Respite and anxiety – Frontline
EVERY month brings a new crisis for the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) government in Tamil Nadu. But somehow the government weathers it and trudges on, much to the chagrin of the opposition.
The latest such crisis came in October. October 25 was the most tense day this year in Tamil Nadu. The Madras High Court had, just past midnight the previous day, listed the case of the disqualification of 18 MLAs for pronouncement of its verdict. The long-awaited and much-anticipated outcome of the case, which involved the Legislative Assembly Speaker’s act of disqualifying 18 MLAs belonging to a faction of the AIADMK, was widely recognised as significant because it would determine the longevity of the Edappadi K. Palaniswami government.
But as on several other occasions since he was elected leader of the AIADMK legislature party on February 16, 2017, Palaniswami had a reason to smile: just past 10:40 a.m., a single “tiebreaker” judge concurred with the Speaker’s ruling and upheld the disqualification. In his 475-page order, Justice M. Satyanarayanan addressed all the points raised by the MLAs—perversity, mala fide, bias, partisan attitude and abuse of power—and answered each of these points at great length, while recalling the sequence of events that followed the death of Chief Minister Jayalalithaa. More than a year after the disqualification, the court agreed with the Speaker’s decision to strip the 18 MLAs of their posts because they submitted a letter to the Governor expressing lack of confidence in Palaniswami’s leadership.
As Palaniswami and his Ministers celebrated, the former AIADMK leader T.T.V. Dinakaran, who commands the loyalty of the disqualified MLAs, announced that he would take a decision on his future course of action on the basis of what the MLAs wanted.
There were two options before him: to go to the Supreme Court to seek relief or to declare that his MLAs will face byelections, which have to be held within six months. Moving the Supreme Court would mean a long-drawn-out process, as was witnessed in 2016 in the case of six MLAs who were suspended by the then Assembly Speaker. The six MLAs, belonging to the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK), who were suspended in March 2015, were reinstated by the Supreme Court in February 2016, just before Assembly elections to the State were announced.
The main opposition party, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), demanded early byelections in the 18 constituencies and to the two seats that fell vacant following the death of DMK president M. Karunanidhi and that of AIADMK MLA A.K. Bose. All the other opposition parties too made this demand. In the lone byelection to the R.K. Nagar seat held a year after the death of Jayalalithaa, in December 2017, the ruling party lost by a wide margin.
Earlier, expecting a verdict in his favour, Dinakaran had moved all “his” MLAs to a resort in Courtallam, more than 600 kilometres south of Chennai, citing safety reasons. This was almost a re-enactment of the resort drama played out in February 2017, when all MLAs backing the Sasikala-Dinakaran faction of the AIADMK were moved to a resort at Koovathur on the outskirts of Chennai, but there was a crucial difference.
In the first round, the MLAs did not have much of a choice: they were literally rounded up and taken to the resort because there were fears that some of them would cross over to the faction led by O. Panneerselvam, who had broken ranks with the party claiming that Jayalalithaa’s spirit had “spoken” to him and asked him to save the party from the Sasikala clan. In the second round, the disqualified MLAs had been with Dinakaran for more than a year and there was no reason to believe that they would switch camps. There had been some attempts to reach these MLAs and persuade them to “return” to the AIADMK, but none of them budged. The only problem was that some of the MLAs feared that they could be kidnapped or arrested in cases that were not of recent vintage.
There appears to have been several back-channel communications between the ruling AIADMK and Dinakaran, strengthening the suspicion that they would make common cause sooner or later. For instance, Thanga Tamilselvan, one of the disqualified MLAs, startled people across the State in October by claiming on a Tamil television channel that Panneerselvam had approached a contractor based in Chennai for setting up a meeting with Dinakaran. Panneerselvam confirmed that this had indeed happened, leading to perplexed reactions from within the ruling faction. The confirmation left too many questions unanswered: who authorised such a meeting; why Panneerselvam, who was in favour of throwing out the Sasikala clan, should want such a meeting; what it meant for the future of the AIADMK government, and so on.
