Bypolls rarely decide a government’s fate. The outcomes are usually political blimps that the parties interpret according to their convenience and then continue with their politics. But when a government tottering without a majority in the assembly faces the bypoll test in 20 seats, it becomes a do-or-die battle.
The Edappadi Palaniswami (EPS) government, which had celebrated the Madras High Court verdict upholding the disqualification of 18 MLAs of the T.T.V. Dhinakaran (TTV) camp, is now gripped with uncertainty as those 18 have chosen to face the electorate rather than appeal the Supreme Court. Add the two pre-existing vacancies and the stage is set for a virtual mini-referendum. The outcome can throw up a clutch of intriguing scenarios.
With four rebel MLAs among its current strength of 115 openly supporting TTV, the ruling AIADMK has been reduced to 111 MLAs in a house of 234. Unless it wins at least half a dozen seats, it cannot touch the halfway mark of 117. If the DMK and TTV’s Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam (AMMK) win the bulk of the seats, the two parties can join hands to bring down the government in a trust vote. The DMK and its allies (97 seats in all) could even reach the halfway mark if they sweep all 20 seats.
For someone who has displayed enormous staying power, enviable survival skills and loads of smart moves as CM, EPS is actually staring at the possibility of being destabilised. The ruling party was hoping the disqualified 18 would knock on the doors of the Supreme Court to challenge the high court verdict, giving it a few more months in office before the apex court gave a decision. But the TTV camp chose not to give that breathing space and instead challenged the ruling party to an electoral fight.
While EPS has been adept at holding the fort, he has not faced any electoral test barring the RK Nagar assembly bypolls in December 2017, which it lost to TTV. His government has invented one excuse after another not to hold the civic elections. His government even used the northeast monsoon as an excuse to have bypolls postponed for the two vacancies. “Despite all his bravado, EPS knows he cannot win another election in the state as he has lost popular support and also that of the cadre. This time, the fight will be between the AMMK and the DMK. The AIADMK won’t be in the picture,” says AMMK leader and unseated legislator Thanga Tamilselvan.
Even senior AIADMK ministers admit that the reach of TTV’s electoral appeal after he won the RK Nagar bypolls has unnerved them. “When TTV himself was the candidate, he had a personal connect with the RK Nagar voters,” says a Tamil Nadu minister from the AIADMK. “But now that he has to campaign for his candidates in these 20 seats, local factors will be in play, splitting the anti-DMK votes between his party and the AIADMK. He might prove a point by pushing the AIADMK to the third spot in some seats, but the DMK could be the beneficiary in the process.”
TTV’s supporters, however, feel the fight is not about the DMK’s primacy, but to determine who has inherited Jayalalitha’s political legacy and the anti-DMK votes: the AIADMK of EPS or the AMMK of TTV? “Once we win more seats than the AIADMK, its MLAs would immediately line up behind TTV,” says P. Vetrivel, a TTV loyalist. “We want this government to fall, leading to fresh elections. Then it would be a fight between TTV and DMK chief M.K. Stalin.”
The Election Commission is expected to schedule the bypolls for the end of January once the four state assembly elections are over. So the New Year could actually tell us whether EPS will hold on to complete his term, or whether Tamil Nadu is staring at mid-term polls along with the Lok Sabha elections.
Total strength: 234
- AIADMK: 115 (111+4 pro-AMMK)
- DMK: 88
- Congress: 8
- Disqualified: 18
- Vacancies: 2
- IUML : 1
- Independent: 1
- Speaker: 1
By G.C. Shekhar in Chennai