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Above: DMK MLAs protesting in front of the Tamil Nadu assembly Speaker during the vote of confidence motion /Photo: UNI

Tamil Nadu stares at a constitutional crisis as the Madras High Court prepares to give its verdict regarding 18 MLAs who were disqualified by the Speaker in the state assembly

~By R Ramasubramanian in Chennai

Tamil Nadu is lurching from one crisis to another. It started when the ruling  AIADMK got a working majority of 132 MLAs in the 234 member assembly, even though Chief Minister Edappadi Palanisamy was able to muster support of only 122 MLAs, with 12 of his party MLAs voting against him. They owe allegiance to former chief minister O Panneerselvam.

The principle opposition DMK’s 88 MLAs and an independent MLA supporting DMK were physically thrown out from the assembly on February 18, 2017, when Palanisami went in for a confidence motion. However, the AIADMK’s whip did not demand disqualification of the 12 rebels.

Just five months later, 18 AIADMK MLAs met the then acting Governor of Tamil Nadu, C Vidhya Sagar Rao and submitted individual petitions with just a one liner opinion (not a demand) saying they had no confidence in Palanisami. This political move angered the ruling party and following an AIADMK whip in the state assembly, the Speaker disqualified all the 18 MLAs.

Challenging the Speaker’s decision all the 18 MLAs went to the Madras High Court praying that the Speaker’s order be quashed. Arguments in this case went on for days, and last week the first bench headed by Justice Indira Bannerjee and Justice M Sundar after completion of all arguments reserved the order.

There was another petition pending in the Madras High Court which was filed by the DMK’s whip in the state assembly, R Sakkarapani. He pleaded that the High Court should direct the Speaker, P Dhanapal, to disqualify 12 AIADMK MLAs, including the present Deputy Chief Minister Panneerselvam for openly disobeying their party’s whip and voting against the Palanisami government on February 18, 2017. Later, the Panneerselvam faction merged with the Palanisami one and Panneerselvam was made finance minister.

The DMK petition clearly stated that as per the Xth schedule of the Constitution and anti-defection law, any member who openly defies his/her party’s whip order will be automatically disqualified. However, this has created a peculiar situation. The Speaker, on the one hand, disqualifies 18 AIADMK MLAs on the pretext that their meeting with the Governor and expressing their displeasure over the incumbent chief minister comes under anti-party activities. Yet, when 12 AIADMK MLAs openly defied their own party’s whip and voted against the Palanisami government, no action was taken against them. This has led to the matter being taken to the Madras High Court.

The legal view is that the fate of the disqualified 18 MLAs will have a huge bearing on the future of the AIADMK government. “That’s the correct view, because now the AIADMK has got only 111 MLAs’ support and to get a simple majority you need 118 MLAs. Now where will these seven MLAs come from? A DMK minister told India Legal.

The current strength of the assembly is AIADMK—117, DMK—89, Indian National Congress—8, Indian Union Muslim League—1, Nominated (Anglo Indian category)—1 plus the 18 disqualified AIADMK MLAs.

Adding to the confusion—and a possible constitutional crisis—has been the role of Tamil Nadu Governor Banwarilal Purohit. He has generated strong criticism from almost all opposition parties, except the state BJP, for what is seen as direct intervention in the state administration.

The governor has so far visited over 10 districts for a review. In Coimbatore, he held meetings with the collector, police commissioner and a senior central government officer. Neither the state minister of that region nor the concerned MLA was invited.

In a strongly worded statement in the assembly, the DMK’s working president and principal opposition leader MK Stalin said that it ‘‘registers its strongest condemnation against the unconstitutional usurpation of state’s rights by the Central BJP government. Dr BR Ambedkar said that the post of Governor is an ornamental one and he does not have the right to interfere in the state’s administration. Both the Centre and the Governor are embarked upon reviving a state government which has lost its majority and legitimacy”.

The left parties have also condemned the governor’s actions: “This only proves, yet again, that the government here is under the control of the BJP and is acting as the extended hand of the ruling dispensation at Delhi,” said G Ramakrishnan, the CPI(M) state secretary.

However a press release from the Raj Bhavan in Chennai stated: “It is absolutely wrong and false and based on the figment of imagination.” This has only added more weight to the big question: is Tamil Nadu heading for a constitutional crisis? Says MG Deivasahayam, retired chief secretary of Haryana: “We are already into a constitutional crisis. Rs 4,000 crore allotted to the state for various developmental activities in rural Tamil Nadu has been sent back to the union government because we did not conduct local body elections. And if the situation continues like this we will be forced to undergo a full-fledged constitutional crisis.”

Adds S Ashok, a retired senior official of the Tamil Nadu assembly secretariat: “Larger issues linked with governance are growing. Political players are shifting the goal posts,” adding that the next big step will be passing the money bill in the state assembly which has to be done before March 31.

However, he cautions: “When the very existence of the government is itself in a limbo and if the verdict of the Madras High Court on the 18 MLAs’ disqualification case goes in favour of these 18 MLAs, then all hell may break loose and the trajectory of the ruling AIADMK’s prospectus and its very future will take its own course.”

The real crisis is that in Tamil Nadu, politicians play by their own rules. It is now up to the High Court to try and put a stop to the snowballing crisis.

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