Coup capers

Life in "captivity" can be sometimes unusually good for India's lawmakers.

Ask 124 legislators belonging to the ruling AIADMK party in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, who have been shut away in a resort by their leader outside the capital, Chennai (Madras), for 10 days now.

Their leader, Sasikala Natarajan, wanted to make sure that no lawmaker was poached by a rival camp during a dramatic week of jostling for power after the death of charismatic and influential party leader J Jayalalitha.

Last week, the lawmakers were bussed out to a backwater beach resort, some 80km (49 miles) out of Chennai, where rooms, according to a website, rent between $79-86 (£64-70) a day.

'Lap of luxury'

The resort offers "simple rooms", two restaurants, spa, sauna, gym, a hot tub and an outdoor pool, and enjoys an uninspiring one-and-a-half star rating in Google user reviews.

This was quite at odds with one excited newspaper report that the lawmakers were "in a lap of luxury - swimming, sauna, massage and fine dining at a floating restaurant".

A leading news website said the lawmakers were staying in a "reclusive resort" on a "sizzling seashore" with "plenty of food and drink" and a "Valentine's Day in between".

"What do these things add up to? Plenty of sleaze between the sheets, of course", it said with considerable authority.

More seriously, most lawmakers appeared to be having some good downtime.

"Life is good here. It is a big resort, and it is quite fantastic. We get vegetarian and non-vegetarian food. I spend my day watching TV and reading the papers. Others play cards, cricket, volleyball and kabaddi. You can even get a massage, if you want," Arjunan, one of the "captive" lawmakers told BBC Tamil.

Two legislators told a newspaper that they were enjoying their stay.

"I am a second term MLA, and I have been to many five-star hotels. But this is an unique experience…actually life is not boring here". One said his enjoyment "is limited to a variety of food, liquor and TV news". Another said they "also go for massage and swimming". Unverified pictures circulating on WhatsApp showed mountains of rice and prawns laid out on tables, and beer being poured into glasses from steel water jugs.

High drama

According to reports, the "captive" lawmakers were divided into small groups under a minder - usually a minister - and shared rooms at the resort.

They had to deposit their mobile phones with their minder during tense early days to stop them for making calls to rival camp leader O Panneerselvam. Doctors from a private hospital visited the place to examine lawmakers suffering from diabetes and blood pressure.

Security was tight. One journalist who tried to check into the resort last week was refused a room, saying it was sold out. Six people were held for allegedly entering the place "illegally". Private guards guarded the place. Local fishermen told journalists "that they were strict orders not to give anyone boat rides", lest a recalcitrant lawmaker escaped by water.

There was high drama when one lawmaker managed to avoid the tight security and escape to the rival camp.

"I disguised myself, changed my get-up, scaled the wall, jumped and escaped," SS Sarvanan told journalists. His disguise was apparently a "T-shirt and Bermuda shorts". Many took his bravado with a pinch of salt: "This resort is not some fortified place. He must have walked out," said a journalist.

A captive legislator told a reporter that Mr Sarvanan actually played cricket in the morning with fellow "captives" before escaping.

"He batted well, he bowled well. And then he took a long jump to escape the resort," he said wryly.

Twist in the tale

Mr Sarvanan's was actually the second defection. Earlier lawmaker SP Shamuganathan made a quiet exit, even before boarding the bus to the resort. He said "he was feeling giddy and wanted to take medicines." He never returned, and surfaced later at Mr Panneerselvam's residence.

In the end, the lawmakers at the resort appeared to have won the battle of disguised attrition, but not before a twist in the tale.

Their leader Sasikala was convicted of corruption, but she managed to nominate a confidante Edapaddi Palaniswami, to become the new chief minister.

For the moment, the political stand-off that purged the government into crisis appeared to have ended, and Mr Palaniswami was sworn in on Thursday evening.

"There was much merriment when news reached the resort that one of Sasikala's chosen candidate was to become the new chief minister. They had a big dinner party outside and Remy Martin cognac inside the rooms to avoid the drones deployed by TV channels hovering over the resort," said a journalist.

The lawmakers hope to vacate the resort when they travel to the assembly assembly for a confidence vote on Saturday. It is not clear whether their stay was funded by the taxpayers or the party.

Mr Arjunan told our correspondent that their memorable stay at the resort was only marred by one distraction: "hundreds of phone calls from the rival camp", which wooed and abused them alternately.

"The calls kept coming until early in the morning. Some of them were so abusive, my ears hurt."

Indian politics and the defection game

Defections have been the bane of India's fractious democracy for a long time. Lawmakers usually defect when governments fail to gain majority or are roiled by rebellions in the ruling parties.

Between 1967 and 1971 alone, there were 142 defections in parliament and 1,969 defections in India's state assemblies. More than 30 governments collapsed and 212 defectors were rewarded with ministerial positions.

A law to combat "the evil of political defections', was passed in 1985 and has acted as a deterrent for a quarter of a century now. But many say the law has led to "chaos, with every conceivable loophole discovered and exploited" and also eroded a lawmaker's independence.

The crisis in Tamil Nadu began after Jayalalitha, one of India's most influential and colourful politicians, died in December. She had led her party to a landslide win last year, winning 135 of the 234 seats in the state last year.

Two months after her death, her successor O Panneerselvam quit, alleging he was forced to resign to make way for Sasikala Natarajan, a controversial confidante of Jayalalitha, who prefers to be known by her first name.

Mr Panneerselvam said he was ready to take his resignation back, claiming that at least 10 lawmakers were backing him, and more would defect from Sasikala's camp in the resort.

The state was plunged into further uncertainty after the Supreme Court convicted Sasikala of corruption, ending her attempts to become chief minister.

Before going to prison, however, she nominated Edapaddi Palaniswami, for the post. Mr Palaniswami was sworn in on Thursday, and will have to prove that he is supported by the majority of his party's 134 lawmakers in a vote in the state assembly on Saturday.

Lawmakers in India have been corralled into hotels and guest houses by their camp leaders to stop them from defecting.

In 1995, for example, a group of legislators owing allegiance to by local leader N Chandrababu Naidu were locked up in a hotel in Hyderabad for a week after Mr Naidu revolted against his father-in-law NT Rama Rao. Eventually Mr Naidu won and took over power.


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