ASSEMBLY ELECTIONS: PUDUCHERRY

BJP flexing muscle without a base

Print edition : May 21, 2021

AINRC founder N. Rangasamy handing over the letter of support of alliance MLAs to Lt Governor Tamilisai Soundararajan at Raj Nivas, staking his claim to form the next government in Puducherry. BJP’s Karnataka unit vice president Nirmal Kumar Surana (left) and Puducherry BJP leader A. Namassivayam are also in the picture. Photo: S.S. KUMAR

DMK candidate Anibal Kennedy celebrates his victory after he established a clear lead over the AIADMK nominee Anbalagan in Oupalam constituency. Photo: R. RAVINDRAN

The BJP comes to power in Puducherry riding on the back of the N.R. Congress, but there is trouble brewing in the alliance as the tussle for chief ministership begins.

Forcing the All India N.R. Congress (AINRC) into an alliance and riding on the popularity of its founder-president and former Chief Minister N. Rangasamy, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) managed to get a toe-hold on power in the Union Territory of Puducherry for the first time in its history.

In the 2016 Assembly election, the BJP contested in all the 30 seats, but its candidates lost their deposit in 29 seats. The last time the BJP won a seat in Puducherry was in 2001 when A.M. Krishnamoorthy won from Reddiarpalayam constituency.

The N.R. Congress alliance, which the BJP named the National Democratic Alliance, won 16 seats and 43.7 per cent of the votes. The N.R. Congress won 10 of the 16 seats it contested and secured a vote share of 25.85 per cent. Rangasamy contested from Yanam and Thattanchavady constituencies. He was defeated in Yanam but managed to retain Thattanchavady, his stronghold, by defeating the Communist Party of India (CPI) candidate K. Sethu Selvam by 5,456 votes. He secured 55.02 per cent of the votes in the constituency. The Yanam defeat was bitter because Rangasamy lost to a 28-year-old local newcomer, Gollapalli Srinivas Ashok, by nearly 1,000 votes. Rangasamy had lost only one battle previously, his electoral debut in 1990 when he contested from Thattanchavady.

The BJP, which insisted on contesting from nine constituencies and left Rangasamy with no choice but to abide by its wishes, won six seats (vote share 13.66 per cent). The All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), which after a great struggle managed to get five seats allotted to it, lost all the seats (vote share 4.14 per cent).
Also read: BJP aims for back-door entry in Puducherry

Among the winners in the BJP, a party that campaigns against dynasty politics, is a father and son duo. A. Johnkumar, who has a major income tax case against him, was an MLA in the previous Assembly and had crossed over from the Congress to the BJP in February. He subsequently negotiated for a seat for himself and his son Richards Johnkumar as part of a “package deal”, that caused much heart-burning among many loyal BJP workers and local leaders.

Johnkumar won the Kamaraj Nagar seat by 7,229 votes, which is a big margin by Puducherry standards. Richards Johnkumar won the Nellithope seat by 496 votes. A. Namassivayam, the former president of the Puducherry Pradesh Congress Committee, who joined the BJP in January, won by a wide margin in Mannadipet. He secured nearly 52 per cent of the votes in the constituency.

Congress’ woes

The Congress-Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) alliance, which included the CPI and the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK), won eight seats and secured 34.08 per cent of the votes. The DMK won six of the 13 seats it contested and secured 18.51 per cent of the votes. The Congress won two of the 15 seats it contested, though its vote share of 15.71 per cent was higher than that of the BJP. The CPI and the VCK were allotted one seat each. Former Congress Chief Minister, V. Narayanasamy, did not contest the election. All the senior leaders of the Congress were defeated. But most of the party veterans who had crossed over to the BJP and were allotted seats won. In effect, the BJP Legislature Party in Puducherry comprises members from the Congress Legislature Party of 2016-21.

The Congress won the Lawspet and Mahe seats. In Lawspet, M. Vaithianathan, who was a possible chief ministerial choice of the party, secured 14,592 votes and over 55 per cent of the votes for an emphatic win. He defeated V. Swaminathan of the BJP, who got 8,712 votes. Ironically, Swaminathan was the BJP’s, frontman for carrying out orders relating to engineering defections from the Congress in January and February 2021 ,which led to the fall of the Congress government. The Congress’ Ramesh Parambath won the Mahe seat with 9,744 votes, nearly three times that polled by Adv. V.P. Abdul Rahman of the N.R. Congress.

