In trying to connect with voters, Tamil Nadu's Palaniswami goes the MGR way

Chief Minister E K Palaniswami nowadays stops his car and starts planting rice, drives a bullock cart to public events, and occasionally halts his carcade to play with children as he looks to strengthen his rural base
If you want to win hearts and connect with the voters, you need to be like actor-turned-politician and former Tamil Nadu chief minister M G Ramachandran (MGR).

During his travel to the hinterland in the 1970s, MGR used to get out of his car into the farmlands, hug workers, and play with children. This strategy clicked and he remained chief minister for 10 years until his death in 1987.

The current chief minister, Edappadi K Palaniswami (EPS), is adopting a similar strategy. The self-proclaimed farmer stops his car and starts planting rice, drives a bullock cart to public events and stops his car occasionally to play with kids. “It is a good ploy because it helps reinforce the rural base of the AIADMK,” says political analyst Sumanth C Raman. 

EPS is trying to strengthen his rural base, which was once strong for the AIADMK. He undertook welfare measures for the poor, which had endeared the late J Jayalalithaa, and continued with the state’s industrial development, which had declined for a while. 

The strategy worked. He managed to win 11 bypolls of the 24 despite uncertainties, and helped the AIADMK government sustain a majority in the Assembly in 2019. This cemented his leadership in the party. The party had lost 38 of the 39 Lok Sabha seats in the state in 2019.

The results of the bypolls are a forerunner to the 2021 Assembly elections, EPS said earlier. He took over as chief minister in February 2017, after a series of political dramas and infighting in the AIADMK after the demise of Jayalalithaa in December 2016. 

While he came to power as  nominee of one of the most trusted aides of Jayalalithaa, V K Sasikala, who is in jail now, and her nephew T T V Dhinakaran, he later overthrew them and took control of the party.

“He has come a long way from where he was three years ago. EPS has rescued the party from the brink of destruction and was able to hold it together. He has emerged a leader of some significance. He has made himself the primary face of the AIADMK before the public,” says Raman.

Over the past three years as chief minister, EPS had signed 16,382 files, which focused on development projects. Most recently, what could be considered a milestone in his political career is declaring Tamil Nadu’ rice bowl Cauvery Delta area a protected special agriculture zone. 

A section of farmers from the delta presented the title of ‘custodian of the Cauvery’ to EPS, where he announced Rs 170-crore schemes to be implemented through the agriculture department and Rs 6,650-crore schemes to be carried out by the public works department.

P R Pandian, president of the Tamil Nadu Federation of All Farmers’ Associations, told the media that unlike his predecessors like MGR, Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa, EPS had been a “practising farmer” and there was nothing wrong in exhibiting his background. “He is not showing off as a farmer,” he points out.

In 2021, EPS is expected to give a tough fight to M K Stalin, who needs to prove his prowess in the party after the demise of his father, DMK patriarch M Karunanidhi. EPS has made the next election a contest. A couple of years ago, it was a foregone conclusion that the DMK will win the Assembly election in 2021. A lot can happen in the next one year, but now it is going to be a contest, say analysts.

A constant and silent presence of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s national leadership from Delhi in Tamil Nadu politics, according to them, added spice to his party, which was yearning for political stability. 

He has been doing a balancing act without looking totally subservient to the Centre, and he tried to push through certain things for the state, they said. Analysts lauded his acumen in saving the government that was expected to last for only few months . Now, not only is he stable but has also won accolades in terms of industry and governance rankings by the central government and various organisations.

Whether he will be able to win the next election is something that time will tell. Would he be able to keep the party together even if it loses the election? Analysts say it may depend on various factors one year down the line, including what kind of strategy the party will adopt, the alliances it will forge, and how many seats it manages to garner.

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