As the results for the Lok Sabha seats in Tamil Nadu rolled in on May 23, chief minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami realised within the first hour that they were losing badly. But his attention was focussed on something even more important—results of the bypolls to 22 assembly seats that were also trickling in. By the end of the day, Palaniswami could breathe easy—though the DMK outstripped his AIADMK by winning 13 assembly seats, Palaniswami was content with the nine seats that came his party’s way. Those nine seats ensured that his government, surviving with just 113 MLAs (excluding the Speaker) in a house of 234, would now have a comfortable majority of 122. If the DMK had won all 22 seats, it would have been in a position to form the government along with its allies, claiming a majority of 119.
With those results, Palaniswami again proved to be Tamil Nadu’s ultimate political survivor, having already weathered a challenge by T.T.V. Dhinakaran who walked away with 18 MLAs when Palaniswami and his deputy O. Panneerselvam revolted against the leadership of Sasikala, the jailed aide of Jayalalitha. “Now we can concentrate on governance for the next two years without any sign of the instability that had hung over us during the past two years,” says state minister K. Pandiarajan. “Even then the administration had delivered, tackling two cyclones and a massive drought.”
The AIADMK and Palaniswami proved to be tactically smarter with the bypolls. While the DMK spread its resources for the 39 Lok Sabha seats and the 22 assembly seats, the AIADMK concentrated more on the bypolls knowing that the outcome would decide the fate of the state government. By roping in the PMK, it could ensure that it was able to win three seats in the northern belt, which proved crucial in the final analysis.
Palaniswami also emerged as the leader of the AIADMK by spearheading the campaign personally, even as Panneerselvam was tied down by his son Ravindranath’s Lok Sabha battle in which he emerged as the lone winning MP for the AIADMK. If Ravindranath is accommodated in the Union government as a minister of state, Panneerselvam would be content to accept Palaniswami’s leadership.
By being part of the new NDA government, the AIADMK would be able to steer some central projects to Tamil Nadu, which it was unable to while providing only outside support to the Modi government in its first term.
More importantly for Palaniswami, the bypoll results proved that Dhinakaran’s AMMK posed no challenge to the AIADMK as it failed to retain its deposit for any seat. Even in the Lok Sabha elections, Dhinakaran’s candidates could spoil the NDA’s chances only in about six seats, roundly disproving Dhinakaran’s claim that only the MLAs were with the Palaniswami, while the cadre and voters were with him.
The results established that the AIADMK voters had stayed with the original party and also punctured Dhinakaran’s boast that he would unseat the “traitors” after May 23.
The coming days can only see further disintegration of the AMMK camp as its disillusioned cadre may either return to their mother ship or defect to the DMK given its strong show this year. Already three rebel MLAs in the AIADMK camp are reconsidering their ‘outside’ support to Dhinakaran. Though smart in front of the TV cameras, Dhinakaran underestimated the emotional connect the AIADMK and its two leaves symbol still enjoy with the state’s voters, who see it as the only force that can take on the DMK.
The bypoll results would be one more missed opportunity for DMK leader M.K. Stalin, even though he was able to establish himself as the DMK’s unquestioned leader by piloting it to a stupendous win in the Lok Sabha polls. His next opportunity will be in the civic elections due this year, though his wait for the chief minister’s post would continue till May 2021.
By G.C. Shekhar in Chennai