Tamil Nadu politics: Tussle for Jayalalithaa's sceptre

J Jayalalithaa, supreme leader of Tamil Nadu’s ruling party, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), was admitted to a Chennai hospital on September 22 last year. She never returned. She’d won a consecutive term in the Assembly election, a feat none had achieved for almost three decades. And, was set for a smooth journey for another five years, with an obedient party leadership backing her every act. Almost a year to the day, the political scene in Tamil Nadu is unrecognisable. Her party seems intent on fratricide. Two major post-Jaya factions -- one led by the present chief minister (CM), Edappadi K Palaniswami, and the other by his predecessor, O Panneerselvam -- have formally combined and dismissed V K Sasikala, close aide of Jaya, from the position of interim general secretary (party chief), nullifying all decisions taken after her appointment at the end of December 2016.

While Jaya has been declared ‘eternal general secretary, all powers therein have been transferred to coordinator and joint coordinator, positions currently held by Panneerselvam and Palaniswami, respectively, who will head the party's steering committee. One faction has got leadership in the government and the other has powers in the party. This has boiled down to the inevitable number game. With the general council endorsing the merger and authorising the decisions the steering committee takes, Palaniswami and Pannerselvam are moving cautiously to ensure a majority in the Assembly. The Sasikala faction, led by nephew T T V Dhinakaran, is waiting to strike. A vigilant DMK, the major opposition party, is making the right noises to stay relevant, while the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is perceived as a silent player.

The Dhinakaran faction is said to have the backing of around 19 MLAs. On September 7, one of them, S T K Jakkaiyan, switched sides and joined Palaniswami. Dhinakaran shifted the MLAs to a resort in Coorg, Karnataka, for their protection (and his own). Analysts say if he’s unable to win the government, he would focus on taking over control of the party. Dhinakaran has reiterated that the Palaniswami-Pannerselvam duo will be send back to their home in a floor test in a week’s time. He sacked senior leaders, including Palaniswami and Thambidurai, from the party following the general council meeting. The Palaniswami faction is preparing itself. In August, the privileges committee of the Assembly issued notices to 21 MLAs from the DMK, including working president M K Stalin, for carrying gutka, banned by the government, into the premises. The DMK has petitioned court against the committee. The effort would also be in getting the name and symbol of the party back, with the court having directed conduct of local body elections by November 17. The Madras High Court has asked the Election Commission to take a decision on the dispute related to allocating the AIADMK symbol before October 31.

The next move of the ruling faction, say opponents, is to remove rebel MLAs and help manage the required majority to sustain the government. Of the  233 seats (there is a nominated member) , with one vacancy due to Jaya’s death, the ruling party has 134 members; it requires 117 votes to continue in power. If the 19 MLAs are kept away from voting, the Palaniswami government can prove majority, for which only 108 seats would be needed. Palaniswami, Panneerselvam and Speaker P Dhanapal, among other senior leaders of the party, held discussions with legal experts, and rumours are that the action to be taken against the rebel MLAs were also discussed. The state has seen several of the AIADMK members contradicting their previous statements, latest example being a comment from the Tamil Nadu forest minister Dindugul C Sreenivasan that the Sasikala family did not let anybody see Jayalalithaa when she was in the hospital, including the state governor, BJP President Amit Shah, Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, and Congress’s Rahul Gandhi. This was in stark contradiction to his earlier statement that the senior leadership was in touch with Jayalalithaa in hospital, criticising Panneerselvam for raising suspicions against Sasikala and her family. Dhinakaran, responding to a statement by the Palaniswami that he (Dhinakaran) would be soon going to jail, said the chief minister was afraid that he would also be caught in some corruption charges. 

The DMK has been trying to expedite the floor test process. In end-August, the governor turned down the party's request to test this on the floor of the Assembly, on the ground that he could not intervene in internal party issues. When P Vetrivel of the Dhinakaran faction petitioned court not to order a floor test if Assembly Speaker P Dhanapal was taking action against the 19 MLAs of their group, the court directed the government not to conduct one till the next hearing, which is the coming Wednesday. There is speculation that some MLAs from the Dhinakaran faction might move to the Palaniswami faction, since no ruling party MLA wants an election at this point. Analysts say the BJP might prefer the 2P duo in the game, since it has a good relationship with them. Kamal Haasan, who is also speculated to plunge into the political warfront soon, once again came to the limelight. He has recently visited CPI (M) leader and Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan. Whatever has to happen should happen soon because administration is taking a beating.

The state government has announced that the biannual Global Investors Meet, scheduled for 2017, would be held in 2018. It could not handle the issue of the NEET (medical course) and effective implementation or exemption of it in the state. There is no update on Jayalalithaa’s Vision 2023, a huge mission she had set in her previous tenure to make the state number one in various aspects, including industrial investment.

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