Madras HC upholds disqualification of 18 rebel AIADMK MLAs; relief for TN govt, but Dhinakaran confident of bypoll win

In a huge relief to the AIADMK government, the Madras High Court Thursday upheld the 14 June order of the then chief justice Indira Banerjee which disqualified its 18 rebel MLAs under the anti-defection law for having sided with expelled leader and AMMK chief TTV Dhinakaran.

The 18 AIADMK MLAs were disqualified on 18 September 2017 after they met the governor and expressed loss of confidence in chief minister E Palaniswami. The Assembly Speaker P Dhanapal had then ordered their disqualification.

An adverse judgement on Thursday could have triggered a political realignment in Tamil Nadu and brought the ruling party perilously close to losing the majority in the state assembly whose effective strength is 232 and two seats are vacant.

However post the favourable verdict, senior AIADMK ministers celebrated the HC verdict along with chief minister and the deputy chief minister. Meanwhile, Palaniswami has said that if the Election Commission decides to conduct by-elections in these seats based on the court's verdict, AIADMK will contest and win in all of them.

File image of Tamil Nadu chief minister EK Palaniswami. PTI

File image of Tamil Nadu chief minister EK Palaniswami. PTI

A division bench of the court comprising Banerjee and Justice M Sundar had delivered a split verdict on 14 June. Banerjee had upheld Speaker P Dhanapal's order disqualifying them, while Sundar had passed a dissenting judgement. The Supreme Court had then appointed Justice M Sathyanarayanan to hear the matter. Justice Sathyanarayanan Thursday said there was no infirmity in Dhanapal's order which was upheld by Banerjee. "All the material that was available at the time of the passing of the order by the Speaker alone have been taken into consideration and this court cannot go into the subsequent events," the judge observed, upholding the disqualification.

The judge said he had delivered his "independent view" on the matter and not gone by those expressed by the two judges who heard it earlier. In her 200-page 14 June order, Banerjee had upheld Dhanapal's decision, saying: "In my opinion, the view taken by the Speaker is a possible, if not plausible view, and I am unable to hold that the said decision is any way unreasonable, irrational or perverse." Justice Sundar, in his 135-page judgement, delivered separately, struck a dissenting note, insisting that Dhanapal's order "deserved to be set aside on grounds of perversity, non -compliance with principles of natural justice, mala fides and violation of the constitutional mandate".

Banerjee had said the petitioners were given chance to present their case but they chose not to appear before the Speaker, and as such, they cannot complain of the breach of audi alteram partem (hear the other side) rule. Justice Banerjee said she also found "substance" in the contention of the government that if the effect of withdrawal of support and calling for the initiation of the constitutional process (against the chief minister) meant fall of the government, it would imply the relinquishment of membership of the party, and attract provisions of the disqualification law. Justice Sundar, however, said the entire controversy could have been put to rest had the Speaker conceded the plea of the petitioners to allow them an opportunity for cross-examination and give oral evidence. He had said that the Speaker's order, even if legally correct, deserved to be set aside for mala fides (in bad faith).

Thursday's verdict came as a massive relief for the Palaniswami government as the restoration of the membership of the rebel MLAs could have set off a realignment in the state's politics with the Dhinakaran camp likely joining hands with the opposition DMK and bringing it dangerously close to losing the majority. The DMK and its allies the Congress and IUML together have 97 MLAs, and with the 18 rebel AIADMK forging an alliance with them besides independent legislator Dhinakaran himself, their strength would have risen to 116, which is equal to that of the ruling party.

Two assembly seats are vacant, including Thiruvarur, which was represented by DMK patriarch the late M Karunanidhi. Reacting to the verdict, Dhinakaran, who now heads the AMMK after being sidelined in the AIADMK, said he would consult the MLAs loyal to him before deciding whether to go in appeal in the Supreme Court. "We expected a favourable verdict but it is not a setback. I will consult the 18 MLAs on whether to file an appeal in the Supreme Court. Personally, my feeling is we should go for byelections," he said.

Dhinakaran asserted his loyalists will sweep the bypolls. "The court's judgement is different and people's judgement is different," he said, claiming his party and those loyal to it will emerge stronger after the verdict. Ther AIADMK hailed the judgement, calling it a "just order". Party spokesperson P Valarmathi expressed joy over the verdict and said the Palaniswami government has now proved that it is "stable". "We are very happy...this is a just order," Valarmathi told PTI.

The 18 MLAs, who are supporting the TTV-Sasikala faction, are currently holed up in a resort in Kutralam and Dhinakaran is expected to meet them on Thursday to decide if they will appeal the decision, sources said. Presently, there are around 16 MLAs at the Esakki High View Resort owned by AIADMK MLA Esakki Subbaiah.

Meanwhile, Union Minister Pon Radhakrishnan has said that the court's decision is not particularly surprising. "This verdict should have come much earlier. Still, we hope that everyone will accept the court's decision. The MLAs currently at Kutralam are probably there to wash their sin off at the Pushkara festival," he said.

Whereas DMK chief MK Stalin told reporters that the party did not have any expectations or worries about the verdict. He said the EC must immediately move to hold bye-elections in the 20 seats that are lying vacant now, including that of late DMK supremo M Karunanidhi. "DMK is ready to face elections any time," he said. "We have been discussing our strategies for the general elections and possible state elections as well."

However, Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi chief Thol Thirumavalavan said that the High Court verdict is contradictory to democratic principles. Speaking with reporters at the VCK office in Chennai's Ashok Nagar, he expressed shock at the verdict and said it sets a wrong precedence. "If TTV decides not to appeal, bye-elections must be held immediately, along with the general elections," he said as he expressed doubts that the EC is capable of conducting either election without making sure the candidates don't indulge in unethical and illegal campaign practices.

Advocate Raja Senthoor Pandian, who has been fighting the case on behalf of the 18 disqualified MLAs, also expressed disappointment at the High Court's decision. He said it was believed that Justice Sathyanarayanan would take into consideration the two previous judgments in this case where the verdict was split. The defenders were only asked to only present new arguments. However, today, while delivering the verdict, the judge said that his decision is independent of the previous proceedings. If we had known this earlier, we would have presented our arguments differently, Pandian said. Pandian also said that there are now three options before them: To challenge the verdict before the Supreme Court; to face by-elections; or face by-elections while moving the SC. "Our legal battle will continue as per the decision of the disqualified MLAs," he said.

With inputs from PTI


Updated Date: Oct 25, 2018 14:20 PM

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