The Congress was defeated by its own brand of disruptive internal politics. Namassivayam was tipped to be Chief Minister when the party won in 2016 but was inexplicably denied the post. Although smarting from the “insult” at that time, he took the lucrative Public Works portfolio and waited for his chance to strike at the Congress. The opportunity presented itself when the BJP began its moves to buy over MLAs. He was the first to switch over, along with E. Theeppainthan, a supporter and MLA, in January 2021.

‘Switching off’ politicians

Namassivayam was the fulcrum of the Congress in Puducherry. When he left, he took away a large number of the Pradesh Congress office bearers with him. The BJP used its long arm to muscle to its side or “switch off” a few more prominent politicians, too.

Malladi Krishna Rao, Yanam MLA and Tourism Minister, for instance, suddenly announced that he was quitting politics while Johnkumar, a confidant of Narayanasamy, switched sides ahead of Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s visit to Puducherry in February. The Assembly Speaker, V.P. Sivakolundhu, too, decided to stay away from the contest. Three other Congress legislators, K. Lakshminarayanan, K.S.P. Ramesh and A.K.D. Aroumougame, who quit the party and joined the N.R. Congress, were elected from Raj Bhavan, Kadirgamam and Indira Nagar respectively.
Also read: Former Puducherry CM on BJP's toppling games

Ahead of the elections, the Congress, much to the chagrin of some of its leaders, gave away a disproportionately large number of seats to the DMK. Explaining this, a Congress leader, who was aware of the progress of the seat-sharing negotiations, said: “We could not find decent candidates for the seats because the defections were in January and February and the election was in April.”

In Puducherry, the candidate matters more than the party because the electorate is small (no more than 30,000 in many cases). Unless the candidate knows each family by name, it is not possible to make a dent in the election. As a result, the Congress spent much time trying to identify candidates. In fact, it could not find a candidate for Yanam, an enclave in East Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh. Finally, it was forced to support an independent.

Independents win big

Independents and rebels won the remaining six seats. At least four of them were either former members of the AINRC or have close links with Rangasamy. In fact, of one such candidate, before filing his nomination, sought the blessings of Rangasamy at a local temple which the N.R. Congress leader routinely visits on Saturday. Rangasamy gave his blessings to the candidate. He later said that he did not have a choice as the person sought his blessings at a temple.

A local politician said it was easy for Rangasamy to explain the presence of former and current AINRC members in the fray as independents. The reality, he said, was that they were rebels who were upset that they were not allotted the seats promised to them. Rangasamy had sought 24 seats for his party. In an earlier interaction before the election, he told this correspondent that he had the duty to keep his senior partymen in good humour, and he would be unable to do so if fewer seats were allotted. If these four MLAs decide to extend their support to the N.R. Congress, Rangasamy will be close to the halfway mark with 14 MLAs.

But there is a new problem in Puducherry. The Puducherry Assembly has 30 elected MLAs and three nominated MLAs, taking the total number of MLAs in the House to 33. With this, the new simple majority mark becomes 17. According to a Supreme Court ruling, the nominated MLAs can vote on no-confidence motions and budgets. In effect, these MLAs have the same power as elected MLAs.

In the last Assembly, the BJP nominated two of its leaders and an educationist with ties to the BJP as MLAs. One nominated MLA died before the term ended. Within a week, the then Lieutenant Governor, Kiran Bedi, acceded to the demand of the BJP and nominated another BJP candidate to the vacant slot. The nominated MLAs ensured the fall of the Narayanasamy-led Congress government in February 2021. The BJP is expected to nominate its candidates to all three seats, pushing its tally up to nine in the Assembly, forcing the N.R. Congress to hand over many more Ministries than it may be entitled to on the basis of its elected strength in a coalition.

In the run-up to the election, the BJP reluctantly announced that the N.R. Congress would lead the coalition. Rangasamy had asserted multiple times that he would be the chief ministerial candidate of the coalition, although the BJP refused to acknowledge or endorse this. The tussle for the chief ministership will result in a new battle in the Union Territory. The BJP wants to showcase Puducherry as a “model state” so that it can make inroads into Tamil Nadu and Kerala, while Rangasamy, who believes in the patronage model of governance, does not believe in making too many changes to existing structures in the Union Territory.

Rangasamy has completed one fight. The next one has just begun.

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