Tamilselvan’s main point was that Panneerselvam wanted Dinakaran to back his candidature as Chief Minister in the event of the disqualification of the 18 MLAs being overturned. Panneerselvam’s camp denied this and said the talks did not touch upon this topic. In spite of all this confusion, the verdict brought the ruling party camp much-needed respite.
Though his hopes were belied, Dinakaran seemed unfazed. He addressed the press just five minutes after the judge pronounced the verdict, took a volley of questions with a composure that is rarely seen in Tamil politicians, and did not dodge any of the queries.
But after meeting his MLAs in Courtallam on October 26, Dinakaran seemed to be making subtle alterations to his politics of relentlessly attacking the AIADMK government. Earlier, Tamilselvan had categorically stated that the disqualified MLAs would not approach the Supreme Court for relief and would rather face a byelection. When asked to comment on this, Dinakaran said this was one person’s view and he needed to elicit the views of the others. After his meeting in Courtallam, word got out that the former MLAs would consult the people in their constituencies before chalking up a course of action. On October 31, he made it known that the disqualified MLAs would not approach the Supreme Court.
The apparent dilemma in the Dinakaran camp emboldened the ruling AIADMK faction to appeal to the 18 MLAs to come back to the party. The party organ Namadhu Amma called on them, in a column, to “go and kneel at the Amma memorial and seek her forgiveness, and come back”. Dinakaran responded quickly, saying this could only mean that the AIADMK government was weak and wanted the support of his party. At an impromptu press meet on October 30, the Chief Minister clarified that the invitation was only for the 18 MLAs and not for Dinakaran.
Even as the two factions played psychological games with one another, the DMK said that it was looking at the larger picture. “We are not concerned whether the judgment is good or bad since this is about the internal fighting between two factions in the AIADMK. We are concerned about the need for representation for these 20 constituencies,” said its president, M.K. Stalin. Though 19 of these seats were held by the AIADMK, the DMK is confident that voters will now prefer it. “If the Election Commission [E.C.] announces a date for the elections and ensures free and fair elections, the DMK will do very well,” said Kanimozhi, the party’s parliamentary party leader.
Almost all the other parties, including the DMDK, the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) and the Bharatiya Janata Party, made it clear that they were ready to face byelections. In fact, most political parties in Tamil Nadu, with the possible exception of the ruling AIADMK, want early byelections. VCK leader Thol. Thirumavalavan said that the constituencies had gone unrepresented for more than a year and that elections should be held as early as possible.
It is an open secret that the AIADMK is nervous about facing elections. The State government has cited one pretext or another to postpone indefinitely elections to local bodies, which should have been held in 2016. On October 26, it gave the Madras High Court, which is seized of the matter, yet another excuse: local body elections cannot be held by the end of this year because the exercise of delimitation of wards based on the 2011 Census was time-consuming. The AIADMK government had also written to the E.C. not to hold byelections in November in the two seats that had fallen vacant because of the death of the sitting MLAs, citing a rain alert by the Meteorological Department. The E.C. accepted the argument, though byelections have been held in Tamil Nadu in November in the past.
But it has, nevertheless, put on a brave face and said that it is ready for the byelections. On October 29, the AIADMK said that 118 party functionaries would oversee the election in the 20 constituencies. Most Ministers of the State Cabinet, about 20 MPs and as many as 25 MLAs will assist the committee in getting the party ready for the elections.
It appears that the AIADMK has singled out one of the 18 disqualified MLAs for special treatment. As many as 10 party functionaries have been named to manage Perambur, from where P. Vetrivel, a close associate of Dinakaran, is expected to contest. Tamilselvan, another close associate of Dinakaran, will also have to face the might of Panneerselvam in his home district, Theni.
