A 31-member AIADMK ministry headed by Edappadi K Palanisamy was sworn in by Governor C Vidyasagar Rao Thursday afternoon, bringing to an end the political uncertainty that prevailed in Tamil Nadu after the passing of J Jayalalithaa on 5 December last year.
In a bid to keep the flock together, Palanisamy retained 30 members of the ministries led by Jayalalithaa and O Panneerselvam. Of course, he kept out Panneerselvam and his ally K Pandiarajan.
Palanisamy kept the finance and home portfolios, held by Panneerselvam, with himself and gave Pandiarajan's education ministry to KA Sengottayan.
Sengottayan, in fact, is the only new face in the ministry. He held the transport portfolio in the previous Jayalalithaa ministries before being sidelined by the late AIADMK leader. He was rehabilitated after Jaya's passing by the new general secretary VK Sasikala.
The swearing-in was boycotted by the opposition DMK and the Congress on the ground that it was a proxy government remote-controlled by Sasikala from the Bengaluru prison where she is being held after conviction by the Supreme Court in a disproportionate case.
Ahead of the swearing-in, MLAs supporting Palanisamy left the Golden Bay Resort at Kovathur village off Mahabalipuram, where they had been holed up since Panneerselvam challenged Sasikala's claim to the chief ministership, and rushed to Chennai in three luxury buses. The legislators went to Jaya's Poes Garden residence and from there to the Raj Bhavan in separate cars.
Although the governor has allowed Palanisamy 15 days to prove his majority on the floor of the assembly, he is expected to take the vote sooner, at a special session on 18 February. This is to prevent the poaching of his MLAs by Panneerselvam, whose police security was withdrawn immediately after the new government took office.
For the special session, the vote of confidence will be the only agenda before the assembly. A one-line motion of confidence in Palanisamy will be moved and the speaker will decide whether it should be adopted by division or by a voice vote.
Since the DMK and the Congress have already made it clear that they won't back either of the two factions, the voting would essentially be an AIADMK affair.
Palanisamy claims the support of 124 MLAs though the police have informed the Madras High Court, in response to a petition, that at last count 119 MLAs were holed up in the resort. In the 234-member assembly with an effective strength of 232, the half-way mark is 117.
Although, as of now, the chief minister looks set to win the confidence vote, even a small shift in the loyalties of MLAs during the floor test will be fatal for Palanisamy.
The governor did not want to delay a decision on government formation any more lest he's accused of indirectly encouraging defection to Panneerselvam.
Indeed, while welcoming the governor's decision, Leader of the Opposition MK Stalin wondered why Palanisamy has been given 15 days time to prove his majority.
If Palanisamy does win the trust vote, it will still be a tough task to show he's not a proxy of Sasikala. Already, there are reports that after paying homage at Jaya's memorial, the chief minister will visit Sasikala in Bengaluru prison.
It is not like in Jayalalithaa's days when Sasikala could operate as the power behind the throne. Now, the DMK, with a sizeable strength of 90 members in the assembly, will not countenance any extra-constitutional authority to run a duly elected government.
If Palanisamy loses the vote – quite unlikely since the MLAs would not want another election when they have a mandate to rule for another four and a half years – then President’s Rule will be the only option as the DMK is not inclined to prop up a minority government led by Panneerselvam. Stalin would rather prefer a short spell of President’s Rule followed by a fresh election. And with the divided AIADMK bereft of a charismatic leader like Jaya, it would be advantage Stalin.
As for the two national parties, the BJP and the Congress, neither has the ability to exploit the vacuum created by Jaya’s death.