TN Bypolls: Will it be a Game Changer?

Published : Nov 24, 2018 11:13 am | By: M D Sridharan

Many factors in the Tamil Nadu political circuit have turned the by-elections to 20 constituencies in Tamil Nadu into a mini-Assembly election. The outcome will be a game-changer in State politics ahead of the next Assembly polls in 2021.

After the prolonged battle over the disqualification of the 18 dissident AIADMK MLAs in which finally the Madras High Court upheld the Speaker’s decision, bypolls for 18 constituencies in Tamil Nadu has become imminent.

The much anticipated verdict on the disqualification of the 18 dissident AIADMK MLAs is likely to decide the future course of Tamil Nadu politics. The MLAS were loyal to the TTV Dhinakaran. The court verdict has paved the way for the by-elections and it will be held on all the 18 seats that would be vacant.

The verdict has dealt a big blow to the TTV Dhinakaran camp who was nursing a huge hope on the decision of the Madras High Court. On the contrary the High Court‘s decision has bolster the position of the EPS-OPS combine which is ruling currently in power in Tamil Nadu. The verdict has even upset the opposition DMK which was hoping for favourable result that would shake the ruling AIADMK.

While, a jubilant AIADMK minister has tweeted that "Traitors have been taught a lesson," the rebel leader TTV Dhinakaran, who has launched his own party Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam (AMMK), on the other hand, dismissed the development as "just an experience in politics...not a setback."

The split verdict

The Madras High Court has upheld the Tamil Nadu speaker's decision to disqualify 18 All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) MLAs for “anti-party activities” in 2017.  In September 2017, Tamil Nadu Assembly Speaker P Dhanapal disqualified 18 AIADMK MLAs under the 1986 Tamil Nadu Assembly Members Party Defection Law triggering a political crisis in the state after they announced their support for rebel AIADMK leader TTV Dhinakaran. Post their disqualification, the lawmakers then met the then governor C Vidyasagar Rao, expressing no confidence in Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami, and asked for his removal. Alleging mala fide intention by the Speaker, the rebel MLAs had moved the Madras High Court to reinstate them.

After hearing the matter, a bench of the chief justice Indira Banerjee and Justice M Sundar had delivered a split verdict on 14 June. While Banerjee upheld the Speaker's decision Sundar disagreed. Following the split verdict, Justice S Vimala was appointed to hear the petitions afresh but she withdrew. The SC had then named Justice Sathyanarayanan, while declining to accept a prayer of the disqualified MLAs to move the case to the SC. Sathyanarayanan had reserved his orders on 31 August, after 12 days of a meticulous hearing. On 25th, Oct,18,  he pronounced the verdict upholding the disqualification.

Political Showdown

With the turn of events the stage has been now set for yet another massive political showdown. With the disqualification of 18 MLAs, the strength of the Tamil Nadu Assembly has been reduced to 215, thus making the AIADMK government feel secure with enough numbers in its kitty.

Further, four more MLAs who contested on AIADMK tickets have pledged their support to TTV Dhinakaran. One of them had sent a notice to the secretary of the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly, seeking the removal of Speaker P Dhanapal. With the Madras High Court verdict, the fate of these four legislators also hangs in balance. Any increase in the number of disqualifications will further increase the number of seats that go for by-elections.

Political analysts point out that though the ruling AIADMK led by EPS and Deputy Chief Minister O Panneerselvam (OPS) could heave a sigh of relief, it will be only temporary While, the ruling combine seem to be elated, sure the by-elections would turn out to be an acid test as AIADMK government’s popularity has been on the decline since the demise of J Jayalalithaa.  Though the verdict has given them an opportunity to and avert an imminent threat to their survival, they will have to face a much bigger threat of facing the electorate.

Despite the fact that the BJP is not a big player in Tamil Nadu politics, considering the status of the party across the country and also the fact that the Union government is under its leadership, the BJP certainly matters in the current power struggle in Tamil Nadu.

However, the BJP has been keeping all its options open to penetrate and make a mark in the Dravidian land, which has always remained an anti-thesis for Hindutva politics. The BJP is also looking at other options, such as Rajinikanth,

Therefore, these by-elections will be critical for the political future of the ruling AIADMK to not only remain in power but to even get external support in the form of the BJP.

All these factors have turned the by-elections to 20 constituencies in Tamil Nadu into a mini-Assembly election.  The outcome will be a game-changer in State politics ahead of the next Assembly polls in 2021.

Do or Die Battle for AIADMK

Certainly, the ruling AIADMK is more concerned about the by-elections as they are currently enjoying the power on a wafer-thin majority. In order to stay in power they need to win at least nine seats out of the 20. Currently in the 215 member house the AIADMK has 116 MLAs, against DMK’s 89, Congress’s 8, IUML’s 1, and TTV Dhinakaran as an independent MLA.

The bypolls will be a “do or die Battle “for the ruling AIADMK.  It remains to be seen whether the anti-incumbency factor will play to its full and put the government in a jeopardy or not. As such, poll pundits are of the view that some percentage of the anti-incumbency votes would go to DMK and the rest would go to disqualified MLAs. So, the ruling party has to depend on its traditional vote bank as well as the welfare schemes.

