EPS-OPS outmanoeuvre BJP in Tamil Nadu alliance

EPS-OPS outmanoeuvre BJP in Tamil Nadu alliance

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami, Deputy Chief Minister O Panneerselvam and senior leaders of AIADMK and PMK show a signed copy of alliance agreement for the upcoming Lok Sabha elections, in Chennai, on February 19, 2019. PTI

When BJP’s Tamil Nadu in-charge Piyush Goyal acknowledged at Tuesday’s press conference in Chennai that his party would work under the leadership of the AIADMK in the state, the smiles on the faces of Dravidian party leaders were quite evident.

It was the moment to savour for the joint leadership of chief minister Edappadi Palaniswami and his deputy and party convener O Panneerselvam, who had been fighting threats of large-scale defections, court cases and, most of all, the overwhelming perception that they have been acting as a puppet of the Modi government.

Prior to Tuesday’s announcement, speculation was rife in Tamil Nadu media that the BJP was driving a hard bargain and would arm-twist AIADMK into giving it up to 20 seats. There was also the question of who would lead the coalition in the state. It was thought that the largely rudderless AIADMK would submit to pressure from the Modi-Shah duo and work under the BJP.

But it became clear that Palaniswami and Panneerselvam were firmly in the driver’s seat when they first announced the deal with Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), to which they allocated seven Lok Sabha constituencies and one Rajya Sabha seat — similar to the numbers given in the 2009 LS polls.

More importantly, they ensured that the Vanniyar-dominated party would offer its support to their candidates in the forthcoming by-elections to 21 Assembly seats. Eight of the 21 seats that fell vacant due to disqualification, deaths and resignation are in north Tamil Nadu, regarded as the PMK stronghold.

With an eye on survival, the Palaniswami-Panneerselvam duo — whose state government has a wafer-thin majority — made the generous offer of seven LS seats to PMK, while also deftly manoeuvring the BJP out of any bargaining space. In the end, the saffron party has been forced into agreeing to just five seats.

With rival DMK sealing a seat-sharing agreement with the Congress and other parties on its side, the two fronts are vying to get Vijayakanth’s DMDK on their side. The two national parties appear to be keen not to miss the 3% vote share Vijayakanth would add in an election largely seen in Tamil Nadu as a two-way battle.

When Goyal proceeded to meet “old friend” Vijayakanth right after sealing the pact with the AIADMK, it seemed that the actor joining the NDA ranks was largely a given. But DMDK leaders, especially Premalatha Vijayakanth and her brother Sudeesh, are adamant that they need as many seats as the PMK on the basis of their 2014 strength, while the AIADMK would like to go by the 2016 performance.

Vijayakanth continues to keep the pundits guessing. On Thursday, he met former Tamil Nadu Congress chief Su Thirunavukkarasar to give an impression that his communication lines with the DMK alliance is still open, though it is yet unclear how M K Stalin would accommodate his demands of nearly seven seats having to apportion seats to six alliance partners.

Irrespective of DMDK’s decision, the battle lines for 2019 Lok Sabha elections have been firmly drawn. His having gained acceptability as a leader, this election will decide if Edappadi Palaniswami will muster the numbers to govern for the state till 2021 and if MK Stalin would turn around the DMK’s fortunes, the party has lost to Jayalalithaa in 2014 and 2016.