CHENNAI: A two judge bench of the Madras High Court delivered a split verdict after hearing petitions against speaker P Dhanapal who made the decision to disqualify 18 MLA’s from the Tamil Nadu assembly. The Chief Minister now has some breathing room. The decision now rests in the hands of a third judge who’ll give the final decision.
The reasoning given for the disqualification was ‘anti-party’ activities. In the course of the court’s ruling it also stated that no bypolls or a floor test can be conducted till the court’s final order. The original petition was against the speaker who made the decision last September to disqualify MLA’s who withdrew their support to the AIADMK government which was led by Chief Minister Edapaddi K Palaniswami and his deputy, O Panneerselvam. These MLA’s instead backed the independent TTV Dinakaran.
It is unlikely that the case will not appear before the Supreme Court. The political situation in the state in general and within the AIADMK in particular is and has been messy since the death of former Chief Minister Jayalalitha. With the chaos and late night wrangling that ensued, EK Palaniswami became the Chief Minister. The Chief Justice did not find any reason to interfere with the Speaker’s decision. However, one of the justices on the bench hearing the petition stated that the decision by the Speaker was against natural justice.
Last August, some MLA’s met with the Governor in charge C Vidyasagar Rao submitting letters in which they stated a withdrawal of support for to Palaniswami. The speaker, P Dhanapal, then disqualified the 18 MLA’s. Had the High Court upheld the decision of the speaker, then bypolls would be held for the 18 seats that are held by the MLA’s in question. The AIADMK has a majority with 116 lawmakers; surpassing the 108 halfway mark following the dismissal of the 18 MLA’s.
Chief Justice Banarjee, in dismissing the petitions stated in part, “…the view taken by the Speaker is a possible, if not plausible view, and I am unable to hold that the said decision is any way unreasonable, irrational or perverse”. The Free Press Journal editorial addressed the uncertainty – “The drift and dithering was apparent in the recent mishandling of protests against environmental pollution caused by the Sterlite Industries’ Tuticorin plant”
The victory of Dinakaran in the RK Nagar bypoll was a shock. The constituency was Jayalalitha’s assembly seat. This victory cast further doubt on the sitting MLA’s. The opposition DMK headed by the heir apparent MK Stalin is waiting in the wings. What would happen if fresh elections were held, the editorial continues – “A fresh election could immediately trigger a sharp realignment in the Tamil Nadu polity, with most members of the AIADMK drifting towards winning groups”.
Given the dismissal of these 18 MLA’s are being upheld for the time being, a section of the population of the state will not have a representative. As a result, many of the projects that were headed by the now disqualified MLA’s have been put on hold. With the party in power, the AIADMK, given its internal factions and fault lines, there have been no prominent policy positions and initiatives that have been taken by the new government.
The political situation in the state becomes more complicated and uncertain with the entry of two of the biggest movie stars in the country - Kamal Hassan and Rajnikanth, each forming their own political party. It is unclear where their respective heads are at with regards to a roadmap for elections; though both haven’t been silent in the face of recent events in the state, particularly the Cauvery issue and the protests in Tuticorin. They haven’t necessarily aligned themselves with any particular party either.
Another factor to take into consideration is the centre. The BJP has been unable to make inroads into the state and is unlikely to in the near future. The centre has kept tabs on the Palaniswami government. The opposition parties allege that the centre has been supporting the AIADMK coalition currently in place.
The case in Tamil Nadu highlights the role of Governors and Speakers. The most recent example was Karnataka, where the Supreme Court had to step in. Kapil Sibal, former Union Minister and Rajya Sabha MP, in an op-ed for the Hindu suggests drawing the line for speakers and governors – “The Speaker is more loyal to his party and the government than to the Constitution… the court has not rendered judgment in the case challenging the disqualifications of the 18 MLAs of the Dinakaran group. In case the disqualifications are set aside, the government is likely to fall”.
The question now is what’s the road look like going forward? for the state and for the AIADMK. Can it survive? The state has had 3 Chief Ministers within a short period of time - Jayalalithaa, O Panneerselvam and Edappadi K Palaniswami. Will the state see a fundamental political change if there are simultaneous polls along with the 2019 Lok Sabha elections?