Tamil Nadu is facing yet another period of political instability. The Madras High Court is likely to rule this week on the disqualification of 18 legislators and, thereby, decide the fate of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam government. Perhaps ominously for the ruling party, 21 of its MLAs went away to the southern resort town of Courtallam in Tirunelveli.

While the MLAs claimed to be travelling together to the Maha Pushkaram festival in Tirunelveli, it is widely believed they are being shepherded by TTV Dinakaran, chief of the Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam.

Dinakaran is the nephew of VK Sasikala, a confidante of J Jayalalithaa who took control of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam after the former chief minister’s death in December 2016. She then had Dinakaran appointed as the party’s deputy general secretary. But a revolt within the party led to their ouster after just a few months. While Sasikala was jailed for corruption, Dinakaran started his own party.

Despite this, he retains considerable influence in his former party and is reportedly hoping to take it over again. He may well get his chance if the High Court rescinds the disqualification of the 18 MLAs, known to be his loyalists, since that would reduce Edappadi K Palaniswami’s government to a minority. The 18 legislators had been disqualified by the speaker in September 2017 after they expressed a lack of confidence in Palaniswami.

Currently, the majority mark in the Tamil Nadu Assembly is 117. The government has the support of only 113 MLAs but survives because the disqualification of the 18 rebel legislators has reduced the effective strength of the Assembly. If their membership is restored, the government will be in trouble – even without accounting for the 21 MLAs Dinakaran has whisked away.

The government will not be out of the woods even if the disqualification of the MLAs is upheld since that would necessitate bye-elections to their 18 seats. How the results will go is anybody’s guess.

Contested decision

Speaker P Dhanapal took action against the 18 politicians last year under the Members of the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly Rules of 1986 – the state’s anti-defection law – following a complaint by the ruling party’s chief whip S Rajendran that they had been involved in anti-party activities. The MLAs had submitted individual letters to Governor C Vidyasagar Rao the previous month, expressing their lack of confidence in Palaniswami. The speaker ruled that this amounted to the legislators “voluntarily giving up their party membership”.

Describing the speaker’s decision as “illegal and unauthorised”, the MLAs moved the High Court to quash it. On June 15, a two-judge bench delivered a split verdict. While Chief Justice Indira Banerjee upheld the speaker’s ruling, Justice M Sundar quashed it. The legislators then approached the Supreme Court, which appointed a third judge of the High Court, Justice M Sathyanarayanan, to settle the matter.

‘Resort politics’

Tamil Nadu has grappled with political uncertainty since Jayalalithaa’s death. She was succeeded as chief minister by Panneerselvam but he was ousted after just two months in office, in February 2017, by Sasikala, who had become the party’s general secretary. After Sasikala was jailed for corruption the same month, she installed Palaniswami as the chief minister.

Panneerselvam did not go away quietly. He tried to take on Sasikala, only to see Dinakaran move more than 100 MLAs to a resort in Koovathur near Chennai and keep them there until Palaniswami won the trust vote in the Assembly.

Panneerselvam’s ouster split the ruling party, with the former chief minister leading the Puratchi Thalaivi Amma faction and Palaniswami the AIADMK Amma faction. A few months later, on August 21, 2017, the factions merged after Palaniswami rebelled against Sasikala.

The next day, 16 legislators loyal to Dinakaran were taken to a resort in Puducherry after they expressed their lack of support in the Palaniswami government, claiming they had not been consulted about the merger.

This, then, is the third time Dinakaran is employing “resort politics” to shape Tamil Nadu’s politics.