The plan to bring down the Puducherry government ahead of the visit of former Congress president Rahul Gandhi on February 17 has fallen flat, but the dynamics that the destabilisation move had set in motion has created political uncertainty in the State.
Even as the Congress government led by V. Narayanasamy plunged into a crisis after the resignation of four party MLAs and speculation was rife about its fate, what came as a surprise to observers was the sacking of Lt Governor Kiran Bedi. Out of the blue, on February 16, a Rashtrapati 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, in addition to her own duties, with effect from the date she assumes charge of her office, until regular arrangements for the office of Lieutenant-Governor of Puducherry are made.”
The news was greeted with great joy by the Congress. Narayanasamy did not hide his glee in a series of interviews that he granted to the media and, later, in a press meet: “In the last four and a half years, the Lt Governor has acted and behaved in the most disrespectful manner towards the people-elected government and has violated all the rules…. The number of protests by the Secular Progressive Alliance and their request to the Central government to take back Kiran Bedi has been fulfilled…. Puducherry is practically being healed.”
Senior politicians say that the Lt Governor was hugely unpopular and hence the BJP decided to remove her. Ironically, one of the reasons for her unpopularity was her insistence on enforcing the helmet rule in Puducherry, a town where almost every family has at least one two wheeler. Most of them do not wear helmets and when the helmet rule was enforced across India, politicians in Puducherry did not want to take a stand on the issue.
One politician pointed out that the BJP wanted a face that would be trustworthy and, at the same time, a person who would not take a publicly confrontational path with the government. Usually, in times like these (when the Lt Governor in Puducherry is replaced), it is the Tamil Nadu Governor who is given additional charge. The fact that the Tamil Nadu Governor was not considered itself is instructive: that the BJP’s plans for Puducherry are still apace. Even though there is a maximum of two months ahead of the elections, it appears that the BJP is still working on its plan of a “Congress Mukt Puducherry”.
In what appeared to be an anti-climax for the BJP, Rahul Gandhi’s visit to Puducherry appeared to be a huge success. According to a Congress leader, people from various walks of life lined the streets and thronged the venue of Rahul Gandhi’s public meeting. He interacted with different groups of people ahead of the public meeting, posed for selfies, and interacted with partymen.
At the public meeting, Rahul Gandhi launched a no-holds-barred attack on the BJP and the way it has treated Puducherry: “For the last five years, Puducherry had an elected government. It was a government elected by citizens of Puducherry…. But the Prime Minister has not allowed the elected government to function for the last five years. He has insulted the vote of the people of Puducherry…. Through the office of the Lt Governor, Prime Minister Modi is repeatedly sending you a message that your vote doesn’t matter. He has repeatedly told you that the only thing that matters is that he is the Prime Minister of this country…. One man [Prime Minister Modi] thinks he is not the Prime Minister, but the king of this country. A Prime Minister of a country will respect the will of the people. He would give the people the resources that are rightfully theirs…. 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.”
MLA numbers and the Lt Governor’s role
The Assembly election is only two months away but the number crunching has begun: Of the 19 MLAs in the treasury benches (Congress and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam), four Congress MLAs have resigned so far. In the 30-member House, the ruling combine has only 14 MLAs. Puducherry also has three nominated MLAs. All the three nominated MLAs are from the BJP despite the fact that the BJP has not been able to win a single seat in Puducherry so far.
It was Lt Governor Kiran Bedi who unilaterally recommended the names of the three BJP members to be nominated as MLAs to the Central government in a display of blatant partisanship. (‘Running amok’, Frontline, August 4, 2017). She dismissed the protests from the Chief Minister and the Congress party, saying that she had powers equivalent to that of the Lt Governor of Delhi. The Congress and its alliance partner DMK have held that this was at the behest of the BJP.
With the support of these three unelected MLAs, the opposition claimed that it had a strength of 14 MLAs, the same number the Congress combine has.
N.R. Rangaswamy, Leader of the Opposition in the Assembly has demanded the resignation of the Congress government and submitted a letter signed by 14 MLAs to the Lt Governor’s office; Chief Minister Narayanasamy laughed away suggestions that his party will not be able to survive a confidence vote; and the remaining Congress MLAs made it clear that the numbers had to be proved on the floor of the Assembly and nowhere else.