Pandemonium in the House
Amidst high drama in the Tamil Nadu Assembly, Edappadi Palanisami of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam won a trust vote, confirming him as the state's third Chief Minister in as many months. Many observers, however, were seemingly disturbed by the circumstances of the trust vote. A media blackout, and scenes of unruly legislators throwing objects in the Assembly once again brought up questions of the new administration that is taking over one of India's most important states. In an ideal scenario, the support of 122 out 235 MLAs should be enough to establish Palanisami's legitimacy as Chief Minister. The circumstances leading up to the trust vote, however, raise some important questions. Reports indicate that legislators from the AIADMK were cooped up in a hotel for the past week on the outskirts of Chennai, as party general secretary, VK Sasikala, waited for her bid to stake claim to government formation. Acting Governor Vidyasagar Rao, however, decided to wait until the apex court delivered its verdict in a 21-year-old disproportionate assets case. The court found her guilty, and Sasikala was sent to jail, debarring her from contesting any election to public office for the next decade. Her rival within the party, and former Chief Minister, O Panneerselvam, was presumably in the box seat after the court's decision, but the convicted leader quickly pushed for Palanisami candidacy, appointed her nephew TTV Dinakaran to the post of deputy general secretary, before making her way to prison. Seemingly rattled by these developments, Panneerselvam urged his fellow party legislators to vote with their conscience. On the day before the trust, there were questions whether AIADMK legislators would stab Palanisami in the back, and vote against him. These rumours received further fuel when one MLA openly declared rebellion against the Sasikala camp. When the Assembly session began, leaders from the opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the Congress, the Indian Union Muslim League and Panneerselvam's faction pushed for an unprecedented secret ballot. In fact, DMK working president, Stalin, and Panneerselvam said all legislators, who were transported in vehicles from the hotel to the Assembly building in the morning, should be allowed to go to their constituencies and return later to vote. They pointed out that the Governor had given 15 days for the trust vote. Opponents of the Sasikala faction argue that aside from being locked up for days, the MLAs were coerced into extending their support to Palanisami.
But Speaker Dhanapal rejected their demand and allowed Palaniswami to move the vote of confidence motion. In such cases, the ultimate authority rests with the Speaker. Chaos soon ensued, and the guards had to evict the Opposition MLAs forcefully. In the meantime, the audio link from the Assembly Hall to the media room was disconnected. Under House rules, no camera or mobile phone is allowed inside. As a consequence, the public was unable to witness any of the proceedings, which included the trust vote. With dozens of legislators evicted from the premises, Palanisami won the trust vote, 121 to 11. Concerning numbers, it is plain sailing for the new Chief Minister until the next elections. There are, however, a lot of mitigating factors that require resolution. The DMK continues its protest against the trust vote, questioning its legitimacy. Meanwhile, the Panneerselvam faction has gone to the Election Commission to register their complaint against the appointments made within the AIADMK. Questions surrounding the legality of these appointments have resulted in a notice from the poll body. More pressing, however, is the public mood, which has seemingly gone against the party in the past few months. Many among the state's populace have voiced their discontentment against the Sasikala family's apparent hostile takeover the party. As argued in these columns, Sasikala's proximity to late Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa allowed members of her clan to establish control over key industries, real estate and even cinema halls. Some in the media have often argued that Sasikala and her extended family also wield considerable influence within the party, including the distribution of party tickets before elections. The appointment of TTV Dinakaran as deputy general secretary has further confirmed allegations of nepotism and fears that the family continues to hold a vice-like grip on the party and government. It is evident that the legislators were locked up in a hotel to prevent any of them from switching sides under public pressure against the Sasikala faction. In light of these circumstances, critics argue that the demands of the DMK and the O Panneerselvam's faction do hold water. There is also another school of thought, however, which believes that Palanisami is his own man, and may one day turn on the Sasikala clan. Power indeed creates its own dynamics. Saturday's events, and the resulting pandemonium, once again presented a darker side of Indian democracy. Only a flexible and well-functioning administration may turn the tide of public opinion against the new Chief Minister. The challenges before him are immense. The State bureaucracy is in a state of disarray after Sasikala faction's pushed out all key officials and advisers, who had earlier served in the Jayalalithaa government. Reports indicate that more than 1000 important files will be before the new administration, which require their urgent attention. Key posts, especially in the police, are to be filled. Besides the administrative crisis, the worst drought in recent memory has claimed more than 100 lives in farmer suicides. There is also a severe shortage of groundwater in vast tracts of the state. The challenges are indeed massive.