As of now, the AIADMK, which derives the maximum benefit from the breather brought by the verdict, has 110 MLAs in the 234-member House. But with 18 members disqualified, and two dead, the Assembly now has 214 members. The DMK has 88, the Congress eight, and the Indian Union Muslim League one. Dinakaran has a total of four MLAs with him. Three other party leaders who contested on the two-leaves symbol, Karunas, Thamimun Ansari and U. Thaniyarasu, are also MLAs. Thus, the opposition jointly has 104 members. The AIADMK is in a clear majority.
This is why the byelections are crucial. The government was elected in 2016 and can last until 2021. The ruling party is under pressure to prove that it can win an election. Besides, it needs another eight members to have a majority in a House of 234. Dinakaran is under pressure to prove that his victory in R.K. Nagar constituency in Chennai was not a flash in the pan. Though he has four members, the elections will establish for sure whether Dinakaran is able to sustain in the long run his newly formed party, the Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam (AMMK). The DMK is under pressure to prove that its loss of deposit, and with it, face, in the R.K. Nagar byelection was an aberration. If the majority of the constituencies is bagged by the DMK, it could even mean a change of government in Tamil Nadu.
But it may be as long as six months before the byelections are held. Meanwhile, there is no guarantee that the AIADMK’s 110 MLAs will stick by the government in the event of a vote. Three MLAs, V.T. Kalaiselvan, A. Prabhu and E. Rathinasabapathy, are already with Dinakaran and have stated that they have no intention of leaving him. Though the AIADMK government tried to scare them with the disqualification card, it has not worked so far. Apart from this, it appears that there are a few MLAs within the ruling party who are considering their options. Dinakaran refers to these MLAs as “sleeper cells” and says they will strike when the time is right.
Dinakaran’s fear right now is that if the AIADMK government is pulled down, the DMK will in all likelihood muster up the numbers to form the government. That will deal a blow to his own chances. Anyone in the AIADMK who helps the “enemy” DMK come to power will forever be regarded as a betrayer and will be unable to occupy the opposition space.
At the same time, Dinakaran has an extremely hard task to accomplish. All the 18 seats that his functionaries will contest were held by the AIADMK. It will not be possible to win them all. But if he manages to win a considerable number, and also make a dent in the two other seats, he will have truly arrived on the Tamil Nadu political scene.
Ever since Palaniswami was sworn in on February 16, 2017, his government has looked shaky. Panneerselvam, who was sworn in as Chief Minister soon after Jayalalithaa’s death and was forced to step down a mere two months into his tenure, had launched a “dharma yudh” against the corrupt family that controls the AIADMK.
In the floor test held on February 18, 2017, 10 MLAs in the Panneerselvam camp voted against the government, thereby attracting provisions under the disqualification law. But strangely, neither the AIADMK Whip nor the Assembly Speaker thought it fit to act on this instance. In this vote, the Dinakaran camp MLAs had voted for Palaniswami and ensured that the government survived. (Panneerselvam himself abstained from voting. A case relating to this, filed by the DMK’s whip, R. Chakrapani, is pending with the Supreme Court. The court has adjourned the matter to November 15.)
The party was in disarray in February 2017 because Sasikala had to go back to prison after the Supreme Court set aside the Karnataka High Court’s order in the disproportionate assets case and restored the trial court’s verdict. Sasikala and her relatives Ilavarasi and Sudhakaran were held guilty. It only seemed a matter of time before the party imploded.
But Dinakaran, who was brought back into the party fold by Sasikala a day before she left for prison, held the party together. Despite appeals by Panneerselvam, and persuasion by a few people who were close to the powerful in New Delhi but lacked basic knowledge of the workings of Dravidian polity, not many left the AIADMK now led by Dinakaran. The acrimonious battle between the two AIADMK factions saw a strange twist, with the E.C. deciding to freeze the two-leaves symbol of the AIADMK.
