“It’s election time in UP, and the country is discussing about TN politics. This must be a first”, says Anand, a resident of Chennai, on his Facebook wall.
The political conundrum that Tamil Nadu finds itself in is an unprecedented one and is indeed a knotty affair and the news reports echo varied opinions with no end in sight. The situation highlights the nuanced constitutional process followed in selecting a Chief Minister. Here we say ‘selecting’ because both the leading contenders of the Tamil Nadu CM’s chair belong to AIADMK, the majority party of the Vidhan Sabha. Here is a short recap of the events leading up to this political drama that now has Tamil Nadu and the rest of the nation in its grip.
The Story Thus Far
May 16, 2016 – The Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly Elections were held on this day. AIADMK, under the leadership of J Jayalalithaa won the elections, bagging 136 of the 234 seats in the legislature. This victory was a significant one because for the first time since 1984 a ruling party had beaten the anti-incumbency trend in the state to be re-elected. The party’s performance, however, fell in comparison to the 2011 assembly elections and DMK, the other major party won 98 seats (vis-a-vis 23 seats in 2011). Jayalalithaa, nevertheless, formed the government since her party held a simple majority.
December 5, 2016 – Chief Minister “Amma” Jayalalithaa passed away after a long hospitalisation. While her health concerns were addressed by a team of professionals, her long time aide and confidante Sasikala had prevented media, other politicians and even Jayalalithaa’s family from meeting her. This led to a number of speculations but the popular leader was buried with state honours.
December 6, 2016 – The very night erstwhile CM Jayalalithaa was buried, O Panneerselvam was sworn in, in a rather clandestine fashion. OPS, as he is popularly known, had previously been sworn in as CM at times when Jayalalithaa had been unable to hold the office. His loyalty to her has remained beyond reproach.
Through the weeks following Jayalalithaa’s death, Sasikala, popularly called Chinnamma, started to gain power and political clout. But with this also came a tide of public disfavour as accusations of political manipulation and corruption were rife.
December 29, 2016 – Sasikala Natarajan had, a few years ago fallen into disfavour with Jayalalithaa and had been banished from the party. The two had later made up and Sasikala readmitted into AIADMK, but the latter did not hold any major role. By December end she was elected as the General Secretary of AIADMK, backed by most of the party’s MLAs.
Earlier this week, Sasikala announced that she was backed by the party’s MLAs and would take over as Chief Minister. Soon OPS also handed in his resignation and it looked like the party had closed ranks and rallied behind Sasikala. The resignation was duly accepted by TN Governor Sri Vidyasagar Rao and Sasikala was set to be sworn in by February 9, 2017.
To the surprise of many O Panneerselvam announced a couple of days ago that he was forced by Sasikala’s political arm-twisting to resign. He added that he was willing to withdraw the resignation. His announcement bought him the support of many celebrities and public opinion for exposing Sasikala, but the latter still seems to have the support of the party’s MLAs who have branded OPS a traitor.
The Governor of the state who was at Delhi refused to return for Sasikala’s swearing in ceremony, preferring to wait for the verdict of the Supreme Court on a disproportionate asset case against her, which is a few days away. If convicted, this makes Sasikala ineligible to hold the CM’s office.
If Sasikala is acquitted in the Supreme Court and the majority of the 134 MLAs (apart from Jayalalithaa’s seat which is now vacant and OPS himself) pledge their support to her, the Governor may invite her to form a new government and occupy the CMs office, provided she can prove her strength at the legislative assembly floor by a trust vote. Going by the number of the AIADMK MLAs who have spoken out in Sasikala’s favour, this look like a strong possibility.
If the disproportionate assets case goes against Sasikala, the Governor may ask AIADMK to elect a new leader. It will then be upon OPS to convince the MLAs to back him. If he fails, the party may choose a new leader.
The other scenario that emerges is that the Governor recommends President’s Rule in the state which may lead to a mid-term election. This is not a possibility that any of the AIADMK legislators prefer, given the great pains that they had taken to win the 2016 legislative assembly elections. Given the current political turmoil, another poll will be playing right into the hands of DMK and its political allies. AIADMK still has 4 years in power in the normal course of events.
There is another possibility that O Panneerselvam may take the MLAs who support him and break away from AIADMK. But for this he will require over 90 MLAs to be clear of the anti-defection law and 118 legislators to find a majority in the house. This, however, looks highly unlikely.
The Governor’s Call
The final decision on the constitutional path ahead and the future of Tamil Nadu rests with Governor C Vidyasagar Rao who has arrived in Chennai today. While the country’s constitution does allow the Governor the comfort of manoeuvring in such complicated scenarios, it is also incumbent upon the head of the state to “to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution and submit himself to the service and well -being of people of the state”.
Sasikala continues to accuse the Governor of deliberately delaying the swearing in ceremony and the BJP of instigating O Panneerselvam to commit this alleged treason. At the same time, the political analysts believe that Mr Rao is being very circumspect in waiting for the Supreme Court’s ruling before making a hasty decision that may cause further political turmoil in the state.
As we await a clear outcome, one of the country’s largest states remains without a head of government and with a shared head of state (with Maharashtra). And as some of the country’s major states go to the polls, we are still discussing TN politics.