COVER STORY: Puducherry

Coordinated resignations of legislators in Puducherry just ahead of the Assembly election

Print edition : March 26, 2021

V. Narayanasamy and ruling party members walking out of the Puducherry Assembly after the confidence motion on February 22. Photo: T. Singaravelou

Legislators E. Theepainthan and A. Namassivayam with Speaker V.P. Sivakolundhu (right) after their resignation, in Puducherry on January 25. Photo: T. Singaravelou

The coordinated resignations of legislators in Puducherry just ahead of the Assembly election smack of the BJP’s devious plans to topple governments.

On February 22, the Congress-led government in Puducherry, which came to power with an absolute majority in 2016, was reduced to a minority. The ruling coalition had 19 MLAs in a House of 30 elected MLAs. In the past five years, the government had gone about its business implementing populist schemes and fulfilling people’s demands while being constantly at loggerheads with the Lieutenant Governor, the administrator appointed by the Centre. The dramatic turn of events began with a spate of coordinated resignations.

The Puducherry Assembly has three nominated MLAs, too, which puts the effective strength of the House at 33. Significantly, these MLAs have the right to vote on some occasions, including during a vote of confidence.

In the 2016 Assembly election, the Congress won 15 seats, and its ally, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), three. An independent MLA supported the ruling coalition. After three MLAs were nominated, two of them office-bearers of the local unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and one a party sympathiser, the ruling coalition’s strength became 19 in a House of 33.

On May 28, 2016, the Centre dispatched Kiran Bedi, a former Indian Police Service officer who was the BJP’s chief ministerial candidate in Delhi in 2015 and who lost badly in the Krishna Nagar constituency, to Puducherry to take charge as Lt. Governor. Her brief was to “deal” with the new government, which was formed under the leadership of Chief Minister V. Narayanasamy.

Despite administrative hiccups, the Lt. Governor could not rock the Congress government. In July 2020, Speaker V.P. Sivakolundhu disqualified one Congress MLA, N. Dhanavelou, who had been up in arms against the Narayanasamy-led government, under the provisions of the anti-defection law. But what came as a shock was the resignation of A. Namassivayam, virtually the second in command of the Congress in the Union Territory and a person who held the purse strings. On January 25, he and another MLA, E. Theepainthan, his supporter, resigned. By the end of the month, both Namassivayam and Theepainthan joined the BJP at the party’s headquarters in New Delhi.

Also read: BJP’s brazen ventures to topple democratically elected governments in the name of Operation Lotus makes a mockery of democracy

The next in the line of engineered resignations—the new route adopted by the BJP across States—was that of Malladi Krishna Rao, a five-time legislator and Cabinet Minister. On February 15, the 56-year-old Krishna Rao, MLA from Yanam since 1996, tweeted his resignation letter. Sivakolundhu said the letter had been sent to him via WhatsApp and that he was yet to receive the resignation letter by post. This came in subsequently, and his resignation was accepted.

The very next day, John Kumar, another MLA, claimed that he was “dissatisfied with the performance of the Congress government” and submitted his resignation to the Speaker. At this time, the ruling party and the opposition had 14 MLAs each. Responding to the media that day, the Speaker said that a decision on asking the government to prove its majority would be taken in due course. John Kumar resigned a day before Congress leader Rahul Gandhi was slated to visit Puducherry on an election campaign.

At a public meeting, Rahul Gandhi spoke plainly on the BJP’s plans: “The Prime Minister… has insulted the vote of people of Puducherry…. Through the office of the Lieutenant Governor, Prime Minister Modi is repeatedly sending you a message that your vote doesn’t matter. ...This is not an electoral battle for us. It’s a battle for the spirit of Puducherry. It’s a battle for you to live the way you want to live.”

Even though the BJP was careful not to be overtly seen as toppling an elected government, no one in the Union Territory was fooled. The BJP’s leaders from outside the State camped in Puducherry even as the issue gained traction across India. Despite the groundswell of public opinion against any hasty pulling down of the government, the BJP, operating through the Lt. Governor, went ahead with it.

Kiran Bedi sacked

Since her appointment as Lt. Governor, Kiran Bedi’s job seemed to be to lay hurdles in the path of the elected government. In an interview she claimed that this was because she was not a rubber stamp (“Inherent contradictions”, Frontline, June 9, 2017). The Bedi-Narayanasamy rift became so prominent that the Congress government launched multiple agitations against her; the last one was in January 2021 alleging that she was standing in the way of welfare schemes reaching the beneficiaries.

Hence, the news of her sacking came like a bolt from the blue. A February 16 Rashtrapathi Bhavan release said: “The President has directed that Dr Kiran Bedi shall cease to hold the office of the Lieutenant Governor of Puducherry and has appointed Dr Tamilisai Soundararajan, Governor of Telangana, to discharge the functions of the Lieutenant Governor of Puducherry....”

