On April 30, barely two weeks after the bypolls to 22 Assembly seats in the state, the Speaker of the Tamil Nadu Assembly C Dhanabal issued notice to three MLAs, asking why action should not be taken against them for “anti-party activities” - in other words for openly expressing support to TTV Dhinakaran and his AMMK (Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam).
The notices were issued to A Prabhu, Kallakurichi MLA, VT Kalaiselvan, Vriddhachalam MLA and and E Rathinasabapathy, Aranthangi MLA.
The ruling party needed a Plan B.
Having disqualified 18 MLAs in September 2017 in a bid to save the Edappadi Palaniswai led government, they also fought long protracted legal battles to uphold the right of doing so.
Four other seats fell vacant as MLAs either passed away or were forced to resign and the state had 22 Assembly seats vacant.
With the disqualification of the 18 MLAs the AIADMK government was on a slim majority, since the total number of the House had reduced. Once the 22 seats went to bypolls, it would need an additional seven seats at least to keep itself safe.
Worse, Perundurai MLA Thoppu Venkatachalam had resigned from all party posts this week after meeting the Chief Minister, stating that he was “unhappy” with the functioning of the leadership. He continues to remain a party member and an MLA but there was fear within the AIADMK ranks that many other such “sleeper cells” of TTV Dhinakaran would emerge from the woodwork, if the numbers did not stack up in favour of the ruling party.
Hence too, the back-up plan of issuing notice to the 3 dissident MLAs in the event of numbers going against them.
How Tamil Nadu Saved The AIADMK
Tamil Nadu appears to have voted quite differently in the Lok Sabha and the Assembly bypolls. While it gave a clear and clean sweep to the DMK in Lok Sabha – 37 out of 38 seats – in the Assembly bypolls, the fight was often close and the numbers swung in tens and a few hundreds with each round of counting.
The AIADMK managed to garner 38.44% of votes polled while the DMK got 44.6%.
“It shows that the Tamil voters are able to make a subtle differentiation between the Parliamentary and Assembly polls,” said K Venkataramanan, senior journalist and political analyst. “Voters are able to distinguish between caste parties and regional parties and so they are voting accordingly.”
So what does this verdict mean to the AIADMK apart from the fact that their government is safe?
According to political watchers, the AIADMK has come of age in a post Jayalalithaa era and Edappadi Palaniswami has proven himself capable of leading the party without a “strong” leader.
“It may be advantage AIADMK now, because they have clearly shown they don't need the Sasikala group or TTV Dhinakaran,” said Venkataraman. “Now that the AIADMK government has the requisite numbers, the 3 dissident MLAs as well as the 3 Independent MLAs (Karunaas, Thamimun Ansari and Thaniyarasu) are likely to stay with the AIADMK. They have nowhere to go. Dhinakaran was an option but if he gets less than 5% vote share, they will not go to him,” he said.
The wins also show that the myth of the current AIADMK being a Kongu party, with influence largely in the western belt of the state, has also been shattered. The AIADMK has done reasonably well across all seats, even those that it lost.
“This election shows that Edappadi can to some extent survive without Sasikala or Jayalalithaa. The theory that they have been completely deserted by the Kallar votebank has also fallen flat,” said Venkataramanan.
With the government safe until 2021, Edappadi Palaniswami now needs to focus on governance and bringing in jobs to the state, as his headaches are at bay for the present. If he can communicate and convince the Tamil voter that the AIADMK can indeed function without a cult personality leader such as Jayalalithaa, he will stand a fighting chance against the DMK in 2021.
(This story was first published in The Lede.)