The Big Story: Numbered Days

Does the Tamil Nadu government have any legitimacy? There is no doubt that former Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa earned herself a mandate in elections last year. But since her death in December, the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam has been mired in chaos. First, after a short period of calm, former Chief Minister O Panneerselvam, who took over after Jayalalithaa’s death, resigned. The corruption-accused former aide of Amma, VK Sasikala was elected leader of the legislative party. Soon after, however, Paneerselvam announced that he had been forced to resign by Sasikala, and would be seeking her removal from the party.

What followed was almost farcical. AIADMK MLAs were driven out of Chennai by Sasikala’s followers and forced to remain cloistered in a resort outside the city as Sasikala waited to be asked to form government. Instead, the state’s acting governor waited until the Supreme Court delivered its verdict in a corruption case involving Sasikala, in which she was found guilty. Sasikala propped up Edapadi Palaniswami who then went up against Paneerselvam in a farcical floor test. With the Assembly’s cameras and even mics off, the Speaker asked for a division of the house, which led to scuffles and Opposition MLAs being evicted. The mess was even paused for one MLA to be taken out by stretcher.

Eventually Palaniswami was confirmed as Tamil Nadu’s chief minister, presumably as a proxy for Sasikala. Then came a bye-poll to RK Nagar, the seat left vacant by Jayalalithaa’s death. With Paneerselvam and Palaniswami fight, the Election Commission froze the AIADMK’s two leaves symbol. Ridiculous campaigning and rumours of huge amounts of money floating about prompted the Election Commission to cancel the bye-poll for RK Nagar, citing attempts to bribe voter. Soon after, TTV Dinakaran, Sasikala’s nephew and deputy general secretary of the party, was arrestedby Delhi Police for attempting to bribe the Election Commission. And, earlier this week, TimesNow and MoonTV aired tapes of MLAs from both camps allegedly claiming they had used bribes to win votes.

Amid all this, the state is battling the after-effects of a crippling drought, and struggling to prevent agitation which briefly turned into sudden jallikattu protests earlier this year. Put together, you have a split party, frozen symbol, one convicted leader, another arrested for bribery, the farce of lodging MLAs in a far-off resort, a blacked-out trust vote and allegations of horse-trading. If Palaniswami had some legitimacy after the vote, all of that has dissipated. The only argument against dissolving the government is that it will give leverage to the Centre, which has been itching to meddlewith Tamil Nadu, and the state may not be ready for fresh elections anytime soon.

Palaniswami must, of course, do what he can to ensure an investigation in the allegations emerging from the horse-trading tapes and, more importantly, work towards earning the confidence of the people. But all politicians on his side of the AIADMK aisle must know that they are running on borrowed time. This situation simply cannot and should not persist for too long. Sooner or later, the question of who will credibly lead Tamil Nadu after Amma will have to be settled by asking its people.

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