Chennai: In a breather to the Palaniswami government and a setback for the Dhinakaran camp, the Madras High Court on Thursday upheld the disqualification of the 18 AIADMK rebel MLAs by Tamil Nadu Assembly Speaker P Dhanapal.

Justice M Sathyanarayanan, appointed by the Supreme Court, concurred with the findings of the then Chief Justice Indira Banerjee. The verdict leaves the ruling AIADMK government in safe hands as of now.

The 18 disqualified MLAs are loyal to the sidelined AIADMK leader TTV Dhinakaran, who has now formed his own party — the AMMK.

Justice Sathyanarayanan said there was no infirmity in the order of the Assembly Speaker P Dhanapal, which was upheld by Banerjee.

“All the material that were available at the time of passing of the order by the Speaker alone have been taken into consideration and this court cannot go into the subsequent events,” he observed while upholding their disqualification.

Welcoming the verdict, the AIADMK said the order was a victory of democracy, and is a “correct lesson for the traitors”.

“Welcome the High Court verdict. Even if bypolls are announced for the 18 assembly seats, Amma’s Government will win all of them, rest of the things the EC has to decide,” said Chief Minister E Palaniswami.

Party spokesperson P Valarmathi expressed joy over the verdict and said the K Palaniswami government has now proved its ‘stability’. “We are very happy…This is a just order,” Valarmathi told PTI.

Reacting on the verdict, Dhinakaran said that the judgement will not deter them, adding that the future course of action will be decided after discussion with the 18 MLAs.

“It is not a setback for us. This is an experience, we will face the situation. Future course of action will be decided after meeting with the 18 MLAs,” he said.

“This will strengthen our resolve as a political party. The MLAs will continue to stay in the Couttaralem resort. We will go through the whole judegment and it will not deter us,” Dhinakaran added.

Earlier this week, ahead of the verdict in the case, the 18 disqualified MLAs moved to a resort near the Tirunelveli district on the instructions of rebel AIADMK leader TTV Dhinakaran.

Last year, on August 22, 19 MLAs supporting Dhinakaran met the then Governor Vidyasagar Rao and submitted individual letters withdrawing their support to the government headed by Edappadi K Palaniswami.

Subsequently on September 18, 2017, Assembly Speaker P Dhanapal disqualified 18 MLAs except STK Jakkaiyan, who had withdrawn his letter.

In June this year, first bench of the Madras HC passed a split verdict, with the then Chief Justice Indira Banerjee upholding the decision of the Assembly Speaker of disqualifying the MLAs under the anti-defection law.

The other judge, Justice M Sundar, differed and set aside the disqualification order on the grounds of perversity, non-compliance with principles of natural justice, mala fide and violation of constitutional mandate.

The apex court named Justice Sathyanarayanan, while declining to accept a prayer of the disqualified MLAs who raised apprehension of “bias” and sought to transfer the matter to the apex court.

The 18 disqualified MLAs are now left with the option of challenging the Madrad High Court’s verdict in the Supreme Court which will result in status quo of the present situation.

With this verdict, the interim order restraining the Election Commission from notifying by-elections on the 18 seats now stands vacated. The verdict now leaves the 18 seats vacant which could now head for by-elections, along with the two seats that went vacant following the death of members.

However, the by-elections on 20 seats amy turn out to be a litmus test for the EPS-OPS government, whose popularity has been on a decline ever since the death of AIADMK patriarch J Jayalalithaa.

If the court had reversed the disqualification, the state government would have lost its majority and could potentially fall if the lawmakers.

With the disqualification of 18 lawmakers, the current strength of the Tamil Nadu Assembly is 216. While AIADMK has 116 MLAs, including the Speaker, the Opposition has 98 MLAs, including eight from Congress and one from IUML.