Instability in Tamil Nadu: BJP is the third at a table for two

R Sridhar Rao

The ADMK caught in the maelstrom of its warring factions has left the state without decisive leadership and allowed the BJP to take control. This political manoeuvring is a cause of much worry for the common Tamilian who has prospered because of the stability bipartisan politics brought them

 

Tamil Nadu has not had a working government for nearly a year after September 2016, when the then Chief Minister Jayalalithaa was admitted to Apollo Hospital in Chennai. As a result, files in many government offices haven’t moved, officials have been hesitant to take a decision, and an air of uncertainty hangs over the day-to-day tasks of the administration. All of this is because of the continuing political instability—something that the people in the state are unaccustomed to. 

Since 1991, the people of Tamil Nadu have delivered strong and decisive mandates to either the DMK or the ADMK. Both Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa, once elected, have always been understood to be the ones in command. This bipartisan voting trend has empowered these two parties, leaving no space for another. 

If the events of the past year have irked the common man in any way, the persistent instability that has followed the death of Jayalalithaa would be the biggest.

Alliance with the Centre, but on its own terms 

In the past, whether it was the DMK or AIADMK, both the regional parties had full authority. The parties chose their own allies: the ADMK allied with the Congress in 1991, and then shifted allegiances to the BJP during the ’98-'99 Vajpayee Government. The DMK, on the other hand, was an ally of the BJP from ’99 to 2004 and joined the Congress afterwards. These tie-ups, coalitions and alliances were always a relationship of equals. Never could a national party dictate the terms or conditions of the partnership and the decisions of the state were left to the regional party. This relationship between the parties was very similar to how CN Annadurai understood federalism—self-rule in the states, joint-rule at the Centre. What this approach guaranteed was autonomy, but after Jayalalithaa’s hospitalisation, this model has slowly been eroded. Repeated instances—the 14th Finance Commission, the Kaveri water dispute or the NEET fiasco—have brought to the fore how a lack of active leaderships have compromised the interests of the people of Tamil Nadu.

OPS, the ‘good man’

After Jayalalithaa’s untimely death, O. Paneerselvam (OPS) took charge as Chief Minister and was able to successfully steer the ship. In his short stint as Chief Minister, he decisively handled the relief operations after Cyclone Vardah, secured the Krishna river water supply to Chennai and was able to negotiate the protests for lifting the ban on Jallikattu. Working silently, he was regarded as a worthy successor to Amma and won the respect of many people. 

It is around this time that the suspicious involvement of the BJP began to surface. It was almost universally accepted that such accomplishments would not have been possible without the help of the BJP government at the Centre. In February, further emboldened by his achievements, he organised a palace coup against Sasikala and TTV Dinakaran who had staked their claims as the legitimate heirs to ADMK chief Jayalalithaa. His rebellion was lauded, bringing him instant popularity; his image as Mr Clean, juxtaposed with Sasikala and Dinakaran and their alleged involvement in the mysterious passing of Jayalalithaa, was an easy game for him to win.  

 


Entice OPS, Threaten EPS, capture both

Now as things stand, they could not be further from what they were six months ago. Paneerlselvams’ statements, his posturing and repeated meetings with the Prime Minister—over six times in two months—have made it clear that not only has he got the BJP and Narendra Modi’s support but is, in fact, their representative in Tamil Nadu. And the repeated raids and cases against Dinakaran have sufficiently proven that even the state government headed by the EPS faction is scared and is ready to turn their back on Sasikala and Dinakaran.

In addition, Vice President Venkaiah Naidu’s visit to the Secretariat, when he was still a Union Minister, to conduct 'performance reviews of the MLAs’ has left a bad taste in the mouths of the common Tamilian. Now, the message has been sent home—that OPS is just another pawn in the BJP’s game of power and was just a tool to get Tamil Nadu under their control. The anti-BJP sentiment in TN is arguably the strongest in the country.


What this approach guaranteed was autonomy, but after Jayalalithaa’s hospitalisation, this model has slowly been eroded. Repeated instances— the 14th Finance Commission, the Kaveri water dispute or the NEET fiasco—have brought to the fore how a lack of active leaderships have compromised the interests of the people of Tamil Nadu.


