When Tamil Nadu’s new chief minister, Edappadi K Palanisamy, was sworn in, he was given 15 days by the state’s governor to conduct a floor test and conclude a vote of confidence to prove that he enjoyed the support of the house. He chose to conduct it in just a few days, and thus February 18 proved to be yet another incredibly chaotic and dramatic day for the southern Indian state, which has been in constant political turmoil since former Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa passed away.
The Assembly had 234 seats (including Jayalalithaa’s vacant one) and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) party’s inner factions, led by Palanisamy and former Chief Minister O Panneerselvam, were reduced to a numbers game regarding who could claim how many votes in the days preceding the floor test. Both camps accused the other of falsely portraying an inflated support base in the face of the defection of MLAs (state lawmakers) across intra-party factions.
The trust vote was scheduled for 11 a.m. on February 18 and the entire Assembly — including members of the opposition — were required to be present at the session convened by Speaker Dhanapal. The opposition, which had a majority of Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) party supporters, also enjoyed the support of the Congress and the IUML and thus had 98 members. They were allegedly against the Palanisamy faction and were thought to be likely to vote against the motion.
However, on the day of the vote of confidence, violence broke out within the Assembly amid a media gag. The speaker alleged that DMK party members manhandled him and police evicted them. DMK leader MK Stalin in turn accused the police of willfully manhandling him and proceeded to organize a protest and seek a meeting with the governor. The Congress and the IUML staged a walkout, leaving just the AIADMK MLAs behind for the vote. In a matter of minutes, Palanisamy won 122-11. The speaker additionally made a statement reminding the gathering that this proved that the Palanisamy faction would have won even with the entire opposition present.
MK Stalin, in the meantime, went ahead with his full-blown opposition to the trust vote proceedings. Reiterating the rough treatment meted out to him, he decried the entire incident as undemocratic. The Panneerselvam camp in turn decried the absence of the opposition as well as of secret ballot proceedings and argued that this vote was tilted due to undemocratic intimidation tactics. The DMK moved the Madras High Court to hear a plea challenging the trust vote. MK Stalin further called for a hunger strike at all DMK district offices February 22 to protest it.
If there is a call for a new vote of confidence after judicial review, the outcomes are unlikely to be radically different in the absence of a mandatory secret ballot. And one cannot currently speculate how different they might be. If there is no call for a new vote, Palanisamy inherits an extremely hostile Assembly, which might rupture the transition and prolong turmoil in the state.
The struggle to fill the power vacuum in Tamil Nadu continues. In the interest of power, individuals who have been rivals for decades are happy to back each other. Violence has entered the Assembly in the name of democracy, and transparency has been cast aside in the name of protecting a political legacy. Nearly three months on, the dust has far from settled.