“With elections coming up in 2021, what will you do if you are EPS (Edappadi Palaniswami, Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu)?”
If political science classes practice the case-method as followed in business schools, such a question might find a place in classroom discussions.
But I wonder if a course on “Modern Indian Politics” or some such in our liberal arts colleges has a place for such live case studies.
Rajinikanth’s impending entry into Tamil Nadu politics and the consequent recalibration of affiliations by other political parties has made the political scene in Tamil Nadu utterly fascinating.
Not only in terms of political alliances, but new narratives and, perhaps, new social coalitions are in the offing.
Congress party, which is not even expected to be in the top three in the 2021 polls, quite paradoxically, is setting the tone of public debate. With its psychological hold on the minority communities, it seems willing to offer itself as a partner to two of the strongest contenders — the Stalin-led DMK and Rajinikanth.
Chief Minister EPS seems to have concluded that the Congress will not align with his party, the AIADMK. Hence, their counter strategy is to play up what the Congress does not stand for — “Hindutva politics”. The truism of politics that every polarisation leads to a counter-polarisation is playing out in a typical textbook fashion.
The Chief Minister’s passionately argued stance recently on the Citizenship Amendment Act in the Legislative Assembly is in tune with what is expected. Just a few weeks ago, he said that a parcel of land would be allocated to the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam to build a new temple on the outskirts of Chennai.
He was also quick to act on the “Shaheen Bagh” like protests in Washermanpet.
His Hindu rhetoric has been earthy and closer to practising Hindus. He does not focus on Ayodhya, Uniform Civil Code etc., but on simple practices like visiting local temples, organising small festivals, sporting a “vibhuti” among others.
Some of his ministers though have been excitable. Notably, Dairy Development Minister Rajenthira Bhalaji has cultivated a fan base for his direct pro-Hindu comments.
EPS will manoeuvre behind the scenes to stitch a coalition of caste groups. But the efficacy of the strategy seems to be fading with every passing election in Tamil Nadu. In the parliamentary elections, the AIADMK+ coalition had the backing of three major groupings – the Gounders, Thevars and Vanniyars – but managed to win just one seat.
Closer to the elections, if EPS feels he is not going to win outright, he will attempt to weave a caste coalition that will allow him to stay in the game for post-poll bargaining.
Small caste groupings that have hitherto not benefited largely from affirmative action programmes, will be wooed vigorously. The recent attempts to patronise the Vishwakarma community could be seen in that light.
The AIADMK is backed by two major caste groupings. Hence, the government is unlikely to tinker with the complicated affirmative action policies. How he responds to the salvo, if put forward by Rajinikanth, will be interesting to see.
But from the government’s side, one can expect a more proactive Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department this year.
EPS is a wily political operator who has risen from the grassroots. His government distributed Rs. 1,000 during Pongal in 2019 to ration-card holders. The scheme was a hit among people, before the High Court intervened to stop the cash distribution.
EPS has also been trying to position himself as the son of the soil. Even Vice-President Venkaiah Naidu lauded his recent TV interview, where he wielded the sickle to harvest crop.
Unlike in the past, the current political climate, both internal and external, is not very hostile to him. There is also no internal threat from within the party. He has been successful in sidelining the convener of AIADMK and Deputy Chief Minister O Panneerselvam.
Externally, the DMK would not risk pulling down the government. DMK would lose face, lest the attempt fails. DMK’s strident anti-Modi stance has cleverly been used by EPS to solidify his position.
He has directed his Rajya Sabha MPs to vote along with the BJP MPs and thus garner the central government’s backing.
As a savvy politician with a good sense of history, he has been playing his cards quite astutely. He has tried to establish himself as a rightful member among the pantheon of chief ministers of Tamil Nadu. Copying his AIADMK predecessor and former Chief Minister MG Ramachandran, he got himself a doctorate degree, went to the US to seek investments, and started the morning meal scheme in anganwadis among other things.
EPS has been the most levelheaded Chief Minister Tamil Nadu has had in decades. Usually, the post has been occupied by dominating and dramatic personalities who subjected the state to their idiosyncrasies.
He certainly deserves a second chance based on his governance and his achievement of providing stability and leadership to the state after its two political stalwarts passed away.
But the people of Tamil Nadu seem nonchalant in his case.
EPS has overcome internal party struggles, the constant threat of being pulled down by the DMK, and the hostile press, but has cleverly managed to get the backing of the Centre.
One has to see if he manages to charm the people, who have always been suckers for charisma.
Nevertheless, history will judge EPS kindly for restoring sanity and stability in governance at a time of political chaos.
Only a silly political analyst can write anyone’s epitaph. After all, Valluvar has taught us, “ஊழிற் பெருவலி யாவுள? (What can be more powerful than fate?)”
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