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Intriguing political drama

Intriguing political drama
Caretaker Tamil Nadu Chief Minister O Paneerselvam's startling revelations on Tuesday night has dramatically upended the political dynamics of the southern state. After a 40-minute silent meditation at former Chief Minister Jayalalithaa's memorial, Paneerselvam, popularly known as OPS to his supporters, told curious journalists gathered outside that he had been forced to resign as Chief Minister to make way for VK Sasikala.

Until Tuesday night, Sasikala, who was known to many as Jayalalithaa's closest personal aide, faced little opposition in her path to the Chief Minister's office. However, it was his offer to take back his resignation as Chief Minister if the "people are with me", which has shaken Tamil Nadu politics at this juncture. Allegations that Paneerselvam was forced to resign will compel the Governor to assess whether the legislators who elected Sasikala as the legislative party leader on Sunday were also coerced into signing papers of support.

Can the Governor invite Sasikala to form the government when there are serious questions over how that support was obtained? The state has indeed entered unchartered waters. This editorial will further focus on the Governor's role in the entire matter later in the piece. In response to Paneerselvam's allegations, the acting general secretary of the AIADMK, Sasikala, removed him from the post of party treasurer. The drama continued to unfold as the Election Commission reportedly said on Wednesday that the AIADMK followed no rules in selecting her as the party's temporary General Secretary. In other words, the poll body has seemingly implied that Sasikala has no authority to remove Panneerselvam as an AIADMK treasurer.

It is evident now that the AIADMK could head for a split. The caretaker Chief Minister's late night bombshell was the culmination of events on Tuesday. Dissent within the party had been brewing throughout the day, starting with sensational rumours about the circumstances of Jayalalithaa's death, followed by allegations that the late Chief Minister never wanted Sasikala to succeed her. These voices of dissent finally culminated in a firm declaration that Sasikala is unfit to the lead the state. Opposition to the acting AIADMK general secretary was led PH Pandian, a former AIADMK leader and speaker of Tamil Nadu Assembly, and Deepa Jayakumar, Jayalalithaa's niece.

While the Sasikala camp managed to swat away these allegations as made by those disloyal to the party leadership, dealing with Paneerselvam has become another ball game altogether. Internet memes of Paneerselvam's loyalty to the late Chief Minister bordering on servitude have become popular on social media. On the two occasions when the Jayalalithaa was compelled to step down, she had no hesitation nominating Paneerselvam as her replacement. Moreover, the current caretaker Chief Minister has a clean record in the AIADMK, unlike Sasikala, who was expelled by Jayalalithaa in 2011 for 'anti-party activities'. Where does this leave Tamil Nadu? Political commentators believe for the moment that the dissolution of the State Assembly and imposition of President's Rule are out of the question.

Questions about the legality of Paneerselvam's apparent decision to withdraw his resignation are making the rounds. Can the Governor accept it? Legal experts are divided on the question. Considering the unusual political circumstances, however, the Governor could strengthen Paneerselvam's position by allowing it. Speculation is also rife that the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Centre has played a hand in fomenting this entire crisis. Influential RSS ideologues and senior leaders of the BJP's Tamil Nadu unit have already issued their explicit support to OPS, although what is of greater interest is the conduct of acting Governor Vidyasagar Rao.

Even though the state government had clearly issued a communication that it was ready to for Sasikala's swearing-in on Tuesday, Governor Rao chose to remain in Mumbai apparently for convocation. In the midst of a Constitutional crisis in the state, his absence from Chennai is indeed telling. This editorial has earlier addressed his apparent decision to delay Sasikala's swearing-in ceremony, even though she has the backing of the requisite number of legislators to form the government. Under normal circumstances, the Governor would have flown in and initiated the process of government formation. But these are not normal circumstances.

In fact, AIADMK parliamentarians are slated to meet with President Pranab Mukherjee and complain about the Governor's actions, considering he had accepted Panneerselvam's resignation on Monday. There is even speculation that Governor Rao is waiting for the Supreme Court to deliver a judgment early next week in a disproportionate assets case, in which both Jayalalithaa and Sasikala stand accused. If her acquittal is indeed overturned, one can expect the MLAs to flock behind Paneerselvam. For the time being, Sasikala has decided to slug it out politically. She has managed to keep her flock together, with most of 135 party MLAs, ministers and MPs siding with her. With the AIADMK barely a few months into its five-year tenure, the party is unlikely to head for a split.

The anti-defection law also ensures that legislators have to toe the party line or else they lose their seat. Under these circumstances, the fate of rival leaders will be determined by who has the support of the MLAs. If the Governor accepts Paneerselvam's decision to withdraw his resignation, Sasikala will have to battle him on the floor of the Assembly to determine who has more support from the MLAs. Any leader will need at least 117 legislators to stake a claim for government formation.

One only needs to go back in time to understand the current upheaval in the AIADMK, The death of MG Ramachandran, who headed the AIADMK at the time, in 1987 had also split the party in two. Back then, his protégé Jayalalithaa was locked into a battle for control of the party with candidates backed by the MGR's household. Jayalalithaa soon emerged as the undisputed leader and held a vice-like grip on the party till her illness and subsequent death last year. How the current crisis will play out is anybody's guess.
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