The much-awaited verdict of the Madras High Court last week in the case of eighteen AIADMK MLAs suspended by the Speaker, P Dhanapal, for open defiance of the ruling party has not helped clarify the situation in the troubled State. The split verdict, with the Chief Justice Indira Banerjee upholding the disqualification and Justice M Sundar pronouncing it void, will now be considered by a third judge for a 2:1 decision to prevail. The 18 dissident MLAs who had thrown their lot with Dinakaran, the nephew of Sasikala, now in jail on corruption charges, were disqualified in a controversial move by the Speaker after a resolution was moved by the group loyal to Chief Minister E K Palaniswami.
The split verdict may not be any one faction’s favour since the initial turmoil in the AIADMK soon after the death of Jayalalithaa, Dinakaran has lost his hold on the party, especially after the imprisonment of Sasikala. With the Centre lending a helping hand in ensuring that the Palaniswami government does not crumble due to internal problems in the party, and his main challenger, O Panneerselvam, having reconciled to become the deputy chief minister, it is not clear that all eighteen MLAs would have stayed loyal to Dinakaran had the court reversed their disqualification. The AIADMK has 116 MLAs, including the Speaker, in the 234-member House. The Opposition has a total strength of 98, including 89 MLAs of the DMK. Following the disqualification of 18 MLAs, the strength of the House was reduced to 216. But, given the thin majority Panneerselvam enjoys, and the tenuous grip of the leadership on the party following Jayalalithaa’s demise, the State administration has virtually come to a halt with no policy initiatives taken by the new government.
The drift and dithering was apparent in the recent mishandling of protests against environmental pollution caused by the Sterlite Industries’ Tuticorin plant which led to several deaths in police firing. Uncertainty is further aggravated by the absence of a vote-catcher in the incumbent group in the AIADMK. The victory of Dinakaran against all odds from Jayalalithata’s R K Nagar Assembly seat further added to the anxiety of the sitting MLAs. The fear is that without a charismatic leader, the AIADMK would disintegrate. With the Opposition DMK led by Karunanidhi’s designated heir, Stalin, waiting in the wings to step in, the fear of the anti-defection law alone may have kept the AIADMK MLAs to stay put in the leaderless party.
A fresh election could immediately trigger a sharp realignment in the Tamil Nadu polity, with most members of the AIADMK drifting towards winning groups. With two of the State’s most charismatic film stars making their political ambitions clear, it was speculated that Rajnikanth could fill in the void caused by Jayalalithaa’s death by taking over the reins of her party. So far, Rajnikanth has made no move in that direction though he will be in a better position to nurse his political ambitions were he to accept the AIADMK leadership given its strong organisational set-up which provides him a head start over Kamal Hassan, who too craves for a political role. Where will that leave Stalin’s DMK remains to be seen, though with Rajnikanth heading the AIADMK or alternatively, its entire base gravitating towards his own yet-to-be formed party, things could become tough for him.
Meanwhile, there is more than a kernel of truth without the not-so-hidden support of the Centre, the Palaniswami’s government would have been in deep trouble by now. The Opposition parties in Tamil Nadu openly allege that it is the Centre which is keeping the post-Jayalalitha government alive. But at what cost? The State administration is adrift, governance has slipped on all parameters, be it health, education, industrial output et al. This uncertainty is unlikely to vanish till things clarify after a fresh election. The churn in Tamil Nadu politics is complicated further by the proposed entry of the two big film stars. It is the people who suffer a lack of firm and decisive government.