A resolution against Annamalai, a snub to his yatra – the mediaʼs favourite rift is only widening.
In the world of rom-coms, can anything beat the enemies-to-lovers trope? Snarky banter, sizzling chemistry, strange bedfellows forced together by destiny and circumstance. It’s Pride and Prejudice and 10 Things I Hate About You, Sweet Home Alabama and You’ve Got Mail.
In Tamil Nadu, it’s the endless star-crossed saga of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam.
In the latest chapter from their Book of Rage, BJP state chief K Annamalai was snubbed after he invited AIADMK general secretary Edapaddi K Palaniswami to join him as he set off on a 120-day yatra across the state ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha poll. Union home minister Amit Shah might have been there but not EPS – he deputed a party leader instead.
And across the state, copyeditors struggled to write versions of the headline they’ve been recycling for years: Is the rift between the Tamil Nadu BJP and AIADMK widening?
A little history
In their first flush of youth, the AIADMK and BJP partnered in the 1998 general election, sweeping 30 out of 39 seats in Tamil Nadu.
The bonhomie didn’t last. By the following year, the alliance was strained. Jayalalithaa was upset with Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, reportedly because he refused to withdraw cases against her or dismiss the DMK government in Tamil Nadu. In April 1999, Subramanian Swamy hosted an infamous tea party in Delhi where Jayalalithaa sat next to Sonia Gandhi, held her hand, and called her an “old friend”.
The alliance collapsed soon after.
(As proof of how history repeats itself, we should point out that even in 1998, the media was questioning the failure of the “much talked about Rajnikanth factor”. Twenty-five years later, journalists are still bringing it up.)
But stranger things happened. In 1999, the AIADMK and Congress joined hands against the even more unlikely duo of the DMK-BJP. The latter won 26 of 39 seats in the general election that year. The DMK departed the alliance in 2003. The BJP never allied with it again.
It partnered with the AIADMK in 2004 but the alliance won zero seats in Tamil Nadu. Since then, the BJP reached out to the AIADMK in almost every election but was rebuffed. In the process, it became Tamil Nadu’s “two percent” party – shafted by the two main Dravidian parties and getting a vote share of two percent in 2006, 2011 and 2016.
Then, at the end of 2016, Jayalalithaa, who was chief minister at the time, died. The AIADMK collapsed into factions and the state saw three chief ministers in the span of one year.
The BJP saw its chance and swooped in. It played mediator between the factions led by EPS and O Panneerselvam, who soon merged their factions to unite against a third, more troubling faction led by TTV Dinakaran, nephew of Jayalalithaa’s associate VK Sasikala. The media, meanwhile, was unimpressed, suggesting that the BJP might even ally with the DMK after Modi was photographed with an ailing M Karunanidhi.
The AIADMK and BJP’s will-they-won’t-they continued well into 2018. In 2019, they allied for the Lok Sabha poll and lost spectacularly. The DMK alliance scooped 37 out of 38 seats that year.
In 2021, the DMK won the assembly election too and ended the AIADMK’s 10-year stint in power.
The Annamalai era
The marriage of convenience cobbled together out of dire circumstance was never the most solid, with the AIADMK sharing none of the Hindutva ideology that defines the BJP’s politics. But as long as the respective leaders of the parties were pragmatic enough to ignore these differences, things were relatively smooth sailing.
Enter the current BJP state president and former IPS officer, K Annamalai, appointed to lead the state unit in 2021. This former ‘firebrand’ IPS officer has a reputation for speaking his mind, and it’s quite clear that his heart is really not in this relationship.
In March this year, 18 BJP members quit the party and joined the AIADMK. Simultaneously, over 100 AIADMK cadre reportedly joined the BJP. The word “rift” was liberally used across news reports. Days later, Annamalai said he’d rather resign from his post than continue the alliance with the AIADMK.
Meanwhile, he also compared himself to Jayalalithaa and senior AIADMK leader Jayakumar promptly told him, “Don’t say you are a leader like Amma.” Another AIADMK leader compared him to a “branch manager of a corporate operating pan India”.
EPS then told the media not to ask him questions about Annamalai. “I have been in politics for the past 50 years,” he said at an event. “...Through giving interviews like this, Mr Annamalai is trying to become a big leader. Instead ask me about other political parties. The media should ask me about the comments of experienced political leaders, and I will answer them.”
In the midst of this cold war, Annamalai and EPS were whisked away to Delhi on April 26 to meet BJP president JP Nadda and Union Home Minister Amit Shah. The next day, EPS said there were “no issues” between the AIADMK and the BJP. But the squabbling continued between lower-level party leaders.
On June 12, Annamalai burned his bridges. During an interview with The Times of India, he was asked whether he agreed that 1991 to 1996 was among the “worst periods in terms of corruption” in Tamil Nadu. That’s when Jayalalithaa was chief minister.
“Many administrators in TN were corrupt,” he replied. “Former CMs have been convicted in courts of law. That is why TN has become one of the most corrupt states. I would say it is number one in corruption.”
He may have side-stepped a fair bit but the AIADMK was furious. A senior leader said passing comments about an alliance partner was “not acceptable”.
On June 13, the party passed a resolution against Annamalai over his remarks. EPS told the media, “Without any political experience or maturity, BJP leader Annamalai has passed such comments intentionally...”
It all culminated in EPS passing on attending the inauguration of Annamalai’s yatra.
The AIADMK is in a bind. Once the largest party in Tamil Nadu, scoring an almost perfect 37 of 39 seats in the 2014 Lok Sabha election, it’s been riven by dissension. In September last year, after a bitter fight between OPS and EPS, the Madras High Court allowed EPS to continue as the party’s general secretary – a decision reiterated by the Supreme Court in February.
In the last 10 years, it’s lost its vote share, from 41.58 percent in 2011 to 20.96 percent in 2022. In March this year, the AIADMK’s candidate lost by over 66,000 votes in the Erode bypoll.
On the ground, there’s been a shift too. Neither EPS nor OPS have the cadre base of MG Ramachandran and Jayalalithaa, and EPS has even called OPS the “B team” of the DMK. When the AIADMK voted in favour of the Delhi Services Bill in Parliament, party cadre were reportedly irked by “blind support” to the BJP.
But Tamil Nadu is still a two-party state. The BJP has never made inroads on its own. It possesses no mass base outside of Pon Radhakrishnan in Kanyakumari. It’s constantly walking a tightrope between issues pushed by its high command in Delhi and how it will play out in the state. It’s here that it’s always clashing with its alliance partner, whether it’s differences on NEET or Hindi.
As much as the BJP would like to believe that it’s the “real” opposition in the state, you can’t argue with numbers. The party entered the legislative assembly for the first time in 2021 with just four MLAs, thanks to the AIADMK alliance.
As things stand, the BJP is also caught in a lose-lose situation. If it sticks with the AIADMK it will always be a junior partner, and if it goes out on its own, it won’t even get one seat. Meanwhile, the AIADMK, powerless in the state, wants a seat at the table at the centre at least. For 2024, they have no choice but to travel in the same boat, even if they don’t like the smell.
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