AIADMK rebel factions of K Palaniswami and O Panneerselvam merged in August last year
Chennai: In a verdict that could impact the Tamil Nadu government led by Chief Minister E Palaniswami, the Madras High Court will decide today on a bunch of petitions filed by 18 AIADMK rebel lawmakers who were disqualified last year ahead of a trust vote. The High Court put the floor test on hold and directed that the 18 seats be kept vacant until its decision.
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If the court cancels the disqualification of the 18 lawmakers, the state government could collapse. The ruling AIADMK has 116 lawmakers, excluding the Speaker, in the 234-member assembly, one short of the majority mark.
Recently, three more lawmakers extended their support to the rebel camp led by VK Sasikala's nephew TTV Dhinakaran, bringing down the AIADMK's numbers to 113 - four short of a majority - should there be a trust vote. The opposition DMK has 89 and Mr Dhinakaran is the lone Independent legislator.
There would be no threat to the government if the disqualification is upheld as the effective strength of the house would come down to 215. But that would also clear the way for bypolls to 18 seats, which could be an acid test for the AIADMK.
The Speaker had acted on the request of the AIADMK, which argued in the assembly that the rebels had tried to topple the state government and therefore had violated the anti-defection law.
Sources in the ruling party say they are confident of their numbers. If the disqualification is cancelled, they say a few of the rebels in Mr Dhinakaran's camp are bound to return to the party fold.
If the verdict of the two-judge bench - comprising Chief Justice Indira Banerjee and Justice M Sundar - is split, the case will be referred to a larger bench, in which case there would be no immediate threat to the government.
Another option could be the court asking the Speaker to reconsider his decision. This could lead the way for a rethink by the Speaker on some rebels if they express regret. These lawmakers may support Mr Palaniswami, bringing some relief to the party.
The outcome of the case may open up a fresh round of legal tussle and political squabbling within the AIADMK, a party that has seen an intense power struggle since former Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa's death in 2016. After Jayalalithaa died, Ms Sasikala, her lifelong companion, took over the reins of the party and was tipped to be Chief Minister but had to go to jail following her conviction in a corruption case. The party split into two factions, led by Mr Palaniswami and O Pannerseelvam.
Last year, the two factions patched up after a power-sharing deal was worked out, according to which Mr Panneerselvam was made Deputy Chief Minister. Mr Dhinakaran, who won the bypoll to RK Nagar - a seat held by Ms Jayalalithaa earlier - with a huge margin, claims he represents the real AIADMK.