Of political opportunism and revolt

Tamil Nadu, a state which has enjoyed relative political stability, was thrown into uncertainty on February 6. Caretaker chief minister O Panneerselvam, often derided by the media and the people alike for his timidity and submissiveness, and the man who often made way for his late boss J Jayalalithaa, stumped everyone when he revolted against V K Sasikala, who was elected the leader of the AIADMK legislature party.

While a revolt by ‘OPS’ was unexpected, the delay on the part of Governor Ch Vidyasagar Rao in taking things forward after Sasikala’s elevation gave rise to speculation.

The lack of initiative from the governor, who is holding additional charge of Tamil Nadu since September 2016 has exposed the BJP, the ruling party at the Centre, of fishing in troubled waters, like it did in Uttarakhand and Arunachal Pradesh last year. The BJP commands a major political clout in the hill state, while it is hardly a force in the northeastern state and Tamil Nadu.

Going against the Supreme Court verdict in the S R Bommai case that the test of strength must only be held on the floor of the House, the Centre imposed
President’s rule on the Congress-ruled Uttarakhand hours before Chief Minister Harish Rawat was to prove his majority. The Rawat government was restored after a lengthy legal battle and the entire episode came as a severe setback to the Narendra Modi government at the Centre.

Arunachal was in a political crisis since 2014 and the twists and turns saw the state being ruled by four chief ministers from 2011-2016. The Supreme Court finally termed the governor’s decision to summon or advance the Assembly session “unconstitutional” and restored the Congress government in the state. So, in a span of over three months, the Centre has suffered a huge loss of face for its action of dismissing non-BJP state governments.

Inadvertent reference

Unfortunately, an inadvertent reference made by the Supreme Court that it will pronounce the verdict in a disproportionate assets (DA) case related to Sasikala “next week” has not just become a major talking point, but may as well influence the next move by the governor.

Rao’s absence ever since the political drama that unfolded on Monday night has raised eyebrows. The governor should have held consultations once OPS
tendered his resignation on Sunday. The fact that he didn’t, led to the assumption that he would wait for the apex court verdict in the DA case. If these are the reasons for the delay, then it is patently wrong.

The two issues are entirely different as Sasikala, at the moment, has nothing against her legally that can prevent her from taking over. While one may question her eagerness to assume chief ministership from a moral perspective, she has, rightfully, everything going for her to become the next chief minister, as the legislature party has elected her. If the governor was really waiting for the court ruling, then he should have said so. This would have cleared the air.

As the governor delayed consultations, hope of smooth transfer of power that was expected, evaporated. Instead, several fronts opened up: OPS revolted, DMK started issuing statements, BJP’s Tamil Nadu unit came in support of OPS, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh had to issue a statement that BJP had nothing to do with the developments in Chennai and even the Supreme Court became an unlikely participant in the drama.

Holding the reins

There is no doubt that Sasikala holds the reins. For 33 years as the “soul sister” of Jayalalithaa, Sasikala followed the power play from very close quarters, sharing space in the Poes Garden residence of the late AIADMK supremo. Often, she had been accused of being the real force, influencer, manipulator, an alternative power centre etc., for many of Jayalalithaa’s actions.

After Jayalalithaa’s death on December 6, many expected Sasikala to take over as the chief minister but she did not succumb to that ambition. However, what has surprised many is why she choose to take over now, especially when a verdict in the DA case is pending in the highest court of the country? She knows very well that she could be the chief minister only for a few days and would lose any hope of enjoying power for long or even contesting an election if the Supreme Court holds her guilty. She would face the ignominy of losing power through a stroke of court judgement in a corruption case. So, does Sasikala just want to enjoy being the chief minister for a few days and go into history books?

Coming to the BJP, it is surprising why the party is interested in muddying its hands in Tamil Nadu. By supporting Panneerselvam, it is going to hardly gain anything. Instead, with almost all the MPs – barring one or two- being with Sasikala (AIADMK has 37 members in Lok Sabha and 13 in Rajya Sabha), it would be beneficial for the BJP to go with her.

In Parliament, the AIADMK has almost always supported the Centre since 2014 whenever key issues came up, except for the Goods and Services Tax to which it appended support only towards the end. Sasikala accusing the governor of deliberately delaying her swearing-in ceremony indicates that she is distancing herself from the BJP. This may have a bearing in Parliament – should Sasikala take over – whenever important bills are taken up for voting, especially in the Rajya Sabha where the ruling coalition is in a minority.

Soon after his revolt, Panneerselvam had said he would withdraw his resignation. There is no provision in the Constitution to withdraw the resignation once the governor accepts the letter tendered by the chief minister. So, there should be no question of Rao asking OPS to show his strength in the House unless the governor treads a different path.

Instead, he should have sworn in Sasikala since there is little doubt that she enjoys the confidence of her legislators.
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