Almost nothing that happened in the Tamil Nadu Assembly on Saturday is defensible. Technically speaking, Edappadi Palaniswami of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam won a trust vote, confirming him as the state’s new chief minister. But the circumstances of the vote, amidst a media blackout and scenes of chaos and violence, bring up basic question about the administration that is now taking over one of India’s largest states. Palaniswami has the numbers to be in charge. Does he have the legitimacy?
The vote of confidence was always going to be fractious. AIADMK Members of Legislative Assembly had spent the last week cloistered inside a hotel an hour away from Chennai, as party leader VK Sasikala waited to be asked to form the government. Instead, the state’s governor dallied until the Supreme Court delivered its verdict in an illegal wealth case dating back to 1996. Sasikala was found guilty and sent to prison, debarring her from any public office for the next decade.
Sasikala quickly propped up Palaniswami, appointed her nephew TTV Dinakaran to the post of deputy general secretary, and then set out to return to jail in Bengaluru. Meanwhile, former chief minister O Paneerselvam, who had challenged Sasikala for leadership of the party and state, tried to convince AIADMK MLAs that they should vote with their conscience. The Opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam was mostly caught waiting during these developments.
As Saturday dawned, the question to be asked was whether AIADMK members would surprise Palaniswami and vote against him. One MLA said he would do that, despite the party whip, which meant potentially being suspended by the Speaker. When the session began, Panneerselvam’s camp, the DMK, the Congress and the Indian Union Muslim League demanded the vote be kept secret – a move with no precedent, which might yet have been justified considering the MLAs had been locked into a hotel for days with a genuine concern about coercion.
The Speaker ruled against a secret ballot and called for a vote by division, involving MLAs physically standing up in blocks to show which way they were voting. The result was pandemonium.
Amid pushing and shoving, the DMK decided it would refuse to cooperate with a trust vote and guards had physically evict the Opposition MLAs. At one point the session was paused so that one member could be taken out in a stretcher and put in an ambulance. Meanwhile, the secretariat had decided to not display live visuals and in between even the transistor piping details into the press room turned off, making it hard to follow what was happening. Eventually, with dozens of MLAs kept out, Palaniswami won the trust vote, 121 to 11.
Party vs public
Officially, Tamil Nadu now has a confirmed new chief minister, its third in three months. At least on the basis of numbers inside the house, Panaiswami is safe until elections are next expected, in 2020.
But few expect this status quo to last. The DMK has raised questions about the legitimacy of the trust vote. The Paneerselvam camp disputes the legality of appointments made within the AIADMK, leading to a notice from the Election Commission.
More than either of these, there seems to be anger among the public about Sasikala and her family taking over what was once J Jayalalithaa’s party. Among the reasons the MLAs were kept locked away in the resort before the vote was to shield them from public pressure against Sasikala and her appointees. The DMK’s demand, in fact, was that the AIADMK MLAs be given time to visit their constituencies before being subject to a trust vote.
There is a general sense that Sasikala, and by proxy Palaniswami, has the support of the party but not the people. That gap is where OPS tried to operate. Now the DMK’s Stalin has stepped into the breach. The AIADMK leadership may hope to weather this storm and use the offices of the chief minister to change public opinion, but it will not be easy.
The Budget Session is around the corner, and the DMK is already out protesting, raising questions about Palaniswami’s legitimacy as chief minister. Indeed, the entire sequences of events on Saturday is worth re-examining, starting with the decision to keep the trust vote hidden from the public eye.
Tamil Nadu has been unsettled ever since Jayalalithaa died in December 2016. Saturday’s trust vote should have stabilised things. Instead, it has made the state and its administration seem even more precariously poised.