The returns are in and the Prince of Smiles (“Punnagai Mannan”) has reason to laugh louder and longer than all the other contestants in the R. K. Nagar by-election caused by the death of former chief minister J. Jayalalithaa. T. T. V. Dinakaran’s resounding victory is a hammer blow at the AIADMK, perhaps the final nail in its coffin. Now all that remains is for the zombie to be interred. In normal circumstances one victory or defeat makes little difference and would soon be shrugged off. But these are not normal times for a state government that is neither alive nor dead. This setback could trigger the coup de grace that finally puts it out of its misery. Dinakaran’s victory, in short, could be the catalyst that inspires more to fell the AIADMK.

For the DMK this is a fresh reminder of how toothless it has become. The result also makes it clear that the Bharatiya Janata Party is irrelevant at state level. Even Prime Minister Narendra Modi diplomatically omitted any mention of Tamil Nadu when he thanked voters for reposing trust in his party elsewhere. 

The ministry of lame ducks led by chief minister Edappadi Palaniswami has been on borrowed time ever since Dinakaran claimed Jayalalithaa’s legacy on behalf of his aunt V. K. Sasikala and engineered the defection of 22 MLAs. It could be on life support very soon as R.K. Nagar might signal the MLAs propping up the ministry and the 49 MPs in its ranks (both Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha) that the time has come to take a decision. Do they stay and risk almost certain oblivion in a future election or do they cross the floor and kiss the ring of a man who until yesterday was a pariah? Whatever happens, the wheelers and dealers and moneymen are going to be extremely busy for the next few months.

One way or another, the state government has managed to avoid convening the assembly but the budget session cannot be skipped. It is a necessity for the government to get money for its expenditure. So far, it has ensured its survival through the Speaker’s disqualification of Dinakaran’s rebel faction. That gives the government a majority in a smaller house. With R. K. Nagar Dinakaran looks like a person who might actually be able to win an election. The present ministry inspires no such confidence. It is true that an election still three years away but permanent political survival can only be ensured if you’re on the right side of an electoral battle. Given the crowd of no-hopers in government the defections could begin soon. In any case, Dinakaran has sworn to pull down the ministry before three months are gone. Palaniswami could thus be facing a tide that might turn into a tsunami. He may be wishing he had a printing press to produce the notes that will be required to stop a rush for the doors.

As for the DMK the public story is that it deliberately let Dinakaran win in order to force regicide by defection. It is possible there are members who believe this tale. But DMK boss Stalin and his coterie must be disheartened by the voters’ cold reception to their overtures. The logic of political calculation is that you don’t lose in order to win eventually. If you want to win you have to look the part from the start. Winning R. K. Nagar, Jayalaithaa’s chosen constituency, would have given Stalin the cache of someone who could orchestrate a winning campaign on his own. Victory would also have shown an ally like Vaiko the value of teaming up with him. An embarrassingly distant third place, behind even Palaniswami’s candidate makes him look like a clueless beginner.

The BJP has the office of governor and the central agencies to keep a check on Dinakaran. After all, acting governor Ch. Vidyasagar Rao kept the Palaniswami ministry from going down in an assembly floor test. Central agencies like the CBI and the tax department kept up the pressure on Dinakaran, first for his alleged attempt to bribe the Election Commission and then through a search for undisclosed assets. That ensured he was too busy to do anything constructive towards weakening the government. In Banwarilal Purohit they have a governor willing and able to abuse his office in the service of his political masters. R. K. Nagar has changed that and the BJP will doubtless step more warily. They may choose to focus on Karnataka and let the Tamil Nadu drama play out before auditioning again for the lead. It is even possible that their master puppeteer will pull off the seduction of TTV, thus sacrificing the EPS regime at the altar of nationalism.