On March 7, the E.C. announced the dates for the byelection to the R.K. Nagar constituency. Dinakaran decided to contest, much to the dismay of some Ministers. Though all of them were on the field campaigning for the April 12 election, it was clear that there was dissonance in the camp. The E.C. cancelled the byelections two days before voting, alleging widespread distribution of money to buy votes.
On April 26, Dinakaran was arrested by the Delhi Police for trying to bribe E.C. officials over the frozen symbol issue, a development that carried indications of an invisible hand nudging the AIADMK in one direction.
It was as if the ruling party had been waiting for an opportunity to break ranks with Dinakaran. As soon as he was arrested, the distancing began in right earnest. The charges against Dinakaran, who spent more than a month in prison, were flimsy because no recipient of the alleged bribe was named.
With the Sasikala clan out of the way, it appeared that the invisible hand was again at work. This time, it nudged Panneerselvam towards Palaniswami. In August 2017, the two of them resolved their differences. On August 21, Panneerselvam was sworn in as Deputy Chief Minister. Only one other MLA from his camp, K. Pandiarajan, was sworn in as a Minister and handed a portfolio, largely considered a dud.
Panneerselvam himself offered an explanation on this invisible hand: “He [Prime Minister Narendra Modi] said that you [Panneerselvam] could join and save the party,” he told his party supporters in Theni on February 16 this year. “I am a Minister because of this. I have no desire to be a Minister,” he added.
Letter to Governor
Soon after Panneerselvam’s swearing-in, an infuriated Dinakaran, who was on bail, called upon the true followers of “Amma Jayalalithaa” to lodge a protest with the Tamil Nadu Governor against Palaniswami. On August 22, as many as 19 MLAs met the Governor and submitted identical representations that read: “In the month of February 2017, myself and 121 MLAs [of the] AIADMK had duly signed and submitted a memorandum to your Excellency Governor of Tamil Nadu by conveying our support to Mr Edappadi K. Palaniswami to form the government. Thereby I had supported Mr Edappadi K. Palaniswami at the time of floor test in order to prove the majority. While this is so, slowly I got disillusioned with the functioning of the Government headed by Mr Edappadi K. Palaniswami as there has been abuse of power, favouritism, misusing of government machinery, widespread corruption. For the past four months allegations of corruption against Mr Edappadi K. Palaniswami is levelled from various sectors vehemently. Mr Edappadi K. Palaniswami as the Hon’ble Chief Minister have forfeited the confidence of the people and in the interest of the State of Tamil Nadu and the people of Tamil Nadu, I hereby express my lack of confidence on Mr Edappadi K. Palaniswami. As such I withdraw my earlier support given to him vide this communication. I further submit that I have not given up my membership of AIADMK and I am only doing my duty as a conscious citizen to expose the abuse and misuse of the constitutional provision.”
Two days later, the Chief Government Whip of the Tamil Nadu State Legislative Assembly, S. Rajendran, wrote to the Speaker seeking disqualification of the MLAs under the Tenth Schedule of the Constitution read with Rule 6 of the Members of the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly [Disqualification on the ground of Defection] Rules, 1986.
The MLAs tried playing for time, but just over a fortnight later, on September 18, the Speaker announced that 18 out of 19 MLAs had been disqualified. One MLA, S.T.K. Jakkaiyan, got off the hook by writing a letter retracting his allegation against the Chief Minister.
The 18 disqualified MLAs approached the Madras High Court for relief. A two-judge bench comprising Chief Justice Indira Banerjee and Justice M. Sundar heard the arguments and reserved its orders on January 23, 2018. It delivered a split verdict nearly six months later, on June 14. The nomination of the “tiebreaker” judge, Justice S. Vimala, was challenged in the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court transferred the case to M. Satyanarayanan on June 17 without attributing any reason.
The court battles are not over yet for the AIADMK. The case against Panneerselvam and 10 MLAs for not voting in the floor test after Palaniswami’s swearing-in is still pending. Chakrapani, who filed the case, contends that such behaviour calls for their disqualification. The AIADMK will be hard put to justify its stance on this.