Tables turn

In this ping-pong game of public ire and love, the Dinakaran camp is now no longer the pariah it was six months ago. They have slowly worked at rehabilitating his image of being corrupt, vile and somehow responsible for the death of Amma. Dinakaran himself has taken to the media and various public meetings where he has spoken out against the BJP’s bullying tactics and interference. Furthermore, his faction is the only one in the ADMK that is seen to have not bowed down to the BJP. They even won the case over the party symbol in Delhi. With his graph on the rise, he still has a lot of ground to cover. 

The tables have turned. Meanwhile, OPS has squandered the goodwill he once had, and now together with EPS, the both of them are seen as weak-willed, cowards who have surrendered their dignity for power and in turn, have forsaken the state’s independence and interest.

What are the numbers?

In a house of 234, the EPS camp has 105, Dinakaran camp has 19 and OPS camp has 10 MLAs. With the merger of the EPS-OPS camp, the combine has the support of 115 MLAs, 2 short of the halfway mark of 117. Thus in the event of a house vote, there is a chance that the government could fall. Already, Dinakaran and his 19 MLAs have written letters to the Governor expressing a lack of confidence in the Chief Minister. Now the information that is emerging could spell more trouble for the EPS-OPS camp: it is alleged that more MLAs are dropping out of the merged camp to defect to Dinakaran’s. Another dark horse waiting on the side is MK Stalin, universally understood to be the rightful heir to the DMK. He has 98 MLAs and has called for a floor test ‘as soon as possible’. At this point, anything could happen. 

Who wants a no-confidence vote, who wants a fresh election

The EPS-OPS camp does not want snap elections because, with public opinion against them, they would be decimated. More importantly, their overlords, the BJP would not want to lose the political stock they have gained. Dinakaran too wouldn’t be too keen about fresh elections—there’s a chance that their tally would improve, but again, there are no guarantees. At this juncture, it is too much of a risk. Then there is the only man who looks set to claim the benefits of this—MK Stalin. This is the best opportunity that he has to take holds of the reins of the state as the ADMK is deeply popular and their house is in disarray. However, for all of this to happen, he needs a vote of no-confidence first.

The tables have turned. Now EPS-OPS together are seen as weak-willed, cowards who have surrendered their dignity for power and in turn, have forsaken the state’s independence and interest.

It is as yet unclear whether Dinkaran really would want to risk a vote or just use it to his advantage to negotiate. In a strange power struggle, the BJP-OPS-EPS camp has made offers to buy out his19 MLAs, while he has made efforts to wrench away more MLAs from the ruling coalition. Indeed, that would be OPS’s best strategy—to attempt to pull a few of Dinakaran’s MLAs to gain a full majority. EPS himself was a Dinakaran pick for CM after OPS’ February rebellion and Sasikala’s arrest. With EPS in power, it maintained the Goundar-Thevar caste equation of power. So far, Dinakaran has shown himself as one to not give in to BJP’s threat of raids. Dinakaran could instead just use the 19 MLAs to threaten a vote and gain a voice in the government from below the surface without actually enforcing a vote and also ultimately get EPS to get back with his camp. Be it OPS, EPS or Dinakaran, they have too many incentives to just prolong this current government and the instability until the end of the term in 2021. This ensures they can milk it for as long as possible as they might not get opportunities post-2021 elections.  

Even if Dinakaran decides to push for a vote, and even if he manages to hold on to his 19 MLAs (reports are that he’s shipped his MLAs to Pondicherry), we do know that the part-time Governor, BJP’s Vidyasagar Rao, can always delay the vote to buy time favourably for the OPS-EPS camp. Even then, when there’s a vote, the speaker, EPS camp’s P.Dhanapal can always tweak house rules for the vote. And then finally, the DMK itself is under the CBI scanner for several cases. It too could create drama and ensure a free-and-fair vote doesn’t take place. Basically, they would create enough drama to let the public know they’ve fought for a floor test, while also sabotaging it, to ensure the apple cart isn’t upset completely. Because who knows what incentives the BJP can create for DMK to keep the status quo going!

From the public’s perspective though, there is a general strong perception that:

  1.  Status-quo is unstable. Hence, no governance. 
  2.  Way too much interference of the Centre and the state government is unable to press for state’s interests.
  3.  Need for alternative leadership with decisive mandate—hence a fresh election. 

Therefore, we see that people’s expectations and the manoeuvrings at the parties are at loggerheads. It means that this drama will prolong, and there shall be many a slip between cup and lip. 

Sridhar is a fisheries based researcher currently in Nagapattinam district, Tamil Nadu. He is passionate about food, travel and politics.