If there is one thing TTV Dhinakaran does well, it is to appear unfazed in the face of a crisis. He did likewise, within minutes of the Madras High Court verdict in the case relating to the disqualification of 18 AIADMK MLAs going against his party.
On Thursday, 25 October, Judge M Satyanarayanan upheld the decision of the Tamil Nadu Assembly Speaker to disqualify the 18 rebel MLAs of the AIADMK, owing allegiance to Dhinakaran, who had petitioned the then Governor Vidyasagar Rao seeking a change of chief minister in 2017.
Of Holy Dips & TTV’s Coolness Quotient
“It is not a setback. It is an experience. We will consult with the 18 MLAs and decide on the next course of action,” said Dhinakaran.
But the coolness quotient cannot mask the fact that Dhinakaran’s wait to get back at Edappadi K Palaniswami has only become longer. Ahead of the verdict, Dhinakaran had even packed off his group to a resort in Courtallam, over 600 km from Chennai.
It showed he was expecting a favourable judgment and wanted to protect his flock from ‘poachers’. Many of the disqualified MLAs even took a holy dip in the Thamirabharani river in Papanasam during the Pushkara, praying for the tides to turn against the ruling AIADMK. But the verdict has instead landed the Dhinakaran camp in deeper waters.
Legally, the court has taken the position that asking for a change in leadership of the legislature party is grounds for disqualification as a lawmaker. Given that the former Chief Justice of the Madras High court, Indira Banerjee, also held the same view, the Dhinakaran camp would think twice before trying their luck in the Supreme Court. Within the group, the consensus is veering towards settling the matter in the people's court instead.
That is also because if the MLAs go to the Supreme Court, it will be seen as a lack of confidence in their ability to win a by-election. It will also mean some of them are trying to effect back channel attempts at a rapprochement. The possibility of only some of them going in appeal however, cannot be ruled out.
Dice is Loaded Against TTV
The numbers for now, make it comfortable for EPS. With the disqualification of the 18 MLAs upheld, the strength of the House, taking into account two vacancies due to bereavements, comes down to 214. The ruling AIADMK with 110 MLAs is therefore, for now, above the half way mark of 107.
But even if Team Dhinakaran were to not appeal in the apex court, his tryst with destiny would have to wait for the Election Commission.
Rather strangely, the EC went by the state government's recommendation, that the bypolls to Thirupparankundram (represented by AK Bose) and Thiruvarur (represented by M Karunanidhi) ought not be held before December, the weather being cyclonic with heavy rain in Tamil Nadu. This will mean that the 18 plus 2 by-elections may not be held before the first quarter of 2019 and could even get pushed to be held along with the Lok Sabha elections.
The dice is loaded against Dhinakaran. Anything less than 18 victories out of 20 would be seen as a setback for his camp, as it would denote erosion of confidence in Dhinakaran's leadership. One is assuming at the moment that the disqualified legislator commands the entire AIADMK voteshare in each of the 18 constituencies. That may not be necessarily true considering that Jayalalithaa in 2016, asked for votes in her name and not in the name of her candidates. Which is why the EPS camp is peddling the narrative that the rebels were trying to bring down Amma's government.
EPS Can’t Yet Be Dismissed
On the other hand, EPS would need to target only 7 victories out of 20, in order to be safe in the numbers game inside the Assembly. He has the advantage of holding the AIADMK ‘two leaves’ symbol, and has the rank and file’s weight behind him. Even though there is anti-incumbency against the EPS regime and the government is seen as being remote controlled by the BJP, only the politically naive would dismiss Palaniswami and Co as a force of no consequence.
Ahead of the Lok Sabha elections in April-May 2019, surveys have shown the DMK as being the favorite, gaining from the split in the traditional AIADMK vote between EPS and Dhinakaran.
Barring Tiruvarur, all the other 19 were AIADMK seats, which is why there will be pressure on MK Stalin to use the by-polls as a platform to mark the DMK resurgence. An also-ran performance with a few seats in the kitty, will not serve the DMK's cause.
Never a Dull Moment in TN Politics
While the verdict on the face of it affirms status quo in Tamil Nadu politics, the still waters are deceptive. Dhinakaran will be under pressure to retain the loyalty of the 18 disqualified MLAs. Dhinakaran's constant boast of ‘sleeper cells’ within the AIADMK has come a cropper, as EPS has emerged as the strongest leader of the party, with the strong backing of his Gounder community and MLAs from western Tamil Nadu.
But there could be more fireworks in store if the ruling camp strikes when the iron is hot.
Dhinakaran has the support of five more rebel MLAs. Unless they quickly retrace their steps, the possibility of the Speaker meting out similar treatment to them cannot be ruled out.
The only constant is the lack of a dull moment in Tamil Nadu politics.
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(The writer is a senior journalist. He can be reached @Iamtssudhir. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)