V. Vaithilingam replaces N. Rangasamy as Chief Minister in Congress-ruled Puducherry.
AFTER a gap of 12 years, V. Vaithilingam is back at the helm of affairs in the Union Territory of Puducherry. The change of guard took place following the premature exit of the government headed by N. Rangasamy on August 28. Vaithilingam was sworn in as Chief Minister along with five Ministers, four of them from the outgoing Cabinet, on September 4.
Puducherry has had unstable governments ever since its liberation from French rule in 1954. So the latest development did not come as a surprise. It has only reiterated the fact that the political turf of the Union Territory is unstable. What the people actually agonised over was the nine-month-long standoff between Rangasamy and his Cabinet colleagues, which brought the entire administration to a standstill. Putting all development and welfare activities on the back burner, all the five Ministers in the Cabinet shuttled between Delhi and Puducherry to achieve their one-point programme of ousting Rangasamy as Chief Minister. He was chosen as Chief Minister for a second time after the Congress-Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) combine won 17 of the 30 seats in the 2006 Assembly elections.
Direct confrontations between the Chief Minister and his Ministers, burning of effigies and fisticuffs marked the infighting in the Cabinet and in the Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC). The Ministers had the backing of Union Minister of State for Planning and Parliamentary Affairs V. Narayanasamy while Rangasamy was supported by the then PCC chief and party veteran, P. Shanmugam, who was subsequently replaced by A.V. Subramanian.
Rangasamy always attempted to steer clear of controversy. His equations with the Congress high command appeared to be so good that he was tipped for the second term in June 2006. Just as he started to consolidate his position in the government, his Ministers raised the banner of revolt. Non-allocation of funds for various schemes, including the special component plan meant for the welfare of Dalits, and inept handling of the law and order situation (the Chief Minister also handled the Home portfolio) were cited as reasons for demanding his ouster. Rangasamy was criticised for allotting all major developmental schemes, including the multi-crore government Medical College and Research Institute project, to Thattanchavady, his home constituency, while other Assembly segments were left high and dry.
The differences within the Cabinet assumed serious proportions when the Ministers decided not to participate in Cabinet meetings until their demands were met. As no Cabinet meeting was held after March 2008, several schemes announced by the government on the basis of the Congress electoral promises could not take off and many ongoing schemes had to be kept in cold storage. The Ministers consistently claimed that paucity of funds came in the way of execution of projects.
Attempts by Rangasamy to allay his detractors apprehensions about the availability of funds and assurances that the Planning Commission had approved a plan size of Rs.1,750 crore for 2008-09 did not work.
The infighting became so intense that not only the opposition parties such as the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and the Puducherry Munnetra Congress (PMC) but also the Congress alliance partners the DMK, the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) and the Communist Party of India (CPI) expressed their displeasure at the governments inertness. Although the Congress had only 10 elected members in the 30-member Assembly and the minority government relied on its allies for survival, repeated appeals by them to the Chief Minister and the Ministers to bury the hatchet and work for the welfare of the people in a more cohesive manner went unheeded.
The ruling party did not respond favourably to their suggestion to form a coordination panel to air their views. The Left parties, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the CPI, cautioned the government against incurring the wrath of the public by stretching the factional feud too far.
As the Chief Minister and his Cabinet colleagues began making conflicting statements on the financial status of the Union Territory, the Left parties urged the government to present a White Paper on the issue. They held protests jointly and separately against what they called the acts of omission and commission of the Congress government.
At one stage, the legislators belonging to the CPI, the PMK and the PMC sought the intervention of the Lieutenant Governor to convene the Assembly to end the political stalemate. The efforts made by successive Lt. Governors to promote cohesiveness in the government and transparency in governance made little impact.
The damage-control measures resorted to by All India Congress Committee observers through their interactive sessions with the Chief Minister, the Ministers and party functionaries could not bring about any significant change. As the infighting intensified, several issues that were considered vital for the progress of the Union Territory and many sectors that needed urgent government attention were ignored by the administration. One such was the demand for full statehood for Puducherry.
Although in the last Budget session the Assembly passed a near-unanimous resolution (only Minister for Tourism Malladi Krishna Rao from the Yanam region opposed it), the issue was not pursued.
Another issue that has not got due attention is the high rate of farmers suicide, as per data provided by the National Crime Records Bureau, in the Union Territory. Several non-governmental organisations and farmers associations have expressed concern over the decline in the net area of cultivation following the lack of stringent measures to regulate the real-estate business.
The government also found it difficult to explain as to how Puducherry had 1.35 lakh red ration cards (issued to below poverty line families) while the Chief Minister claimed that the per capita income had crossed Rs.60,000. No measures were taken to curb the increasing rate of unemployment. According to figures in the live register at the employment exchange, there are 1.96 lakh unemployed people in Puducherry, which has a population of 9.74 lakh as per the 2001 Census.
Although the government won acclaim for the relief and rehabilitation measures in the post-tsunami period, it has not constructed its share of permanent houses for the affected people, particularly fishermen. The feud in the Congress resulted in situations such as private medical colleges failing to fulfil their commitment to earmark 50 per cent of the seats for candidates selected by the centralised admission committee and private fleet operators effecting a fare hike arbitrarily.
Rangasamy found himself in a catch-22 situation, unable to proceed further despite claiming that the high command was satisfied with his stewardship. What tilted the scale in favour of his detractors was the decision of A. Namassivayam, Parliamentary Secretary and Rangasamys close relative, to join the rebel group. The Chief Minister submitted his resignation shortly before the Congress Legislature Party elected Vaithilingam its new leader.
Vaithilingam told the media after assuming office that his government would give top priority to the implementation of the election promises. The DMK and the PMK have assured the party to continue their support to Vaithilingam. The Leader of the Opposition, A.M.H. Nazeem, has asked the new government to focus on schemes that have already been sanctioned.
Vaithilingam and his team will surely have to walk a tightrope.