Efforts for a patch-up between the rival AIADMK factions today hit a hurdle with rebel leader O Panneerselvam making talks conditional to the ouster of party General Secretary V K Sasikala and her nephew TTV Dhinakaran.
The faction led by Sasikala made it clear that there cannot be riders for talks, with some loyalists asserting the two leaders would continue to be at the helm of the party.
Cooperation Minister Sellur K Raju said it would not be fair to put conditions for the merger talks, while several die-hard loyalists of the Sasikala group went to the extent of questioning the mandate of Ministers who were taking forward the merger proposal, indicating it did not have the approval of the party leadership.
While Raju earlier in the day announced that Chief Minister K Palaniswami has set up a team for the talks, some loyalists of Dhinakaran said it lacked the backing of the party.
Adding to the suspense, Dhinakaran, who returned to the city early this morning from Bengaluru, is yet to express his view publicly on the talks for merger or the meeting held by the Ministers late last night.
Dhinkaran was apprised of the developments at his house here by senior Ministers K A Sengottaiyan and Dindigul C Srinivasan.
Panneerselvam made it clear that his group's "basic principle" of keeping the party and the government free from the "clutches" of a single family cannot be compromised.
He also remained firm on the demand for a probe on the circumstances leading to the death of late Chief Minister Jayalalithaa in December last year.
His assertion came after last night's confabulations, including the one attended by several senior Tamil Nadu ministers, after which they had appeared inclined to end the face-off with the Panneerselvam camp.
An otherwise unassuming Panneerselvam had revolted against AIADMK General Secretary V K Sasikala in February last, alleging he was forced by her to resign as Chief Minister following party supremo J Jayalalithaa's death.
Panneerselvam, a staunch Jayalalithaa loyalist, had filled in for her thrice--twice during her incarceration in corruption cases, and once when she lay on her death bed.
"Our party founder MGR (MG Ramachandran) and Amma (Jayalalithaa) created this party as one for the people and the cadre. This is a democratic organisation. If we don't follow this path, it shall be an injustice to the people," he told reporters in his native town Theni in south Tamil Nadu.
It was Panneerselvam who had first sent out signals of a possible rapprochement between the rival factions, a move which was promptly welcomed by the Sasikala camp followers.
Sources in the Panneerselvam camp today said there was no likelihood of talks commencing till their key demand for ejecting Sasikala and her nephew Dhinakaran, the AIADMK Deputy General Secretary, was met.
Panneerselvam, who is scheduled to arrive here tonight,is expected to consult his AIADMK (Puratchi Thalaivi Amma) faction leaders on the future course of action.
In an indication that the merger proposal may be stillborn, Sasikala loyalists want both her and Dhinakaran to continue in their respective posts.
Party strongman from North Chennai P Vetrivel sought to downplay the importance of last night's parleys, saying it was "not a proper party meet" and there was "nothing official" about it.
Noting that Dhinakaran was away in Bengaluru yesterday, he wanted to know how the meeting could have had his nod.
"Ministers can meet, but how many district secretaries and party functionaries participated?" he asked, while speaking to journalists.
He asked what "authority" do Minister D Jayakumar or Lok Sabha Deputy Speaker M Thambidurai have to talk on the matter.
Andipatti MLA Thanga Tamilselvan said, "Sasikala will be the general secretary and Dhinakaran will be deputy general secretary. This is the desire of 1.5 crore party workers."
He said there could be no pre-condition for talks. "No teams have been set up to hold talks," he claimed.
Incidentally, Chief Minister Palaniswami did not attend any of the parleys where members of his ministry discussed the possibility of a merger.
Earlier in the day, AIADMK MLAs from the rival factions held informal meetings, though what transpired was not known.
AIADMK Presidium Chairman and Minister K A Sengottaiyan, who met Palaniswami, said the Chief Minister stressed on unity between the two factions to take the ruling AIADMK and its government forward.
Speculations have swirled in the state's political circles about a possible pact between Palaniswami and Panneerselvam under which both Sasikala and Dhinakaran could be dumped.
Unconfirmed reports had it that under the arrangement Palaniswami would continue as Chief Minister while Panneerselvam would occupy the coveted post of AIADMK general secretary, which was held by J Jayalalithaa till her death.
Incidentally, the talk of a possible rapprochement between the bitterly divided party factions began yesterday, hours after the Delhi Police booked Dhinakaran for allegedly trying to bribe an Election Commission official in a bid to obtain the coveted "two-leaves" party symbol for his faction.
Sasikala had reinducted Dhinakaran, who was expelled from the AIADMK by Jayalalithaa, and appointed him the party's Deputy General secretary just before proceeding to Bengaluru to serve the remnant of her jail term after the Supreme Court upheld her conviction and sentence in a disproprtionate assets case in February this year.
Dhinakaran also faces two FERA violation cases.
There was reportedly disquiet in Tamil Nadu's ruling party ever since Income Tax officials raided Health Minister Vijayabaskar's premises and seized evidence of bribing voters for the bypoll to R K Nagar assembly seat.
The poll, scheduled for April 12, was countermanded by the Election Commission on April 9 amid allegations of rampant inducement and bribing of voters.
Dhinakaran, a former MP, was the candidate of AIADMK (Amma) faction for the seat.