Edapaddi Palaniswami had the challenge of leading the AIADMK government after the party lost the charismatic and powerful J Jayalalithaa in 2016. Jayalalithaa — “Amma” to the AIADMK ranks – enjoyed rare devotion of her party men, who even genuflected to her photos.
E Palaniswami or EPS was among those acolytes, but he was always passed over for the top job despite his loyalty to Jayalalithaa. It was O Panneerselvam or OPS (his deputy), who was always Amma’s favourite – and her preferred stand-in when anything kept her from the Chief Minister’s chair.
EPS hit the jackpot when, after Jayalalithaa’s death, her closest aide VK Sasikala took control of the AIADMK. Sasikala promoted EPS instead of OPS, causing him to revolt.
Such was Sasikala’s faith in EPS that when she was sentenced to jail for corruption, she picked him to take over as Chief Minister, perhaps intending him as a place-holder when she was released four years on.
But Sasikala – “Chinnamma” or aunt to the cadre — could never command the unquestioning, unstinted loyalty that Jayalalithaa did. EPS patched up with OPS and Sasikala was sacked in her absence.
Since then, EPS’s biggest achievement has been to survive and complete the AIADMK’s term against all odds, overcoming feuds, intrigues and a challenge from Sasikala’s nephew TTV Dhinakaran.
EPS appeared initially shaky but he managed to bring the party and the government under his control. Eighteen pro-Sasikala MLAs lost their seats under anti-defection law and EPS ensured there were no crossovers to Sasikala’s camp even after her return from jail.
Born in the Erode district of Tamil Nadu, 66-year-old EPS is a four-time MLA from the Edappadi constituency. He fought his first state election after the AIADMK suffered a split following the death of its founder MG Ramachandran (MGR) in 1989.
When a battle for MGR’s legacy raged between his widow Janaki Ramachandran and his protege and former co-star Jayalalithaa, EPS chose to stand by Amma and won. It paid off.
Since then, he has won from the seat four times, including in 1991, 2011 and 2016. He lost in 1996 and 2006. In between, he won from Tiruchengode in the 1998 national election, becoming an MP.
EPS’ political graph soared when Jayalalithaa took him in her cabinet in 2011 and gave him charge of the powerful Highways and Minor Ports ministry. He was part of her 2016 cabinet too.
OPS, who belongs to the powerful Thevar community, was Jayalalithaa’s choice twice to replace her as Chief Minister when she had to step down following convictions, but his fortunes dipped as he fell into the bad books of Sasikala.
EPS, backed by his strong Gounder community, made OPS deputy Chief Minister and the two shared the role of AIADMK coordinators in a new collective leadership model with an 11-member steering committee.
The opposition led by the DMK alleges large-scale corruption and irregularities in tenders for mega projects by the EPS government.
The opposition also accuses the Chief Minister of toeing its ally BJP’s line and compromising on federalism in the name of “cooperating with the centre for Tamil Nadu’s growth”.
The state government has not been able to get exemption from medical entrance test NEET, which the state had done away with for nearly a decade during which medical admissions took place on the basis of class XII marks.
The alliance with the BJP proved costly for the leadership of EPS and OPS in 2019 as the AIADMK managed to win only one of the state’s 39 Lok Sabha seats and the DMK swept the polls.
As the AIADMK attempts a third term, EPS’s party colleagues say he has managed to build a favourable perception around the government’s Covid fight. Add to that a slew of populist schemes including the waiver of farm loans, gold loans up to 6 sovereigns, 7.5 per cent quota for government school students in medical admissions and a 10.5 per cent reservation for Vanniyars within the MBC quota.
The challenge for him would be to beat the split of AIADMK’s votes because of Sasikala’s nephew Dhinakaran’s AMMK and the advantage for DMK, which has already bagged a morale-boosting victory two years ago. For the EPS-led AIADMK, another worry is actor-turned-politician Kamal Haasan, who is making an impact in urban pockets.