The Madras High Court on Thursday is expected to deliver a verdict that might bring back the numbers game to Tamil Nadu politics, which has seen upheaval ever since the death of former chief minister and All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) supremo J Jayalalithaa in December 2016.
The high court is expected to pronounce its verdict on whether Tamil Nadu State Assembly Speaker P Dhanapal's order disqualifying 18 Members of Legislative Assembly (MLAs), who were favouring a rival group, is legally sound or not.
The 18 MLAs were disqualified by Dhanapal on September 18, 2017, on the ground that their meeting with the state governor and submission of a representation withdrawing their confidence in Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami amounted to an anti-party activity and defiance of the whip.
The verdict will be significant because it could trigger political turbulence in the state once again. The fact that these MLAs submitted their letter as part of the political infighting between two factions of the party and that the numbers could pose a threat to the survival of the Palaniswami-O Panneerselvam government adds to the importance of the case. The MLAs in question are loyalists of T T V Dhinakaran, who is leading one of the factions of the divided AIADMK.
If the Bench of Chief Justice Indira Banerjee and Justice M Sundar upholds the disqualification, then a by-election is the next natural option.
In that case, a Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) victory in any number of these 18 seats will bring it closer to the halfway mark in the Assembly. The stand of the three independent MLAs and some Congress members, too, will become crucial in this case. The main opposition party, the DMK, along with its allies, has 98 MLAs in the 234-member Assembly. Being just 19 short of a majority, the DMK might try to take a shot at power.
Of the remaining MLAs, 18 have been disqualified, three are independents who won on the 'two leaves' symbol of the AIADMK, and one is Dhinakaran, who won the RK Nagar seat that fell vacant after Jayalalithaa's demise. There is also a nominated member. All this leaves the ruling AIADMK with an effective strength of 113 MLAs.
Every MLA elected on AIADMK's 'two leaves' symbol is bound by the party's whip in the event of a confidence motion and can defy it only by risking disqualification.
K C Palanisamy, a former AIADMK Member of Parliament (MP), said that even if the MLAs are disqualified, the by-elections would be held only along with the Lok Sabha elections or at least six months down the line. Palanisamy added that that is a lot of time in politics.
If the disqualification of the 18 MLAs is quashed by the high court, then Palaniswami's government might face a challenge. If DMK calls for a no-confidence motion, then the numbers game will take centre stage.
Under such circumstances, if the AIADMK government wants to continue in power, there would be more discussions on who would stand by whom. There might also be a chance for Dhinakaran's faction to put forward demands such as changing the chief minister and bringing in someone loyal to them to the post.
After Jayalalithaa's death, the AIADMK split into three factions, which have now come down to two -- one led by Palaniswamy and Pannerselvam, which is in power, and the other one led by Dhinakran, the nephew of Jayalalithaa's close aide V K Sasikala.
The role of the three independents, plus the stand of the splinter group, if any, in Congress, besides a few from the 18 MLAs themselves, would be crucial in deciding the survival or fall of the government.
Legal experts have said that if the two judges are not able to arrive at a consensus and give a split verdict, then the case will go to a third judge. Such a scenario will give the Palaniswamy government, which will finish its term in 18 months, some more time in power.
Meanwhile, legal teams from both sides are ready to approach the Supreme Court with an appeal.
"The verdict may not bring this episode to a close, since whichever party loses may go for an appeal to the Supreme Court," said Sumanth C Raman, a political commentator. If the order of the Speaker is upheld, which means the MLAs are disqualified, then the MLAs might have to go for an appeal.
If the order of the Speaker is held null and void, which means that they can continue to be MLAs, then it is possible that the AIADMK will go to the Supreme Court in order to avoid the confidence vote.
According to Raman, there are also chances that the matter might be referred back to the Speaker to give the disqualified MLAs a hearing.
Any of these outcomes would leave the political scenario in limbo for some more months, say experts. Whether the Centre will impose governor’s rule is another question.