When Edappadi K Palaniswami took charge at Fort St George in February 2017, this newspaper called him the ‘accidental chief minister’. When he completed a year in power, we called him the ‘survivor’. Almost four years later, he continues to be both – and more. Only that if – and that’s a big ‘if’ – EPS gets a second term, it wouldn’t be accidental.
Having quelled dissent within the party and defended what initially appeared to be a fragile government against the machinations of the opposition, EPS has emerged stronger and shrewder. And that’s no mean feat for someone who was a virtual non-entity, someone who was far less known than his precarious partner O Panneerselvam, when the top post landed on his lap. If the changed bylaws of the AIADMK have sought to place the two men on an equal footing, EPS is clearly the first among equals.
What earned him this stature is a strategic combination of cautious accommodation and controlled aggression. He gave his party functionaries a long rope, yet ensured he had one end of the rope in his grip. While staving off threats from the opposition, EPS kept his legislators happy by giving them a free hand when it came to striking deals in their constituencies. He also kept alive in them the fear of collective loss. The message has been simple: The longevity of your happiness is only as much as that of my government. That made several legislators who were looking up to OPS turn around and eat out of EPS’s hand. This has been so effective that even OPS sympathisers were waving the white flag at the chief minister while supporting his deputy’s demand for a steering committee last week.
The battle, however, has not been half won. Before he crosses swords with M K Stalin’s forces, EPS has the challenge of keeping his battalion of allies in order. The AIADMK did not need its allies’ permission to name EPS as its chief minister candidate, but when the alliance gets activated ahead of the election, it would need the coalition’s endorsement. While the BJP remains non-committal on even accepting the AIADMK as the coalition leader, some other members, who have the uncanny knack of overestimating their strength, could turn unreasonably demanding.
As the poll battle appears tough for the AIADMK, the allies may demand power sharing — something the two main Dravidian parties have diligently avoided since 1967 even while rallying half-a-dozen parties behind them. This time, the PMK could prove a tough customer for EPS. There is nothing in politics that is outrageous, and S Ramadoss may not hesitate to ask for the deputy chief minister post for his son Anbumani Ramadoss. That can be EPS’s litmus test in negotiation skills, as his lieutenant OPS would never agree to anything less than playing the second fiddle.
While such a situation can embolden the other allies like the DMDK to demand more than their pound of flesh, EPS will have to choose between being accommodative and being assertive. The DMDK and the PMK, each claiming to have a wider base than the other, have always had an uneasy relationship. The BJP, waiting for a friendly handshake with a reluctant Rajinikanth, could also come up with some impossible propositions.
Will EPS let the tail wag the dog? If the AIADMK agrees to share power with its allies, EPS would be the first coalition leader in Tamil Nadu in more than half a century to do that. As much as he would hate to do that, EPS may not choose defeat over compromise. After all, the accidental chief minister is, in soul, a survivor.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.