Tamil Nadu: AIADMK politics stands at a tri-junction

AIADMK leader V K Sasikala (left) with Tamil Nadu Chief Minister K Palaniswami (right) and O Panneerselvam | Photo: PTI
The political tussle in the ruling AIADMK started after the death of its leader and then chief minister (CM) J Jayalalithaa in December last year. O Panneerselvam, who took over as CM following this, submitted his resignation on February 5, and preparations were on to make Jayalalithaa’s long-time companion V K Sasikala CM. However, he soon revealed that he had been forced to resign under pressure from Sasikala’s family. The party split into two, with one faction under Panneerselvam and the other on Sasikala’s side.

With Sasikala sentenced to four years in prison in a 20-year-old disproportionate assets case, TTV Dhinakaran, her nephew, was appointed AIADMK deputy general secretary and Edappadi 

K Palaniswami became chief minister. The Palaniswami government won the trust vote in the Legislative Assembly.

However, it was not a smooth process, with Panneerselvam sticking to two demands: Expulsion of the Sasikala family from the party, and a probe into the circumstances of Jayalalithaa’s death. There were also discussions on seat-sharing, though their demands were not spelt out by any of the party members.

Dhinakaran said he would distance himself from the party decisions till August 5 to allow the merger to happen. The Panneerselvam faction repeated its demand that the Sasikala family be ousted and said the state government must announce a CBI inquiry into Jayalalithaa’s death. There were also rumours about disputes on ministry-sharing. However, with Dhinakaran returning actively to the party from August 5, merger talks gained momentum.

In no time, most of the demands of Panneerselvam, though he has only about 11 MLAs in the Assembly, were accepted. Dhinakaran has been denounced by the Palaniswami faction. Sasikala’s expulsion is being targeted through a General Council meeting, to be summoned soon. 

An inquiry commission chaired by a high court judge was announced to probe into the circumstances of Jayalalithaa’s death. Panneerselvam was made the head of the party, with an 11-member party council to advise the government, while Palaniswami continues to retain control of the government.

With Panneerselvam and Palaniswami shaking hands and the former taking charge as deputy chief minister on August 21, Dhinakaran became the centre of focus and what infuriated him was the decision to expel Sasikala. While his camp refuses to reveal the number of MLAs loyal to him, he is said to have ‘sleeper cells’ in the merged entity, which will join him when he needs them.

Who has what?

There has been a question mark on the survival of the government from December 5. The party won the election in 2016 for a second consecutive term, something that has not happened in Tamil Nadu in 30 years. It had a clear majority in the Assembly, with 136 seats of the 234 (including the Assembly Speaker), while the DMK won 89 seats. The Congress has eight, and the Indian Union Muslim League one. With Jayalalithaa's death, the number of seats with the AIADMK, excluding Speaker P Dhanapal, is 134. In the floor test on February 18, soon after the split in the party, the Palaniswami government had 122 votes in its favour and 11 of the Panneerselvam faction voted against it.

In the new scenario the Dhinakaran faction has around 20 MLAs. Three independent MLAs who contested under the symbol “Two Leaves” are said to have an affiliation to this faction. If Dhinakaran’s claim about having “sleeper cells” is true, the survival of the Palaniswami government is in doubt. The government needs 117 votes to prove its majority. Palaniswami will fall short by at least three MLAs.

Can the govt overcome the crisis?

A total of 19 MLAs backing Dhinakaran have submitted a petition to acting Governor Ch Vidyasagar Rao, saying they have lost trust in the chief minister. They have been spirited away to a resort in Puducherry. The speculation is that a few more MLAs and some ministers are expected to join his camp in the run-up to a floor test. Not surprisingly, DMK working President and Opposition Leader M K Stalin has demanded the governor call a floor test.

Dhinakaran expects that if the Palaniswami government fails the floor test, he could gain the majority to form the government. No MLA wants another election. The speculation is that the faction will nominate a Dalit MLA as chief minister. 

The newly merged faction expects that it could win the floor test by pulling some MLAs from the Dhinakaran faction to its side. The Palaniswami-Panneerselvam duo's alleged closeness to the BJP might help them to do this, said a political analyst. The DMK, on the other hand, is seeing a clear opportunity if Assembly elections are announced. In the current political vacuum, Stalin could become chief minister.

What if the govt does not survive?

Dhinakaran will gain more support in the party if the government falls. This way, his faction expects to gain control over the party, and wait for a few years to come to power. Dhinakaran's public appearances are helping to project him as a strong leader, which the AIADMK lacks now, said a source.

Will the BJP stand to gain?

Stalin alleges that the BJP is behind the turmoil in the government. But Tamil Nadu is still a distant dream for the BJP. The Palaniswami faction's all-out efforts to unite with the Panneerselvam faction are being seen by the DMK as a move by the BJP by proxy to oust the Sasikala family from politics, probably form an alliance with the AIADMK, and share a few seats at the Centre with it. The challenge the BJP faces in the state is that it does not have a strong leader and hopes that film actor Rajinikanth may join it. Rajinikanth, on the other side, is contemplating options to enter politics, without any concrete plan. Interestingly, it is his contemporary Kamal Haasan, who is speaking out, making political statements.

What does this mean for the state?

As the state is facing a grim financial situation, political instability is a major challenge. While an efficient bureaucracy may help to keep things running, attracting investments will be a challenge, especially with growth-hungry N Chandrababu Naidu wooing investors to neighbouring Andhra Pradesh.