A sentence in her 2017 interview possibly holds the key to why Kiran Bedi was sacked. In that interview, asked about her differences with the Chief Minister, she said: “Mine is a constitutional position. I report to the Honourable President of India. I am bound by the law and the rules. The Lieutenant Governor’s office enjoys no immunity. Hence, whatever I approve has to meet the standards of financial and administrative prudence.” It follows that if she was asked to do something for which she would not have immunity, she would decline.

Also read: Lt Governor Kiran Bedi is sacked in a surprise move

Kiran Bedi’s sacking came as welcome news to the ruling Congress. Narayanasamy told the media: “In the last four and a half years, the L.G. has acted and behaved in the most disrespectful manner towards the people-elected government and has violated all the rules…. The number of protests done by the Secular Progressive Alliance and their request to the Central government to take back Kiran Bedi has been fulfilled.”

The immediate spin put out by the opposition on her ouster was that the Lt. Governor was hugely unpopular because of her high-handed ways, and the second was her insistence on enforcing the helmet rule in Puducherry—a town where almost every family has at least one two-wheeler. The Lt. Governor had also earned flak for taking credit for all schemes, including a few implemented by non-governmental organisations.

In contrast, Tamilisai Soundararajan, a doctor by profession, who was removed as Tamil Nadu BJP chief and posted as Governor in Telangana, was seen as pliable and dependable. In fact, in a meeting to launch a book on the occasion of her completing one year as Governor in Telangana, she said she had done all that the Central government and the party leadership wanted her to do. In just over 10 days, she was given additional charge as Lt. Governor in Puducherry.

So, the change of Administrator did not change the plans to topple the government, more because she was part of the plan too. In the space of a month in 2021, five MLAs resigned. This included K. Lakshminarayanan, who resigned on February 21, a day before the new Lt. Governor ordered a trust vote. An MLA belonging to the DMK, K. Venkatesan, too, resigned despite a warning from the party’s leadership. On February 22 morning, the ruling Congress government was left with nine MLAs. Even though it had the support of two DMK MLAs and one independent, this was not enough for the party to get to the halfway mark of 13.

The other side had the support of 14 MLAs. The NR-Congress, the main opposition party, had won eight seats in the 2016 election. One of its MLAs was disqualified following a conviction. The DMK later won this seat. The NR-Congress’ ally, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), had four MLAs. With the three nominated MLAs the opposition tally was 14.

Narayanasamy had initially hoped that Speaker Sivakolundhu would heed to his appeal that the nominated MLAs should not be allowed to vote. The Chief Minister pointed out that the BJP members had, in fact, lost in the election and could not even redeem their deposits. But the Speaker did not listen to his appeal. (The Supreme Court, however, held that the MLAs could vote). Aware that his government could in no way prove its majority, Narayanasamy used the floor of the House to speak at length on the government’s achievements and the impediments placed on its path by the Centre using the office of the Lt. Governor. This was broadcast live in Puducherry, and came as an eyeopener to people who had doubted his pointing fingers at the Lt. Governor all the time.

Also read: N. Rangaswamy of AINRC waits to hear from Puducherry Lieutenant-Governor after Congress government loses trust vote in Assembly

Narayanasamy kept at it for as long as he could. In the end, he did not wait for a show of hands for the trust vote and walked out with the remaining MLAs and his allies. The Speaker declared that the government had lost its majority. Later that afternoon, the Chief Minister submitted his resignation to the Lt. Governor.

Speaker switches sides

If it was not clear at the time of the February 22 session which side the Speaker was on, it became evident in just over a week: his brother V.P. Ramalingam joined the BJP in the presence of Union Home Minister Amit Shah, who was in Karaikal on an election campaign. Two other MLAs who quit just ahead of the trust vote—the DMK’s K. Venkatesan and the Congress’ John Kumar—also joined the BJP the same day. Sivakolundhu, who won from the Lawspet Assembly constituency in 2016, tendered his resignation to the Lt. Governor on “health reasons”. He refused to elaborate.

A senior journalist who has watched the developments in Puducherry for over a decade, said that Narayanasamy’s choice of Speaker had finally done him in. “A lot of MLAs have other interests. In fact, being a politician is not their first job. If Narayanasamy had appointed someone like K. Lakshminarayanan [he too left the party later], he would have been able to withstand the pressure from the Lt. Governor and the Centre much better,” he said.

Narayanasamy said not much could be done once the Central government decided to violate the spirit of the Constitution. He said: “First and foremost, I want to thank all the Congress legislators who stayed on with the party, regardless of the pressure on them. This is not a simple thing. If you consider the threats and the inducements to force MLAs to quit, you will have an idea. You should talk to the MLAs who quit and ask them the exact reasons why. The primary reason is fear. They were threatened.”

