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Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami
Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami

HC upholds disqualification of 18 MLAs in relief for Edappadi Palaniswami

No error in speaker’s decision, rules court; bypolls to be a big challenge for AIADMK

Chennai: The Madras High Court on Thursday upheld the disqualification of the 18 Tamil Nadu MLAs, providing temporary relief to the Edappadi K. Palaniswami-led state government.

The MLAs were disqualified by the assembly speaker in September 2017 under the anti-defection law after they met the governor and expressed loss of confidence in chief minister Palaniswami.

Justice M. Sathyanarayanan, while pronouncing the verdict, said that there was no error in the decision taken by the speaker. The election that was withheld for the 18 constituencies no longer stands valid, he added.

However, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) will face its biggest challenge when the constituencies of the disqualified MLAs go to polls.

In the 234 member assembly, two seats are vacant, including the one held by late Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) chief M. Karunanidhi. With 18 MLAs disqualified, the strength of the assembly stands at 214, of which the Palaniswami government has the support of 111.

“The judgment is not a setback. We will decide on the appeal at the Supreme Court after discussing (the matter) with the 18 MLAs," said T.T.V. Dhinakaran, leader of the Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam (AMMK).

Raja Senthoor Pandian, representing the 18 disqualified MLAs, said the “legal battle will continue".

“Democracy must be safeguarded. Already two Assembly constituencies are vacant. Now that the 18 seats have fallen vacant, the Election Commission should take steps immediately to conduct the bypolls," said DMK president and leader of opposition M.K. Stalin.

Palaniswami said that his party was ready to face the election and would win from all the constituencies.

A two-judge bench of Madras High Court, comprising then Chief Justice Indira Banerjee and Justice M. Sundar, had delivered a split verdict in June.

Banerjee had upheld the speaker’s decision, while Sundar differed, leading to a ruling that the “writ petitions be referred to the next senior-most judge available for nomination of a third judge". Justice S. Vimala was chosen as the third judge, but subsequently Sathyanarayanan was appointed following an objection over Vimala’s appointment. Sathyanarayanan had reserved orders on 31 August.

Nineteen MLAs loyal to Dhinakaran had met then governor Vidyasagar Rao on 22 August 2017 and withdrew support to the Palaniswami government. This prompted government whip S. Rajendran to call for them to be disqualified. Within a few weeks, S.T.K. Jakkaiyan, one of the 19, switched loyalties back to the chief minister’s camp. In September last year, the remaining 18 MLAs were disqualified by the Speaker under the anti-defection law.

In February 2017, when O. Panneerselvam had rebelled against AIADMK, Palaniswami won the vote of confidence with the support of 122 MLAs, but 11 legislators including Panneerselvam voted against him, only to join hands with the chief minister in the next few months.

Following the merger, Panneerselvam settled for the deputy chief minister’s post, but Dhinakaran and his supporters were sidelined from the party, which prompted him to float his own party in March.

The opposition DMK and the Dhinakaran faction of MLAs had moved separate petitions challenging the speaker’s decision for not disqualifying Panneerselvam and his supporters, while taking a contradictory stand on the case of MLAs who showed allegiance to Dhinakaran.

In April, the Madras High Court had said that it cannot interfere with the powers of the speaker.

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