Edappadi Palaniswami has won the fitness challenge. At least for now.
The Tamil Nadu chief minister’s chair won’t be under threat as the 18 MLAs owing allegiance to TTV Dhinakaran stay disqualified. And on account of the Madras High Court’s split verdict, EPS will not have to lead the AIADMK into by-elections in 18 seats immediately and risk that result being interpreted as a referendum on his rule.
It is Dhinakaran who is on the mat, with a ‘split’ headache. VK Sasikala’s nephew had already decided that even if the verdict goes against his camp followers, they will not appeal in the Supreme Court and instead show their political muscle in the bypolls. If the verdict had quashed the Speaker’s decision, it would have given Dhinakaran an opportunity to join hands with MK Stalin of the DMK and move a no-trust vote against the AIADMK government or the Speaker. The status quo is, therefore, the worst news that could have come Dhinakaran’s way as he has to bide his time, doing nothing.
In a rather surprising judgment, the two judges gave contrasting verdicts. Chief Justice Indira Banerjee said she found Speaker P Dhanapal’s decision reasonable and therefore did not find any reason to interfere with the order. Justice M Sundar, however, said that the Speaker’s decision was violative of the principles of natural justice and should be subject to judicial review. Now, a third judge will have to hear the case all over again. Given that the two-judge bench took ten months to deliver its verdict, it is anyone’s guess how much time the new judge will take.
What it does politically is to make Dhinakaran irrelevant, at least temporarily. His threat that his sleeper cells will bring down the EPS regime on the floor of the House, has proved to be a damp squib. He was hoping that a favourable verdict will give him the political oxygen to force a leadership change in the AIADMK. Now that chances of staging a hostile takeover have receded, Dhinakaran has to focus primarily on building his own party, at the district level. The challenge will be to ensure that his support base is not wooed back in the interim by EPS.
The AIADMK will see a Palaniswami-Panneerselvam partnership and the duo would look to consolidate the party in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The rank and file will have little option but to rally around the duo. Palaniswami’s ability to distribute the fruits of power will ensure he stays unchallenged. The bigger test will be to be seen as Jayalalithaa’s political successor.
In politics, it is usually an ability to win elections that adds to a leader’s aura and continuance in power. But in Tamil Nadu, EPS has managed to stay on top, by not facing a single by-election barring the one in RK Nagar, which the AIADMK lost miserably. The local body elections that would have given a sense of the mood on the ground after Jayalalithaa’s demise, have been put in cold storage. Now that EPS does not have to face the 18 bypolls, his first test may possibly come only in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.
What does it mean for the people of Tamil Nadu?
For the 18 constituencies, it means the legal tangle has deprived them of an elected representative. And the wait has only been prolonged for them to elect one.
Given the importance of the case, it should have ideally been heard by a 3-judge bench right at the outset. Given that the 18 MLAs have made it clear that they are against EPS, the numbers are stacked against the AIADMK government, pushing it below the halfway mark. What happens if tomorrow the new judge concurs with Justice Sundar and the government subsequently falls? That would effectively mean Tamil Nadu was run by a minority government since September 2017.
The verdict itself has come under fire from the DMK and Dhinakaran group. Chief Justice Banerjee in March had overruled the Puducherry Speaker’s decision to refuse nominations of three MLAs made by the Centre to the Puducherry Assembly. The three nominated MLAs were members associated with the BJP. The criticism is that how can the same judge who did not think the Puducherry Speaker had the final authority to decide on matters concerning the House, now thinks differently in the case of the Tamil Nadu Speaker.
The case has also established Palaniswami’s control over the government and party machinery. He has demonstrated that he can get the membership of a lawmaker terminated if they dared to go against him. The 18 MLAs are accused of representing to the then Governor Vidyasagar Rao that they have no confidence in Palaniswami’s leadership. Their argument before the high court was that this did not amount to defying a party whip, and therefore should not attract disqualification.
It is the AIADMK cadre that will now have to decide which horse to back. Should they stick around in the AIADMK, which has the two leaves election symbol, or should they look to invest in Dhinakaran’s pressure cooker? That should give them some food for thought.