Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswami and the Sasikala camp have managed to keep their MLAs together more or less. OPS’s camp meanwhile has only around a dozen legislators - but they have been claiming that a lot more would come to their side if they weren’t ‘locked up’ in Golden Bay resorts.
But as Saturday’s vote of confidence in the Tamil Nadu Assembly draws nearer, there is a lot of speculation on which way the MLAs would go, and what Tamil Nadu’s political future will look like in the coming years.
The numbers are extremely crucial for both sides at this point. Palaniswami has around 123 MLAs supporting him, and the remaining MLAs in the 234 member House could vote against him, assuming that the DMK, Congress and IUML will not support his bid. Even 10 MLAs moving from Palaniswami’s camp to OPS’s team will be the difference between winning and losing for Sasikala’s pick.
On the eve of the vote in the Tamil Nadu Assembly, former Chief Minister Panneerselvam’s camp have petitioned the Speaker to call a ‘secret ballot’. They believe that if MLAs were not afraid of disqualification, they would vote against Sasikala’s chosen man.
But is a secret ballot possible?
To answer that question, we must look at Schedule 10 of the Constitution, popularly known as the anti-defection law. Under this law, an MLA or an MP who votes against the ‘whip’ will be disqualified from the House. A ‘whip’ is a party directive on which way the MLAs and MPs must vote - and anyone who goes against it will face action.
If a ‘secret ballot’ was allowed, it would mean the voter cannot be identified with their vote, rendering the anti-defection law ineffective.
In addition, there is nothing in the rules of procedure of the Tamil Nadu Assembly that mentions a secret ballot either.
The Speaker’s decision
“As far as I know, there has never been a secret vote in the history of the Assembly,” says K Venkataraman, Associate Editor of The Hindu. “Whether a secret ballot will be called will depend on the Speaker of the Assembly, and it’s very unlikely that he would decide for it, considering a whip has been issued,” he adds.
"While a Conscience Vote has been allowed in certain cases - where parties tell their MLAs to vote according to their conscience and don't issue a whip - in this case, a whip has already been issued and there's little possibility of them chancing a conscience vote," he says.
Venkataraman explains that for the Speaker to call for a secret ballot, he will need to waive the whip, but in a case like this where the numbers could go either way, the Speaker might not take the chance.
Another reason why the Speaker will not opt for a secret ballot: Dhanapal has firmly been in Sasikala’s camp from the beginning. Therefore, it is likely that he decides on a normal division of votes - where MLAs will stand for a headcount - to declare the results of the vote of confidence.
What after the vote of confidence?
So, unless the numbers change drastically between Friday and Saturday, the AIADMK MLAs who vote against Edappadi Palaniswami will be disqualified from the House.
If by some miracle, OPS manages to get two thirds of AIADMK MLAs on his side - a whopping 90 from the current 11 that he has - the anti-defection law will not apply, and the MLAs will not be disqualified.
Either way, there’s one thing we can say for sure: Tamil Nadu will see some bye-elections very soon.