HEADLINES:
December 14 2018
Unsettled weather ahead
28 October 2018

The verdict in the MLAs disqualification case has pushed Tamil Nadu closer to byelections. They are now imminent in 20 Assembly constituencies, including 18 from where the MLAs have been disqualified and two that have been lying vacant. And, it is these bypolls that will decide the future of political alignments in the State.

The month of October seems to hold a special significance for the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK). It was on October 17, 1972, that the party came into being. Exactly 42 years later, on the same day in 2014, the rattled AIADMK heaved a sigh of relief when Jayalalithaa, after being convicted in a case of disproportionate assets, got bail from the Supreme Court after spending three weeks at Parapana Agaraharam, Bengaluru.

This October has been no less eventful for the party. The biggest event, of course, was the judgment on the disqualification of 18 MLAs. The month began with a disclosure by Thanga Tamilselvan, a key aide of rebel leader and Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam (AMMK) founder T.T.V. Dhinakaran, that O. Panneerselvam, Deputy Chief Minister and the ruling party’s coordinator, had made two attempts in the last 15 months to effect a rapprochement with the rebel leader.

Even though the Deputy Chief Minister did not deny the statement fully, he did acknowledge that he had met Mr. Dhinakaran in July 2017, which was before he had patched up with Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami. “In fact, it was after the meeting that I decided that I should expedite the reunion (with the group led by Mr. Palaniswami),” Mr. Panneerselvam said later.

 

Just as the dust generated by the OPS controversy was settling down, the Madras High Court ordered a probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation into a few road projects. The Opposition had demanded the ouster of Mr. Palaniswami, as he holds the Highways portfolio. In no time came another shocker from the Dhinakaran camp about an alleged illicit affair of Fisheries Minister D. Jayakumar, who has emerged as the de factospokesperson of the State Cabinet.

Added to this has been a feeling in many sections of society that the ruling party has been citing one excuse or the other to not face elections of any kind – either to local bodies or to the Thiruvarur and Thiruparankundram Assembly constituencies.

Jubilant reaction

It was in this context that the Madras High Court’s decisive verdict, upholding Speaker P. Dhanapal’s September 2017 order of disqualifying 18 pro-Dhinakaran legislators, was delivered on Thursday last. Naturally, the ruling camp went to town, projecting itself as the victor in the case. And, there was an element of difference in the way it reacted to the development.

In the last one year, the ruling camp scored victories over the rival Dhinakaran camp on two occasions – the restoration of the “two leaves” symbol in November 2017 and the High Court’s dismissal of petitions in April 2018, seeking the disqualification of Mr. Panneerselvam and 10 other legislators for having voted against the Palaniswami government during a vote of confidence in February 2017. On those two occasions, there was not much celebration, but this time around, the ruling party has demonstrated its sense of jubilation.

 

Unsettled weather ahead
 

Contrary to its earlier position that favoured participation in byelections as the only option, the Dhinakaran camp subtly shifted its stance and chose to appeal against the High Court’s judgment. “We are planning to file our appeal in the Supreme Court on Tuesday,” said Mr. Thanga Tamilselvan, who was, not long ago, categorical in showing his preference for resolving the issue by contesting the bypolls. He hastens to add that the objective behind going on appeal is to prove to the world that the Speaker had taken a “wrong decision”, even as all the disqualified persons are ready to plunge into the electoral fray, in the event of bypolls.

But, the ruling camp is not surprised. “That’s how Mr. Dhinakaran can keep his flock together,” reasons K.P. Munusamy, former Minister and a known critic of V.K. Sasikala. O.S. Manian, secretary of the Nagapattinam district unit of the AIADMK and Handlooms Minister, chimes in.

The rationale behind this explanation is that Mr. Dhinakaran is giving the disqualified legislators the hope of getting back their membership of the Assembly, by citing the Karnataka case of Balchandra L. Jarkiholi & Others vs. B.S. Yeddyurappa, wherein the Supreme Court, in May 2011, quashed the disqualification of 11 Members of the Legislative Assembly.

Besides, “the talk of an AMMK-AIADMK merger is also a ruse to keep members of the Dhinakaran camp in good humour,” says Mr. Manian, who, some in the party claim, is close to V. Dhivakaran, brother of ousted interim general secretary of the AIADMK, Sasikala, and a critic of Mr. Dhinakaran.

However, Va. Pugazhendi, another prominent figure of the Dhinakaran camp, debunks their position by wondering what the ruling camp has to gain in the event of re-entry of any of the disqualified legislators as, “after all, they are no longer MLAs”.

Mini general election

Despite assertions of the AIADMK, AMMK and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam that they are all ready to face byelections, there is a popular perception that no one is inclined to face the electorate ahead of the Lok Sabha elections, which are due in April-May. As two other consitutencies, Tiruvarur and Thiruparankundram, vacated because of the death of their legislators are also lying vacant, the byelections will have to be held for a total of 20 constituencies in the absence of any legal bar. And, such a situation will be equivalent to a “mini general election” for the Assembly, says Naresh Gupta, former Chief Electoral Officer of Tamil Nadu, hinting that preparations to be made by the State election machinery will have to be exhaustive.

Regardless of how the political players are going to play their cards, the High Court verdict appears to have enhanced the political standing of Mr. Palaniswami, who was a lesser known politician till he made it to the post of Chief Minister in February 2017.

This has come at a time when the public has been talking about him displaying greater confidence than ever before.

The change in him is evident as he never attempted to project himself so long as Jayalalithaa was alive.

Already, the talk doing the rounds is that it is a matter of time before Mr. Palaniswami pips other heavyweights to become the most powerful person in the party. Strictly speaking, the No. 1 position in the party now lies with Mr. Panneerselvam, and the system of “collective leadership”, which includes the Chief Minister too, is in place.

Critical elections are imminent in Tamil Nadu, whether they happen before the Lok Sabha polls, along with them, or later.

It remains to be seen whether the coming winter months are going to be warm or cold for the AIADMK, in terms of political prospects.

 

 

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