Madras HC's ruling may be relief for EPS, but impending by-elections much bigger challenge for ruling AIADMK
The Madras High Court upheld the disqualification of the 18 AIADMK MLAs who had defected to the TTV Dhinakaran camp of the Tamil Nadu ruling party.
With the Madras High Court upholding the disqualification of 18 MLAs loyal to the VK Sasikala faction of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) led by her nephew TTV Dhinakaran, the stage is now set for yet another massive political show down. The state will witness by-elections in these 18 Assembly segments, of the total strength of 234 in the Tamil Nadu legislature, thus turning it into a sort of mini general elections, as Dhinakaran seems to be in favour of seeking people's verdict rather than challenging the high court ruling in the Supreme Court.
Reacting to the verdict, Dhinakaran, who now heads the Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam (AMMK) after being deserted by the majority of MLAs in the AIADMK, said, "Personally, my feeling is we should go for by-elections." He is confident that his loyalists will sweep the by-polls.
The high court verdict has, thus, taken the internal battle in the AIADMK, which began after the death of its leader and former chief minister J Jayalalithaa, from the constitutional court to the people's court.
An adverse judgment would have endangered the survival of the Edappadi Palaniswami (EPS) government in Tamil Nadu, as an alliance between the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the Dhinakaran faction can make things worse for the ruling faction of the AIADMK. The DMK and its allies — the Congress and Indian Union Muslim League — together have 97 MLAs. If the 18 rebel AIADMK legislators forge an alliance with them, besides Independent MLA Dhinakaran himself, their strength would rise to 116 in the Tamil Nadu Assembly, which has an effective strength of 232 (two seats are vacant). Therefore, any political alignment between the DMK and Dhinakaran's AMMK, with the sole objective of dislodging the AIADMK government, would have triggered anxious moments for the EPS-OPS faction.
Although the ruling party faction led by EPS and Deputy Chief Minister O Panneerselvam (OPS) could avert an imminent threat to its survival, the group will now have to face a much bigger threat of facing the electorate, given its political and organisational vulnerabilities.
In September 2017, Speaker of the Tamil Nadu Assembly, P Dhanapal, disqualified the 18 rebel AIADMK MLAs under the Members of the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly (Disqualification Grounds of Defection) Rules, 1986, after they announced their loyalty to Dhinakaran. This created a political crisis in the ruling AIADMK, as the survival of the EPS government in Tamil Nadu was dependent on the support of these MLAs. The Speaker, who belongs to the ruling faction of the AIADMK, disqualifying the rebel MLAs reduced the effective strength in the state legislature, which allowed the ruling faction to still enjoy the majority in the House.
With the Madras High Court's verdict, Palaniswami has certainly consolidated his position in the struggle to control the reigns of the AIADMK leadership. But ultimately, the battle for appropriating the legacy of late Jayalalithaa does not end with the Assembly seats the disqualified MLAs held.
Moreover, Chief Minister Palaniswami hopes for support from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Although the saffron party is not a big player in Tamil Nadu politics, the ascendancy of its politico religiosity across the country, and the fact that the Union government is under its leadership, the BJP certainly matters in the current power struggle in Tamil Nadu. Union minister Pon Radhakrishnan said the high court ruling verdict should have been pronounced much earlier, indicating an endorsement for the EPS-OPS side.
However, the BJP has been keeping all its options open to penetrate the Dravidian land, which has always remained an anti-thesis for Hindutva politics. First, the party bet on the Paneerselvam faction. But realising that they could not live to up to its expectations, the BJP cleverly isolated Sasikala within the AIADMK after her arrest on corruption charges, subsequently prompting both the OPS and EPS factions to merge.
Yet, Dhinakaran remained a contender. His spectacular win in the RK Puram by-election — necessitated by the demise of Jayalalithaa — proved the gravity of his threat to the EPS-led AIADMK, despite the support of the BJP central leadership . The ruling faction is always vulnerable in the people's court, given the anti-incumbency it faces. The BJP is also looking at other options, such as Rajinikanth, who had announced his entry into politics on 31 December 2017, and even the DMK in the worst case scenario.
Therefore, these by-elections will be critical for the political future of the EPS-OPS faction of the AIADMK to not only remain in power but to even get external support in the form of the BJP.
Recently, four more MLAs who contested on AIADMK tickets apledged their support to Dhinakaran. One of them, Karunas, had sent a notice to the secretary of the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly, seeking the removal of Speaker P Dhanapal. With this Madras High Court verdict, the fate of these four legislators also hangs in balance. Any increase in the number of disqualifications will further increase the number of seats that go for by-elections. Any defeat for the EPS group would make the survival his government nearly impossible, given the political fragility in the ruling factions of the AIADMK.
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