Who made the OPS-as-CM posters is immaterial; what matters is that it had the protagonist’s permission, if not his instruction. The only other probability is a cunning outsider trying to instigate factionalism in the AIADMK. That’s unlikely, but then politics is the art of the impossible. On Saturday, OPS told party workers in Periyakulam that party functionaries don’t have to be faithful to anyone including him, but they should be faithful to the party. He is clearly in for some leveraging.

Insiders and observers agree that OPS now cannot count on a fraction of the legislators who stood by him during his ‘dharmayudh’ of early 2017. OPS may not be a force to reckon with beyond a couple of districts, but given the fragility of the AIADMK that has the uphill task of taking on the DMK in the ensuing assembly election, EPS cannot afford to have an unhappy lieutenant with a rebellious streak.

The AIADMK, which J Jayalalithaa inherited from MGR and built further as a monolith, had shown fissures with the passing of the last supreme leader. What remains of the party today, cemented as it may be by power, can quickly transform from an edifice held together by collective fear of loss to a divided house on a political precipice. OPS may not be strong enough to shove, but a push is all it takes to send the party plunging into an electoral abyss.

Having been the stand-in chief minister thrice (2001-2002 and 2014-2015, when Jayalalithaa was legally barred from holding office, and 2016-2017 soon after her death), OPS has as much reason to be ambitious as EPS. But with EPS having consolidated his position in the past three years, the two men have come to accept the unequal equilibrium where OPS will remain the No. 2, but with considerable importance for himself and his supporters in the party and the government.

Now, the posters and posturing indicate the Theni man is ready for a tough bargain. It would be one of those peculiar negotiations when the weaker partner dominates the talks just because the other has more at stake. EPS is likely to yield — even sacrifice some of his outer-ring cheerleaders — to keep the chief ministerial candidacy for himself, but if OPS demands more than his pound of flesh, the two could be at daggers drawn.

With Sasikala expected to be out of prison before the polls and T T V Dhinakaran making his own plans (not to speak of a mighty opposition), the 2021 assembly election wouldn’t be an easy sail for the AIADMK. In times of internal crises in the past three years, EPS had played the captain who silently warned his crew that anyone rocking the boat would sink with it. That wouldn’t do in the coming days when he will have to get all hands on the deck and give hope that they can weather the storm. On those leadership skills would also depend how many others would hop on board with the AIADMK on the perilous journey to Fort St George.

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