The AIADMK crisis: who'll take the party forward?

Tamil Nadu witnesses its own Game of Thrones

Chief Minister O. Pannerselvam at Jayalalithaa memorial and AIADMK chief V.K. Sasikala at Poes Garden in Chennai on Tuesday.   | Photo Credit: R. Ravindran, G. Sribharath

Tamil Nadu, true to its film style politics, is seeing a localised version of the Game of Thrones. Following the demise of Jayalalithaa, O. Panneerselvam was selected by the AIADMK to be the Chief Minister, and V.K. Sasikala anointed as the general secretary. In a rather sudden move, the latter was chosen at a meeting of the legislators to be the CM, and the former tendered his resignation to the Governor. Focus moved to judgment of the  Supreme Court on the DA case in which Ms. Sasikala is an accused, expected next week. The question was whether the Governor would swear her in or wait for the judgment. All that changed dramatically on Tuesday night. Meditations are meant to introduce calm and quiet; Paneerselvam had the classic poise of the meditator, but the result was the reverse. It had the effect of a bombshell and upset all calculations, primarily Ms. Sasikala’s. She has promptly moved to bundle up, transport and sequester 130  MLAs in comfortable captivity.

 

The election process culminates in the appointment of the Chief Minister and the Council of Ministers. They constitute the political executive, charged with the responsibility of running the State. The will of the public is thus translated into governance. Where there is a doubt about which party, or which leader within a party, commands the majority, it is left to the Governor of the State to decide whom to appoint as the Chief Minister. He may require the appointee to establish his majority on the floor of the House. He may decide that no person is in a position to form a stable government, and thus consider the invocation of Article 356 providing for President’s Rule. But the decision of the Governor is primarily based on the number of member of the legislative assembly (MLAs) supporting the claimant for the office of the Chief Minister.

 

Free and fair elections are the lifeblood  of a democracy. It is a constitutional imperative and part of our basic structure. The Representation of the People Act provides for various safeguards against corrupt practices. One such practice is interference with the free exercise of any electoral right. Voters cannot be threatened, intimated, coerced or captured. If this is the basic requirement for the voting public, it would apply with far greater force to their elected representatives. Ultimately, a hundred-plus MLAs determine who rules the State. It makes scant sense to allow them to be subject to these practices; in fact, we should be far more careful to ensure the independence of action of this small but crucial number.

 

The banner of revolt raised by Mr. Panneerselvam seems to have found resonance with a significant portion of the general public. Now more than ever it is necessary for the MLAs to assess the mood of their constituents, and to gauge the popular thinking if they are to perform their duty as representatives of the people. The standard practice at such detentions is to ensure that they have no contact with the world outside; reports in electronic and print media indicate that they are denied the use of cell phones. In all likelihood, their meetings with one another will be monitored, and signs of dissent or doubt will be dealt with appropriately. They will then be “paraded” before the Governor; a term which fits the occasion but is hardly edifying for the people’s chosen representatives. It is based on this that the Governor will be asked to choose our Chief Minister.

 

Governor Vidyasagar Rao should choose not to do so. He has a discretion in the matter and a constitutional obligation to ensure the legality and propriety of the process. He must seek the opinion of his constitutional advisers as to whether this kind of captivity and detention is repugnant to the democratic process and vitiates the procedure for choice of the Chief Minister. This comes on top of his having to consider the impact of Mr Paneerselvam’s claim of being coerced to resign, and the impending reality of the judgment of the Supreme Court which will determine if  Ms. Sasikala is to be lodged in a somewhat less comfortable accommodation run by the State. All told, it is not an easy week for an office dubbed as a sinecure, but then this is precisely why the Constitution provides for Governors, and gives them a wide latitude of discretion in these matters.

 

Sriram  Panchu is a Senior Advocate, Madras High Court. The writer is at srirampanchu@gmail.com

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Printable version | Dec 1, 2020 2:41:44 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/Tamil-Nadu-witnesses-its-own-Game-of-Thrones/article17278492.ece

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