CHENNAI: More than 24 hours after they were packed into three air-conditioned buses, and deposited at an array of hotels and resorts, 130 of Tamil Nadu’s lawmakers have not been seen or heard from. A man married to one of them has filed a Missing Persons complaint.
They are being kept in holding pens of sorts – fancy ones with water skiing and deep tissue massages on offer – by their party, the AIADMK, which has decided that VK Sasikala should become Chief Minister. Ms Sasikala rallied them with a one-hour long speech that flaunted her control – all but three legislators were in attendance- after which they were roped off to prevent any contact with political rivals, especially O Panneerselvam.
Till Sunday, Mr Panneerselvam, 66, was Chief Minister, a rank acquired when J Jayalalithaa died in December. On the weekend, the party decided that he should be replaced by Ms Sasikala, who was Ms Jayalalithaa’s live-in aide and replaced her as the undisputed power centre of the AIADMK. Sticking to the script, Mr Panneerselvam, whose service to the party and Ms Jayalalithaa was well-established, sent his resignation to the Governor. Then, on Tuesday night, he went rogue. On Marina Beach, at Ms Jayalalithaa’s grave, he declared that he had been forced to resign and wanted to keep his job.
At first, he appeared to be a party of one, though even that small-scale rebellion is out of character for the AIADMK, used to orbiting for decades around Ms Jayalalithaa, who tolerated no dissent and ensured a unilateral running of the outfit. As Ms Sasikala rallied and corralled legislators, Mr Panneerselvam managed to win the backing of a handful of party stalwarts like V Maitreyan and E Madhoosoodhan. One lawmaker, SP Shanmuganathan, excused himself for a bathroom break last evening before boarding the bus, made a run for it, and is now reportedly backing Team Panneerselvam.
A clutch of petitions in the Madras High Court today alleged “illegal detention” but were dismissed after the government’s lawyers said the legislators are “free to move around.” To bolster that claim, Ms Sasikala’s aides said some of the legislators could be found at a local hostel used by out-of-town lawmakers; a quick visit there revealed none.
Minister K Pandiarajan offered the weak defense that the legislators are being kept out-of-bounds to “protect them from being trolled” – an admission that online, multiple campaigns are demanding the AIADMK abandon its plans to give the state’s top job to Ms Sasikala, a political ingenue with no administrative experience. “Call Your MLA” to protest, urges one social media initiative which posts the phone numbers of legislators. Shreemathi Mohan, an IT professional told NDTV that she “tried a whole bunch of numbers of MLAs, but all the numbers are switched off or diverted.”