Chennai: A vote of confidence or a vote of conscience? This is the question running in the minds of the seven and a half crore people of Tamil Nadu, as they await the crucial floor test in the Legislative Assembly on Saturday.
Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palanisamy, who took oath of office on Thursday, will face the first test of his ability to hold his flock of MLAs together when he moves a vote of confidence in the Assembly's special session. The session has been convened after a nearly 19-day impasse on who will rule over this southern state for the next four years.
So what is expected during this one-day session?
It's a 235-member Assembly, where there are 134 members belonging to the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK). The main Opposition is the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam headed by M K Stalin. DMK has 89 members. The Congress has eight while there is one nominated member and one from the IUML.
The halfway mark to win majority is 118 members. The AIADMK faction led by Edappadi claims the support of 123 members, though it has invited all other MLAs who have identified themselves with the O Panneerselvam faction to vote for them (barring OPS himself, who is not on the invitee list).
A vote of confidence can be done in as little as ten minutes. Or, if debates are allowed, can take many hours -- though that is really unlikely in Tamil Nadu where everyone has been in such a hurry this past week.
Will it be a secret ballot, as sought by former CM OPS? Again, unlikely, since the AIADMK has undoubtedly issued a whip to party men to fall in line. An open ballot (by headcount or electronic voting) will identify MLAs who have defied this whip, and could be disqualified under anti-defection laws (and 'conscientious MLAs like R Nataraj of Mylapore and MA Foi K Pandiarajan may be flirting with exactly this scenario).
So here's how the numbers could stack up:
The DMK has already made clear they will vote against Chief Minister Palanisamy.
There is one vacant seat -- that of J Jayalalithaa, whose sudden death in December led to this complete disarray in Tamil Nadu politics.
M Karunanidhi, patriarch of the DMK, who has been ill for some time, is unlikely to vote on Saturday. So the magic number is 117 (235 - 2 = 233. Divided by two is 116.5, so 117)
Of the 134 MLAs, one is the Speaker. The Speaker has voting rights ONLY if there is a tie, with Palanisamy getting exactly 116 votes.
The same 123 MLAs will continue to go with Palanisamy, the other 11 dissidents are disqualified and will be forced to face a by-election in six months.
Palanisamy may face more people daring to vote against him than he thinks, and if there are even seven more dissidents, he loses the vote of confidence. In that case, the Assembly is kept in suspended animation and President's Rule imposed for six months. In those six months, if no one is able to muster up numbers and prove majority in the Assembly, Tamil Nadu will be headed for another full-fledged Assembly election.
If less than 117 MLAs vote for Palanisamy, but MLAs from other parties cross-vote in his favour, he will still retain his chief ministership, though at the mercy of these dissident MLAs of other parties (and they could face disqualification from their own parties).
This special session is being held at a time when questions are still being raised over whether Palanisamy will actually be able to carry off his chief ministerial stint for all of four years. Remember, until Tuesday evening, nobody, not even Edappadi K. Palanisamy himself, thought he was going to be sitting in the chief minister's throne.
The one vacant seat of RK Nagar constituency will probably be sorely missed. Will Amma's atma (spirit) guide the honorable legislators?