- OPS leader of smaller faction of Tamil Nadu's ruling party
- Has 12 legislators on his side, opposing faction has 120
- Public and cadre support him. Local elections approaching.
That was in the first week of February. OPS, as he is known, is today driving a hard bargain as he negotiates with a larger, much more powerful wing of the AIADMK - it is the team that is running the state- to return to the fold. Though he still has only about 12 legislators on his side, while the rival faction has 120, OPS has carefully and quickly constructed a Type A comeback.
When Ms Jayalalithaa was alive, OPS, 66, subbed thrice for her during brief periods including when corruption charges impelled her to step down as Chief Minister. When she was hospitalised for months, he was given her departments to personally supervise. When she died, it seemed to be the natural order for him to take over, a promotion blessed by VK Sasikala.
As Ms Jayalalithaa's live-in aide of many decades, Ms Sasikala was accepted as her political heir when the Chief Minister died at 68. When, about two months later, she announced that the ruling AIADMK had unanimously decided that she should replace OPS as Chief Minister, there was no protest from him. Till he appeared, two days later, at Ms Jayalalithaa's memorial, to say he would, not in fact, quit.
The fissures at first seemed surface-level. OPS' flock was in the low single digits, not exactly a formidable opponent for Ms Sasikala, who clocked 120 of the party's 134 legislators. But then the Supreme Court ruled on a decades-old case, finding her and Ms Jayalalithaa guilty of corruption and Ms Sasikala was sentenced to four years in prison. Ms Sasikala moved her supporters to a resort, which they were not allowed to leave, named a loyalist E Palaniswami ("EPS") as Chief Minister, made her nephew TTV Dinakaran number two in the party, and went to prison, which assured that her imprint on the AIADMK remained un-dinged.
EPS won a trust vote. But public opinion was raging against the AIADMK accepting Ms Sasikala's choices unquestioningly. A series of hashtags on Twitter expressed a growing anger, especially with Ms Sasikala's relatives, called the "Mannargudi Mafia" after their village and alleged occupation, coning into prominence. OPS, who had filled in competently for Ms Jayalalithaa, was urged as her political successor.
Doing what some say he does best, Mr Dinakaran then rolled into corruption scandals of stature. The election that he was contesting from Ms Jayalalithaa's constituency of RK Nagar in Chennai was cancelled because of evidence that voters were being bribed. Days later, he was accused by the Delhi Police of trying to bribe Election Commission officers to award his faction - the Sasikala bloc - the rights to the party symbol, contested by the two wings of the AIADMK.
The fact that the Commission has not yet ruled on whether it is OPS or the competing, more sizeable contingent that is the original AIADMK has strengthened the credibility of OPS at a crucial time. Combined with Mr Dinakaran's allegedly profligate dealings, this presented a darkening picture for his party, which decided it was time to seek a reunion with OPS. That strategy also morphed the Sasikala squad into Team EPS, with the Chief Minister now the leader of the branch that's in power.
The EPS lobby quickly agreed to relegate both Ms Sasikala and her nephew to the periphery of the party. But OPS & Co want to see written proof of their being removed from their party posts. They also want the government to order a CBI inquiry to determine how Ms Jayalalithaa died - they have alleged her death was not natural and insinuated Ms Sasikala is to blame.
"We have no doubts about Amma's death - so why should we order a probe? Why didn't Mr OPS order a probe when he was the Chief Minister? However, if the court directs (it), we are ready to follow,” said a source close to EPS.
Though the EPS branch has refused OPS’ pre-conditions, the talks continue, and OPS negotiates from a position of strength because the party cadre are believed to back him and his rivals feel that if he contests approaching local body elections, he will rack up a big victory. There's also the fact that the Election Commission is deciding on whether Ms Sasikala's appointment as party chief violated basic rules; if OPS wins that case, his battle against her will seem positively heroic, and EPS' selection as Chief Minister could be declared void.
The faction in power counts 122 legislators, just eight more than needed to win a trust vote - not a comfortable lead.
Sources in the EPS wing also say that they believe - as Mr Dinakaran has said on record - that the BJP is siding with OPS in the political feud as part of its mission to gain any entry-point in Tamil Nadu, and some legislators are worried that in backing EPS, they could find themselves implicated in corruption cases like the ones against Mr Dinakaran. The BJP, for its part, has said it has no role to play in the AIADMK's cracks. As for OPS, he says he's simply fulfilling what Amma (Jayalalithaa) wants - for the party to be cleansed of Ms Sasikala's disreputable clan, and for him to lead Tamil Nadu.