. Whether he will continue to keep the momentum will eventually decide the course of the AIADMK's future in an uncertain political milieu.

(The writer is a senior journalist based in Chennai)

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