There was a streak of superstar Rajinikanth in the manner in which Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s working president MK Stalin projected himself after the pandemonium in the Tamil Nadu Assembly on Saturday amidst which Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami finally win the trust vote.

As his car left the Assembly complex, Stalin noticed photographers standing on the roadside trying to get his pictures. With an unbuttoned shirt that was partly torn, Stalin stepped out of the car, took a few steps forward, pointing to his shirt and waved to them. An unbuttoned shirt exposing the vest inside was the sartorial stamp of the superstar that the people of Tamil Nadu are quite used to.

The disruptive methods deployed by the DMK in stalling Palaniswami’s vote of confidence on Saturday are bound to be criticised for their unruly nature. But behind the shocking move was a shrewd political calculation that sought to take advantage of a negative public opinion of the VK Sasikala faction of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam.

After Saturday’s drama in the Assembly, Stalin seemed to have well and truly emerged from the shadows of his father and DMK president M Karunanidhi.

Manufactured ruckus

When the DMK on Friday decided to vote against the government on the confidence motion, it was very clear that their intention was to derive as much mileage from the turmoil in the ruling AIADMK as possible.

When the Assembly session began on Saturday at 11 am, Stalin was the first to get on his feet and take the initiative.

The DMK knew that the dissent of 11 legislators led by former Chief Minister O Panneerselvam had rattled the ruling Sasikala-led AIADMK. All that was required to topple the government in the 233-member Assembly was another eight defections.

The legislators had been sequestered for the last nine days in a resort 70 km from Chennai. But even on Saturday morning, Arun Kumar, the MLA from Coimbatore North constituency, escaped the resort and went back to his home town after deciding to boycott the vote. He said he was unhappy with Sasikala and her family members taking control of the AIADMK.

Therefore, Stalin was very sure that the ruling party would not agree for a secret ballot, fearing that it would embolden more legislators to switch to Panneerselvam’s camp and vote against the government. This was exactly what he chose to insist, backed by a strong public perception that the legislators in the Sasikala camp were being forced to vote under coercion. Also, there was no precedent in the Tamil Nadu Assembly for a secret vote. The speaker had to implement the anti-defection law, which would have been impossible had he agreed to a secret ballot.

Pandemonium broke out almost immediately after Speaker P Dhanapal refused to entertain the demand for a secret ballot. This made Stalin, with a little help from Panneerselvam, seek adjournment of the vote by a week to allow legislators to go back to their constituencies and listen to the people’s voice before deciding on which side to choose.

As the speaker denied this request too, DMK lawmakers moved to the well of the house and heckled Dhanapal. Tables and chairs were broken, files were torn to bits and legislators shouted slogans by standing on their seats. The Assembly had to be adjourned twice in the span of an hour. This forced the speaker to evict DMK leaders from the house.

Palaniswami later won the vote with the support of 122 legislators, six more than the 116 he needed. Only 11 belonging to the Panneerselvam camp voted against him. Apart from the DMK, the Congress and the Indian Union Muslim League also stayed away from the voting.

Images of Stalin being forcibly picked up by at least 20 guards went viral on social media. On Twitter, there was an outpouring of sympathy for the DMK, with users claiming that while the methods used by the party may not be right, “extraordinary situations demanded extraordinary action”.

Dual objectives

The DMK had two clear objectives when they entered the Assembly on Saturday. The first was to make it as hard as possible for Palaniswami to win the vote of confidence. But the more important aim was to reclaim their position as the main opposition to the AIADMK.

After the AIADMK split into Sasikala and Panneerselvam camps, the latter’s popularity has steadily risen. When Panneerselvam, gauging public mood, revolted against Sasikala on February 9, he became the rallying point for all those opposed to the AIADMK’s general secretary.

In a way, Panneerselvam had overshadowed the DMK in the last 10 days. Stalin also fed the sympathy Panneerselvam received by issuing statements in support of the former chief minister. But the DMK quickly realised that backing Panneerselvam would be bad for the party in the long term as it could make the bipolar Tamil Nadu politics into a serious triangular contest between Sasikala, Panneerselvam and Stalin.

The led to a reorientation of its strategy, the reflection of which was the DMK’s conduct in the Assembly on Saturday. By leading the charge against Palaniswami, who is seen as a proxy for Sasikala, currently lodged in a prison in Bengaluru after she was convicted by the Supreme Court on Tuesday, Stalin has reclaimed his position as the face of the Opposition. The fact that the DMK and its allies had 98 of the 233 legislators in the Assembly helped it orchestrate the commotion in the Assembly. In contrast, Panneerselvam, who had only 10 MLAs backing him, was not heard as strongly as Stalin was.

Sampath Kumar, former BBC correspondent and professor at the Asian College of Journalism, said Saturday’s development in the Assembly has helped Stalin emerge from the shadows of his father Karunanidhi.

He said the for the first time, Stalin could be credited with framing a successful strategy independently. In the past, any success for the party was always attributed to Karunanidhi, known as the chanakya of Tamil Nadu.

“It also showed that he could read public opinion well,” the professor added. Despite the means by which the Assembly was stalled being crass and undemocratic, he said Stalin knew he would still get public backing given the widespread disenchantment with the Sasikala-led AIADMK.

Given the Saturday’s success, Kumar said the DMK’s attempts to topple the government will continue.

“Stalin now feels DMK will sweep the elections if it is held immediately. He will do every thing to force an election,” he added.

For Panneerselvam, the road ahead has become even more tougher as he now has to deal with a supremely confident Stalin before he could emerge as the tallest leader in the Opposition.