Dinesh Gundu Rao, Congress general secretary in charge of Goa, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry, did not mince words when he was asked who or what prompted the MLAs to quit. “The BJP under Modi and Shah are doing mafia raj in this country,” he told the media on February 23. When it was pointed out that the BJP had denied any involvement, he asked: “Why would they [the legislators] go? Some of them have been Ministers with the best portfolios possible. No.2 position [Namassivayam]. Why would he go?... I know for a fact that Amit Shah himself has operated all these things…. If they were unhappy with the [Congress] government, they should have left one year back or two years back. Why leave when the elections are one month away?”

Opposition’s view

However, NR-Congress leader N. Rangasamy said the Congress government collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions. “They could not prevent their MLAs from quitting. Why are they blaming others? Did MLAs from our party quit? This problem is wholly a creation of the Congress. It began right from the time the Congress government was formed. Now they are seeking to blame everyone else but themselves,” he said. BJP leaders, too, held similar views and claimed that they had nothing to do with what was happening in the Congress. But this is a stand the BJP has taken all along in States where it has effected a regime change.

But what Rangasamy is referring to cannot be dismissed. The Congress went into the 2016 Assembly election with Namassivayam as the face of the party. Namassivayam is known as a good organiser and had a name within the party and outside. Soon after the election he claimed that he was told that he was the Chief Minister designate. But at the All India Congress Committee the tables were turned and Narayanasamy was named Chief Minister. Namassivayam was appointed Minister in charge of Public Works Department. He enjoyed the fruits of office, and the constant distraction by Lt. Governor Kiran Bedi meant that most MLAs were with the Chief Minister. Namassivayam’s chance came when the BJP got interested in toppling the government. He did not wait to think of the consequences of his actions: he quit, showed the BJP who in the Ministry did what, and left it to the BJP’s tacticians to handle the rest.

Constitutional provisions

In some ways, Puducherry was a constitutional tragedy waiting to happen given the nature of provisions for the nomination of members enacted as early as 1962. Writing in The Hindu (“The structural fragility of Union Territories”, February 25, 2021), P.D.T. Achary, former Secretary General of the Lok Sabha, noted: “The purpose of this nomination is to enable the House to draw on the expertise of those eminent members who are nominated and thus enrich the debate in the House. But in the case of nomination to Puducherry Assembly, no such qualification is laid down either in Article 239 A or the Government of Union Territories Act. This leaves the field open for the Union Government to nominate anyone irrespective of whether he or she is suitable.”

The Government of Union Territories Act, 1963, lays down that the Puducherry Legislature Assembly will have 30 elected MLAs and a maximum of three MLAs nominated by the Central government. The only rule for the nomination is that such persons should not be government employees. There is no other qualification, such as in the case of the Rajya Sabha, where nominations are based on specific criteria.

Given the lack of constitutional protections, and the BJP’s desire to ensure a Congress-mukt Bharat, it was only a matter of time before the BJP’s central leadership ousted the government in Puducherry.

Also read: President’s rule imposed in Puducherry

The question of the nomination of MLAs was the first serious issue that created a rift between the Chief Minister Narayanasamy and Kiran Bedi. From 1985, after all elections it has been the practice for the government of the day to send a list of names to the Lt. Governor. Party functionaries, rather than eminent persons, have been picked each time. No political party has been an exception to this. There have been no known organised protests against this process too.

Kiran Bedi claimed that the Narayanasamy government did not nominate anyone and sent her own list of names to the Centre in June 2017. The names were that of two BJP office-bearers and a BJP sympathiser. Kiran Bedi brushed aside all objections and administered them the oath of office literally on the night of July 5, 2017.

An incensed ruling party and the DMK organised a bandh on July 8 and claimed that two of the three nominees had cases against them.

In 2018, the nominations were challenged before the Madras High Court. The Congress-led government argued that the Central government had not consulted it before making the nominations to the Assembly and sought the annulling of the same. When the High Court upheld the nominations, the government went in appeal to the Supreme Court. In December 2018, a three-judge bench of the apex court held that, according to law, no consultation with the Puducherry government was required before nominating members.

On the question of whether the nominated members had the power to vote on the Budget and on the no-confidence motion against the government, the Supreme Court held that the 1963 law did not distinguish between elected and nominated MLAs. The Congress plans to file a review petition in the Supreme Court on the question of voting rights of nominated MLAs.

But the Congress’ allies are more concerned about what will happen in case the 2021 Assembly election ends up in a hung Assembly. The DMK and the Communist Party of India voiced their fears to the Election Commission of India when its delegation visited Puducherry in February. They said that in the event of a hung Assembly, the Centre could use its nomination powers to swing the government to the advantage of one alliance. This was against the basic principles of parliamentary democracy, they appealed. The Election Commission has not commented on the issue so far. For now, the status quo on the nominated MLAs continues.

With the Assembly election round the corner, it is apparent that the ruling party and its allies start with a handicap of three legislators.

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