To show he remains in charge of Tamil Nadu, O Panneerselvam is reporting to work today at the Chief Minister’s office after a week-long hiatus which has allowed a political drama of huge dimensions. Mr Panneerselvam, who took charge of the state after J Jayalalithaa died in December while she was Chief Minister, says he must remain the head of the government. Backing him are a small but influential group of leaders from the AIADMK. However, they are up against VK Sasikala, who is bolstered by nearly 120 state legislators, who remain ensconced at a five-star resort to safeguard them from switching sides. Ms Sasikala says that because the majority of the party forms her team, she must get the right as quickly as possible to win a trust vote in the legislature which would establish her as Chief Minister.
Both Ms Sasikala and Mr Panneerselvam wished Tamil Nadu Governor C Vidyasagar Rao for his birthday this morning. Last week, he met separately with the feuding leaders who each presented their claim to take a trust vote ahead of the other. He reportedly indicated that Ms Sasikala would get first shot. However, five days later, he has yet to reveal his decision.
The delay, Ms Sasikala has alleged, is designed to cleave the AIADMK. It is true that with every passing day, Mr Paneerselvam’s faction gets a little bigger. He now has 11 members of parliament and seven state lawmakers and has asserted that he will easily win a trust vote “if MLAs are set free and allowed to decide.”
Since Tuesday, about 128 legislators have been have been sequestered at a resort just outside Chennai by party chief Ms Sasikala. To prove that they are not being held against their wishes, as alleged by Mr Paneerselvam, she held a press conference at the resort with the legislators flanking her. On the table in front of them was a photo of Ms Jayalalithaa or “Amma” (mother).
Ms Sasikala on the weekend urged the Governor to “make a decision quickly”, warning that Tamil Nadu’s “interest is at stake” and that “we have been patient but we will do what we need to do.” Sources said the Governor’s office was displeased with the threat and warned that he “will not be intimidated.”
The Governor reportedly is waiting for the Supreme Court to deliver its verdict on whether Ms Sasikala is guilty of colluding with Amma in the early 90s to acquire an illicit fortune worth about 60 crores. Both women were jailed together in Bengaluru in 2014 for a few months before being acquitted. The top court has said it will deliver a final decision this week.
If Ms Sasikala is found guilty, she cannot hold public office or contest elections for six years according to a Supreme Court decision.
She is also not a legislator. Rules mandate that if she wins a trust vote and takes office as Chief Minister, she has to run for the Tamil Nadu assembly – and win – within six months. Being convicted in the corruption case would rule out all that.
Sources said Mr Panneerselvam or OPS as he is called is working on winning over a few more legislators from the Sasikala camp. Just enough to ensure that she does not have the 118 needed for a simple majority in the 235-member Tamil Nadu assembly.
Sasikala has about 10 members more than she needs to win the trust vote, which is why she is pushing for the Governor to let her prove her majority urgently.
The centre has supported Governor Rao on his strategy. “The Governor has to follow procedure. The centre has no role to play in this,” said Union Minister M Venkaiah Naidu.