Tamil Nadu's ruling party loses key vote to ex-leader

AIADMK's defeat could signal instability even as infighting risks hurting BJP alliance

The ruling party in Tamil Nadu looks headed for turmoil after the leader of an ousted faction won the constituency of its late leader J. Jayalalithaa in Chennai, capital city of the politically important southern state.

Renewed infighting within the state's ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) party could hurt the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

In the latest upset, Mr T.T.V. Dhinakaran won the election in the R.K. Nagar constituency by more than 40,000 votes over his AIADMK rival E. Madhusudhanan.

Mr Dhinakaran, who was thrown out of the party early this year amid infighting among different factions, had contested the election as an independent candidate.

In response to his victory, the AIADMK on Monday expelled five of its leaders for supporting him. Yesterday, it expelled another 44 from its various units across Tamil Nadu.

They include the party's spokesmen C.R. Saraswathi and Nazhil Sampath and three others. Another four, who were district secretaries, were stripped of their party positions.

Their expulsions took place even as Mr Dhinakaran declared himself the real successor to Ms Jayalalithaa, the state's charismatic chief minister, who was a powerful regional leader. She died in December last year after a bout of illness.

Tamil Nadu, with a population of 68 million people, has had a stable government with the AIADMK and rival Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) often alternating in power for the past 30 years. But Ms Jayalalithaa's death created a vacuum in the party and sparked infighting, including a bid for power by her aide and best friend Sasikala Natarajan.

That bid was cut short after she was convicted of graft.

But her supporters and family members continued to stake a claim to the party leadership against Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami and Deputy Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam.

Both men, who were in opposing camps, reconciled in August against the Sasikala faction.

At the national level, the latest infighting could risk hurting the alliance between the AIADMK and Mr Modi's BJP, which has been giving support to the AIADMK.

The BJP has been hoping to make inroads into Tamil Nadu and is looking to stitch up alliances for the 2019 general elections. The AIADMK had won 37 out of 39 Parliament seats in Tamil Nadu and is the third-largest party in the national Parliament. So if the party disintegrates, the BJP must look for other regional allies in Tamil Nadu ahead of the 2019 polls.

Analysts say the turmoil further tarnishes the AIADMK's image.

"This government is without credibility and does not have the consent of the people. The party itself is wobbling and divided," Professor Ramu Manivannan, of Madras University's department of politics and public administration, told The Straits Times.

The party's leaders also lack the charisma of Ms Jayalalithaa.

Prof Ramu sees a shift in the party towards Mr Dhinakaran, who is Sasikala's nephew.

The AIADMK, however, denies that the party is in trouble.

The Chief Minister and Deputy Chief Minister said in a statement that the R.K. Nagar result was just that of one constituency. "The result won't be applicable to any other constituency," they added.

Both leaders accused Mr Dhinakaran of betraying the party and said they would ask the election commission to investigate if there was vote buying.

Mr Aspire Swaminathan, former secretary of the AIADMK's IT wing, said: "The (ruling party's) leadership is very strong. The expulsion was a long pending action, more than damage control. Also, an independent candidate can't do much."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 29, 2017, with the headline 'Tamil Nadu's ruling party loses key vote to ex-leader'. Print Edition | Subscribe