The ruling AIADMK would have us believe that the Edappadi K Palaniswami government deserves all the praise for completion of four years in office. On the other hand, a close look at events over the past four years would show that the credit would not go to the AIADMK but to its ally, the BJP, the Centre, the Union Law Ministry, lenient and benevolent courts, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) and the Raj Bhavan. For how else, could a minority government continue in office?
Palaniswami would have to thank not only his stars but also the death of Jayalalithaa, the imprisonment of her close aide Sasikala, and the protection provided by the Raj Bhavan and the PMO to a government that was clearly in a minority right from early 2017 soon after he won the confidence vote.
For a while, the government seemed to be comfortable with only 12 MLAs led by former chief minister O Panneerselvam working against it. Initially Dinakaran, nominated as deputy general of the party by Sasikala, shortly before leaving for Bengaluru prison, was supported by the EPS group (EPS and his band of ministers and MLA even campaigned for Dinakaran in the RK Nagar constituency) but was opposed by the OPS group which fielded Madhusudhanan. The party functioned under the leadership of Dinakaran.
However, things changed dramatically when EPS and team, caving in to pressure exerted by the BJP, had to accept the merger with the OPS group. Under the new arrangement, OPS was made the deputy CM and party’s co-ordinator while Sasikala and her family were removed from party posts and primary membership of the party.
However, a group of MLAs owing allegiance to Sasikala and TTV Dinakaran took up cudgels against CM Palaniswami and built up a pressure group against him.
From August 2017, it was clear that EPS was heading a minority government. The EPS government, with a view to survive, sought to expel the Dinakaran group. On the basis of a move by the AIADMK whip, Tamil Nadu Assembly Speaker P Dhanapal on September 18, 2017, disqualified 18 AIADMK MLAs of the Dinakaran group. This clearly brought down the numbers of the Palaniswami government in the Assembly.
While several opposition parties demanded that the chief minister be asked to take a fresh vote of confidence in the Assembly, he did not do so. Nor did the Governor ask EPS to prove his majority on the floor of the House, despite representations from opposition parties.
It should be remembered that at this juncture the fate of the 12 MLAs of the OPS group was also undecided as the opposition DMK demanded that they be disqualified for voting against the confidence motion of 2017. The DMK pointed out the anomaly that while 18 MLAs of the Dinakaran group were disqualified though they had voted in favour of the government in 2017, the OPS group, which had clearly incurred disqualification, was allowed to continue without loss of membership or action.
A petition in the Madras High Court was dismissed by the then Chief Justice Indrani Banerjee, after a gap of some eight months, on the ground that she could not deliver her judgment on the matter since the Speaker of the Assembly had not given his ruling on the plea for disqualification of 12MLAs in the OPS group.
After the disqualification of the 18 MLAs of Dinakaran group, the EPS-led AIADMK which was already in a minority (around 101 in the 234-member House), would have been in deeper trouble and farther away from the majority if the OPS group was disqualified. The number would have dropped to around 90, which would have been less than of the DMK-led front in the Assembly (around 97).
The minority Palaniswami government continued for several months till the Lok Sabha elections of 2019 when by-elections to 22 Assembly constituencies (including these 18 held earlier by the Dinakaran group) were also held. The beleaguered government got a reprieve when it won nine of the 22 seats and managed to reach the figure of 122 in the 234-member House.
However, if the verdict had come in the OPS disqualification case, and 12 MLAs of this group been disqualified, the Palaniswami government would be seen as a minority one, with only support of 104.
The petitioners in the Madras High Court had moved the Supreme Court, seeking a verdict in the OPS group disqualification case, but it has not yet come though the Supreme Court did ask the Speaker to give his ruling.
The status quo prevails as the delay in the Supreme Court proceedings has given another lease of life to the Palaniswami-led AIADMK government. It is now almost time for the regular elections for these constituencies to be held, and therefore the Supreme Court verdict may have little impact numerically for the Palaniswami government. However, it could weaken the position of the AIADMK in the eyes of the people.
Theoretically, the numbers of the Palaniswami-led AIADMK would go below the half-way mark and the government could fall if the OPS group is disqualified, as three MLAs belonging to allies were elected on AIADMK symbol, but are seen as supporters of Sasikala and Dinakaran. Legal experts are convinced that the Supreme Court verdict, when it comes, would certainly stand for disqualification of the 12 MLAs as they are on record as having voted their party and the government, in the Assembly.
A combination of factors right from unstinted support from the PMO and the Union Home and Law Ministries, the BJP national leadership, the Raj Bhavan, and the time-consuming process in the courts, have all contributed to a minority government surviving in office for four years. It is definitely a matter of credit or a source of worry for those concerned about the decline in democratic values and the need for non-partisanship at various levels in the legislature and the judiciary.
(The author is a veteran journalist)