On March 5, the Election Commission of India announced the date for Assembly elections in Tamil Nadu. With just a month to go for polling, leaders of political parties got down to start campaigning. Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswami, began his campaign on December 19 at his hometown of Edappadi in Salem. But one person who has been missing from the AIADMK’s campaign is Deputy CM and coordinator of the AIADMK, O Panneerselvam. OPS began his campaign for the party outside his constituency of Bodinayakanur thirteen days after the announcement of elections was made. He started his first phase campaign on March 18 and was seen campaigning at Thiruvottiyur Theradi, where AIADMK candidate K Kuppan will face off with Naam Thamizhar Katchi founder Seeman. OPS last came to Chennai for the AIADMK manifesto release on March 14. In contrast, EPS has completed six phases of campaigning and is now on the seventh. In 24 days, he has toured 24 districts covering close to 100 constituencies, conducting over 200 public meetings. With his own political future as well as that of the party at stake, EPS seems to have emerged as the sole face of the AIADMK in the party’s first election since the demise of Jayalalithaa. Read: AIADMK expels ex-Minister after he files nomination as an Independent In 2017, when there was a massive vacuum caused by Jayalalithaa’s death, both EPS and OPS were contenders for control in both the party and the government. While the-party split into two camps and then merged again months later, EPS retained his CM post while OPS refused to be sidelined and continued to demand his place. Over the next four years, what changed? EPS shouldering the campaign “Much before elections were announced it was decided that EPS will be the CM face of the party so the onus is on him to pilot the party campaign. Though OPS is the coordinator of the party, he has allowed the responsibility to fall on EPS to sell the performance of his government,” says GC Shekhar, a senior journalist. But the striking absence of the number two in the party and government sends a strong message. OPS is a four-time legislator and has held several portfolios over the years. Thrice, he has been Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu--September 2001-March 2002, September-May 2015 and December 2016-February 2017. He was also the first to revolt against Sasikala in 2017, leading the path to several more in the party, and eventually even EPS denouncing Sasikala’s leadership. And despite allowing EPS to spearhead the government, after a delicate truce between the two leaders, OPS once again asserted his presence, challenged EPS to continue leading the party into the election. So now when he has been conspicuously low-profile, questions are bound to be raised. Read: Will scrap Adani port expansion project in Tamil Nadu, OPS promises during campaign “EPS wants to be the CM and OPS wants to be the Leader of Opposition. That is the dichotomy. OPS understands reality much better than EPS, he knows you cannot have grandiose plans,” says RK Radhakrishnan, veteran journalist. Shekhar too says that a major reason for OPS to not venture outside his stronghold is to avoid juxtaposing himself with EPS. “OPS has been confined to the southern districts in the past as well. And he is sticking to this pattern because his appeal is still in the south. Whereas EPS has managed to grow beyond and has emerged as a pan-Tamil Nadu leader. He is now seen as the main challenger to Stalin which is why he is being attacked by DMK,” he says. Many in the AIADMK including a few working closely with EPS believe that OPS refused to lend his face to the party campaign realising that the 2021 Assembly elections could very well define the future of the party and its leaders. The release of Sasikala from Bengaluru prison made the two leaders come together again, briefly. And with Sasikala announcing that she is stepping away from politics, the chasm between the two came to the fore again. But while OPS confined himself mostly to his constituency, there was another strategy brewing. “The Rajmatha will be Sasikala though she cannot contest elections for six years. And for her, a face who will not be threatening is OPS. Even TTV Dhinakaran is a threatening face for the party so he cannot be a CM face. Other castes will not accept him. So Sasikala might even forsake Dhinakaran and prefer OPS over Dhinakaran. That is the long-term strategy,” RK Radhakrishnan adds, voicing a theory many in the AIADMK too believe. EPS has provided stability to the party when in power but in the event the AIADMK loses, will he continue enjoying the support of leaders and functionaries? In the ensuing instability, party insiders believe, OPS could make yet another bid to lead the party and that can be possible only if the blame of the loss can be completely passed on to EPS.