The refusal of Union Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman to meet Tamil Nadu Deputy Chief Minister O Panneerselvam in New Delhi on July 24 has come as a shock to OPS supporters whose main trump card in the past was his ease-of-doing business with BJP ministers at the Centre and even the Prime Minister.
The episode has indicated that the BJP ministers are not interested in playing the role of an arbiter in the internal affairs of the AIADMK. In the past, both the OPS group and that of Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswami seemed to be jockeying for coveted positions in the state, and using the BJP mediation for the purpose. This led to an image in the public domain that the BJP was indulging in back-seat driving in the state.
The response of the Defence Ministry that the Union Minister had given an appointment to AIADMK MP V Maitreyan and met him, while stating that she had not met the Deputy CM, gives the impression that no appointment had been given to OPS in the first place. What is more galling for OPS is that having gone together to the Defence Ministry office (with K P Munuswamy, Manoj Pandian and Maitreyan), Nirmala Sitharaman had chosen to meet only Maitreyan and not him, though he was waiting in the Ministry office for over 20 minutes.
Details are not yet forthcoming about whether OPS had obtained an appointment with the Defence Minister before leaving Chennai for Delhi. His public pronouncement that he would be meeting the minister for personal reasons to thank her for providing a defence aircraft to move his indisposed brother from Madurai to Chennai a few days ago, seems to have irked the Union minister, according to an AIADMK source.
The source also said the Union minister wanted to keep away from the internal matters of the AIADMK. Though OPS said it was a visit to thank the minister, he was accompanied by two AIADMK representatives who were his supporters, making it obvious that he wanted to discuss some party matters too with her. At a time when the ruling AIADMK led by CM Palaniswami was fully backing the NDA government at the Centre including supporting it during the no-trust move in the Lok Sabha a few days ago, the BJP leadership is keen to send out the right signals to the AIADMK. The signal was one of non-interference.
Sources in the AIADMK point out that the inclusion of the OPS group of 11 MLAs in the party and inclusion of OPS and K Pandiarajan in the state ministry with OPS getting the Dy CM post and co-ordinator of the party, was mainly due to pressure from the BJP, that too directly from the PM after several meetings. The ease with which OPS was able to meet the PM and senior BJP ministers was one of the reasons for getting OPS a prominent place in the AIADMK hierarchy.
However, things have changed in the last few months, with EPS meeting the PM often and despatching his ministers to Delhi to get projects cleared by concerned Union ministers. The spontaneous response to the BJP message to support its candidates for the post of President and Vice President improved communication lines between EPS and top BJP leaders.
The BJP top leadership is now sending the message across that it doesn’t want to ruffle the feathers of CM EPS and that it wants an united AIADMK as an ally, not a party divided into several groups. In the run-up to the Lok Sabha polls, the BJP is worried about the poor image of the AIADMK among the public due to constant bickering and groupism in the party. The BJP’s worry is that even an alliance with the ruling AIADMK will not ensure a majority of Lok Sabha seats from Tamil Nadu due to divisions in the AIADMK, including the erosion caused by the TTV Dinakaran Amma party.
DMK spokesman Saravanan, however, believes that Nirmala Sitharaman avoided meeting OPS in view of corruption charges against relatives of OPS and the possibility of investigation into the charges.
The Dinakaran group believes that BJP leaders have realized that promoting OPS would create instability. The statement of the lawyer representing the AIADMK 18 MLAs disqualified by the Speaker that they would not vote against the AIADMK government and would obey the AIADMK whip during voting is seen as an interesting development and could be the beginning of a compromise between the EPS and Dinakaran groups. The coming together of these groups, if and when it takes place, could lead to the isolation of the OPS group in the party.
The AIADMK is going through a state of flux, and the BJP perhaps wants to maintain a safe distance from the goings on to ensure that the AIADMK is a stable ally during the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.
As for the OPS-Nirmala Sitharaman episode, it would be more remembered as an OPS – Nahi Mila (Did not Meet) incident