Should the ruling AIADMK in Tamil Nadu not make the required five out of 22 by-election seats, or even otherwise, the temptation to poach, especially from the Congress or starting with the Congress may be high on Chief Minister Edappadi K Palanisami's agenda, says N Sathiya Moorthy.
Independent of what Thursday’s vote-count may have for his party in the Lok Sabha segment, Tamil Nadu’s AIADMK Chief Minister Edappadi K Palanisami may not have much to fear from simultaneous results for the 22 state assembly seats for which by-elections were held in two phases over the past month.
If anything, a victory for the Bharatiya Janata Party-National Democratic Party at the national level, as predicted by most exit polls could well mean that EPS and the AIADMK could look around for adding to their strength in the 234-member house, as the coalition leader has already shown the way in states like Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh in the past two days.
No doubt, the AIADMK’s assembly strength is precarious just now. In a house where the party requires a minimum of 118 to prove its majority, the party has only 114 members. It was more than enough before the by-polls to the 22 seats. Now with the results out on Thursday, May 23, the party will need to win a minimum of five seats for a simple majority. That alone will help the party avoid surviving on the ‘casting vote’ of Speaker P Dhanapal, until when the assembly polls are due -- by May 2021, a full two years away.
That is indeed good news for the AIADMK and EPS. Put positively, they now need to win only five of the total by-elections to retain the government. Whatever additional seats that they may get may be ‘a bonus’ as they would go on to strengthen the hands of the CM and the party, both inside and outside the house. As an AIADMK leader quipped in a confident tone, “If we cannot win five seats out of 22, we better quit.” But he does not see their quitting or having to quit, just now.
Conventional political and media wisdom has it that the AIADMK will require 11 seats out of 22, or a 50-per cent victory. This follows the assumption that three party MLAs owing outwardly allegiance to ‘rebel’ leader T T V Dhinakaran with his AMMK, would vote against the government in times of crises. Another three MLAs from minor parties but who won on the AIADMK’s ‘Two Leaves’ symbol in 2016 are also seen at best as ‘cats on the wall'. They openly campaigned for AMMK candidates in the by-polls and also the Lok Sabha elections, which was the major attraction in other parts of the country.
By serving ‘disqualification notice’ on the first three, through Speaker Dhanapal’s office, the ministerial camp may have ensured that at least two of them may not want to -- or, be able to -- ‘rebel’ if and when their votes matter inside the house. The two have obtained a Supreme Court stay on the speaker’s notice, declaring that they continued to be AIADMK members. This means that they would continue to be bound by party whip on assembly votes.
Indications are that the third member may not want to cross the line, unless he is assured that the government would fall. It may be so with the other three ‘non-AIADMK members’ who contested and won their assembly seats on the party’s symbol. They too may be bound by the whip unless they are ready to lose their seats to disqualification as 18 others before them.
These 18 constituted the majority group from among the 22 vacancies for which by-election needed to be held. With the Madras high court upholding the speaker’s disqualification decision in the case of the 18, other AIADMK legislators may not want to break ranks unless reassured that the EPS government would be gone -- and also there would be another one in its place.
The chances of individual legislators or a group of legislators wanting to take the blame for the toppling of a government and consequent instability are remote. Even more remote are their chances of winning another round of elections if their current decision were to lead to political instability in the state -- which since Independence has not faced the same.
In 1952, when the ruling Congress party from the pre-Independence era did not secure an absolute majority, chief ministerial nominee Rajaji mustered one through one of the early instances of ‘mass defections’ in the young nation’s constitutional history.
DMK veteran M Karunanidhi created political/legislative history for a ‘major state’ in the country when he gave a stable government for full five years from 2006, when his government had only 96 seats and required another 22. Those numbers came from the ‘outside support’ extended by the Congress and PMK allies at the Centre at the time, with the latter withdrawing the same after some time.
This does not mean that EPS has nothing to fear. In the aftermath of the AIADMK serving ‘disqualification’ notice on three of its MLAs, Opposition DMK made good its earlier threat and moved a no-trust motion against Speaker Dhanapal in such an eventuality. This means that Dhanapal cannot preside over the house session when it meets next, but has to face the trust-vote ahead of the assembly taking up other businesses. It also means that Speaker Dhanapal cannot initiate further disqualification proceedings against the three AIADMK legislators, independent of the SC stay order.
Where EPS and the AIADMK may stand to gain is in the possibility of the BJP-NDA at the Centre sweeping the LS polls across the country, as predicted by various exit polls. Reminding old-school veterans of the erstwhile Congress era in the previous century, the Opposition BJP in states like Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh has begun moves to topple the respective state governments, in which the Congress rival is the leading partner.
EPS can hope to repeat the act in Tamil Nadu, or at least will be tempted to attempt it, of course, with the Centre’s blessings and support -- if and only if the exit poll predictions hold good. Tamil Nadu has the unique distinction of having its 234 MLAs coming mostly from only three parties -- namely, under the symbols of the AIADMK (114) excluding Speaker Dhanapal, who won as party nominee, DMK (88) and the latter’s Congress (8) and IUML (1) allies. There is of course an ‘Independent’ in T T V Dhinakaran.
Should the AIADMK not make the required five out of 22 by-election seats, or even otherwise, the temptation to poach, especially from the Congress or starting with the Congress may be high on EPS’s agenda. In doing so, he may be following in the footsteps of predecessor chief minister Jayalalithaa, who did it twice in as many decades.
In the past, after coming to power on the strength of the Congress’s support in the 1991 post-assassination scenario after Rajiv Gandhi’s killing, AIADMK’s emerging supremo Jayalalitha did not think twice to split the Congress, to create what was then dubbed ‘Congress (J), with six MLAs.
Likewise, after actor-politician Vijayakanth’s DMDK emerged as the second largest legislative group after her AIADMK, Jayalalithaa, again as CM, split his party, but after making sure that the traditional DMK rival did not get to the official ‘Opposition Leader’ position in the house.
Whatever that is, if he is able to retain the government, EPS would have emerged stronger within the party, even if exit polls predictions on the AIADMK’s LS election performance held good. Most polls have given the DMK-Congress combine upward of 25 seats, going as far as 35, in a total of 38 from the state -- with polling cancelled in the Vellore constituency over the EC's complaints of ‘electoral corruption’ under the law.
If nothing else, by campaigning extensively across the state for the twin polls this time, EPS has got the kind of cadre recognition within the party and face recognition otherwise, which he had lacked earlier.
In contrast, by choosing to field his controversial son, P Raveendranath Kumar, as the party candidate in their native Theni LS constituency, EPS’ predecessor and party rival, deputy chief minister, O Panneerselvam (OPS), made himself less popular among the general public for promoting his family members, and among the cadres for his not being able to spend as much time in other constituencies as may have been possible, otherwise.
A big win for the son could improve the father’s cadre-image, but then pre-result indications are that losing rivals may be ready to challenge such a victory in the courts, citing multiple reasons. That way, should PM Modi and/or the BJP-NDA were to return to power, and OPS gets a ministerial berth for his son at the Centre, then, there would be lot more criticism, both within the party and outside against him.
Such a course, if it came to that, could work to the advantage of EPS. He has already proved by his elevation by the jailed Jaya aide Sasikala Natarajan that he is not the one to miss an opportunity when one presented itself.
N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist and political analyst, is Director, Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Chapter.