Considering the precarious situation the AIADMK is in, the ruling EPS-OPS combine has already geared up the campaign work in the respective consistencies. Since caste is likely to play a major role, the political parties are keen on roping in the right candidates based on their community to contest in the election. Especially the likes of Thevar, Vellalar and Nadar community are expected to play a significant role.

Moreover the ruling AIADMK is likely to use the government machineries to maximise its advantage in the bypolls.  It is learned that the Ministers have been a task of uniting their respective community people and forge a strong base for the party.

Sensing the mood among the disqualified MLAs, the ruling AIADMK has already announced 122 election in-charges for these 20 constituencies which include the entire Cabinet and 90 senior functionaries of the party.  Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswami and other leaders expressed confidence that they would win all the 20 constituencies. But, at the same time the verdict has provided enough ammunition to Palaniswami. If he does emerge victorious, it will help him immensely to cement his position as the leader of AIADMK.

The bypolls in the 20 constituencies would perhaps change the political scenario in Tamil Nadu. The ruling AIADMK has 116 members in the assembly, including the Speaker. But four of them have publicly announced that they are opposing the ruling regime and two more has not made their stance clear. So considering that only 109 MLAs are supporting the government, the party has to win at least 9 of the 20 seats to have a comfortable majority in the house.

Meanwhile, the AIADMK has also initiated action against three of its MLAs who are supporting Dhinakaran and its expected they may be disqualified by the Speaker, if they continue to refuse toe the party line.

DMK too Under Pressure

Also the stakes are much higher for the principal opposition party, DMK, which has been a mere spectator in State politics for the past few years. The DMK, with 97 members at present, have to win all 20 seats to reach the halfway mark of 117, but still lack of one seat for a simple majority in the house.

At best this would help the DMK topple the present regime and force fresh Assembly elections. Further, new party chief M K Stalin has to establish that he can lead the DMK to victory given his elder brother MK Alagiri has been ridiculing him over the DMK’s performance in RK Nagar by-election, where the party lost its deposit. It will be an opportunity for DMK president MK Stalin to establish that the defeat faced by DMK in RK Nagar by-election was only a blip. Besides, the bypolls offer a golden opportunity for the party as well as its new President M K Stalin to prove itself as great political force to reckon with.

Of course, some political experts are also of the view that in the current circumstances if the DMK and AMMK join together, it would make a strong alliance. But, it unlikely to happen as TTV Dhinakaran continues to be highly critical of DMK.  Also, if at all that happens, indeed it will turn out to be huge advantage for the ruling party EPS-OPS combine as they will clearly label TTV Dinakaran as a traitor of AIADMK as well as AMMA.

While, the DMK  is in talks to build an alliance with Dalits, the Left, and the Congress, it is learned that TTV Dhinakaran has had informal talks with S Ramadoss’s PMK and Vijayakanth’s DMDK, parties with sizeable vote shares in northern Tamil Nadu, especially the  support of his own Thevar community, a powerful OBC group, in central Tamil Nadu.. Besides, Dhinakaran  is open to consider an alliance with Congress without the DMK. He said  an alliance with Congress can happen only if they break their ties with the DMK  Though the verdict, in purely political terms, imply a setback for TTV Dhinakaran and his AMMK, he is claiming that they are on a stronger wicket, at least vis-a-vis the ruling AIADMK, identified with Chief Minister Palanisamy.

Now, virtually every vote counts in the state assembly. There are also rumour mills working overtime about the involvement of BJP initiating talks of rapprochement between the AIADMK and AMMK, Given that TN with its 39 Lok Sabha seats, BJP might eye for substantial gain.

Litmus Test for the New Entrants

On the other hand, the grand old party Congress which only had a 6.4 per cent vote share in the 2016 state election seem to be isolated in the state. While many smaller parties have been actively talking about their willingness to join Congress, the question still looms if an alliance victory can be formed without the DMK. Everyone knows the fact that as far as Tamil Nadu is concerned, DMK remains as an alliance leader in the state for several decades. History has shown that the DMK will only lead alliances in the state and will not join others.

While Congress may be in a dilemma to joining hands with new allies ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, with Congress's alliance with the DMK standing the tests of time, a big question arises whether Congress will join hands with other emerging party leaders like TTV Dhinakaran and Kamal Haasan or the new entrants will be forced to join hands with the DMK-Congress alliance .It remains to be seen.

While, it is clear that the ruling EPS-OPS combine will go all out to prove their superiority over the rival faction, the bypolls will also act as perfect launch pad for both actors Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth and can test whether their popular screen persona will really transforms into votes and gauge whether they make a dent in Tamil Nadu politics as they wish.

While Rajinikanth is yet to even launch a party and had said he would contest "the next Assembly polls" it is not clear if the actor would have a change of mind since the bypolls for the 20 seats would be considered as a "mini-assembly poll". On the other hand, Kamal Haasan has said his party would contest the bypolls.

With the Election Commission has taken a decision to hold these by-elections along with the Lok Sabha elections which are to be held in April-May, now, virtually every vote counts in the state assembly. Tamil Nadu has geared up to witness lot of political drama in the coming weeks.

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