Puducherry Assembly election 2021

BJP aims for back-door entry in Puducherry

Print edition : April 09, 2021

P. Kannan (centre), former MP, joins the BJP in New Delhi on March 14. Photo: By Special Arrangement

N. Rangasamy, former Chief Minister of Puducherry, rides pillion with former Health Minister Malladi Krishna Rao during his party’s election campaign, in Puducherry on March 18. Photo: PTI

While the major alliances get ready to battle it out in Puducherry, the mood on the street is that the BJP will use every trick in the book to lure the victorious MLAs to form a government.

The battle for Puducherry is likely to be one of the most keenly watched contests in the upcoming round of Assembly elections, as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) fancies its chances and gets ready to make a power grab even though the fight is between two main fronts—one led by the Congress and the other by the N.R. Congress founded by N. Rangasamy, former Chief Minister.

The Congress has allied with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK), the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Communist Party of India and a few smaller parties. The N.R. Congress has been forced into an alliance with the BJP and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) is part of this alliance. The BJP leads the alliance for all practical purposes and dictates terms to its partners, even though it does not have a single elected Member in the Legislative Assembly.

The BJP has pulled out all the stops in its bid to capture power after the April 6 election. This became evident when when it ensured that the Congress government lost its majority on February 22, just a few days before the announcement of the 2021 election (Frontline, March 26, 2021). It was clear that the Congress-DMK alliance was caught unawares by this development. A senior leader in the alliance said: “The BJP began its work more than three months ago with the people and MLAs. This was the time when the DMK gave an impression that it will go it alone in the 2021 elections.”

The BJP’s machinations

Many politicians and civil society representatives confirm that the BJP’s ‘imported workers’ began work in October 2020. A part of the strategy was to go from house to house and explain the many schemes that the Central government had sanctioned for the Union Territory. In effect, the BJP has combined its show of strength at the political level with the ground-level work of approaching voters directly and understanding their needs.

In January this year, the DMK conducted a show of strength in Puducherry and declared S. Jagathrakshakan, its Puducherry-in-charge, as its chief ministerial candidate. The senior politician said: “With this, the problems in the alliance came out in the open. The BJP made use of this. There is no point in merely pointing fingers at the BJP. The DMK and the Congress are also responsible for this situation.” His view was endorsed by two ruling party leaders, who did not want to be identified.

Subsequently, many leaders in the Congress camp believed that the party would fight the 2021 election on its own, without any significant ally. The DMK’s assertion just a few months before the election that it wanted to contest on its own created a rift between the two parties. Belatedly, some alliance leaders tagged the Puducherry issue to the DMK leadership. But the leadership did not attend to this developing problem with the urgency it deserved.

Also read: Coordinated resignations of legislators in Puducherry just ahead of the Assembly election

D. Ravikumar, Member of Parliament and Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi leader, who lives in Puducherry, said: “The BJP can’t win a single seat in Puducherry. From what I heard from people here [Puducherry], many believe that the BJP will somehow form the government, even it means buying MLAs.”

According to him, both the N.R. Congress and the AIADMK would be the biggest losers in the current scenario because the BJP will co-opt victorious MLAs from both parties to cobble a majority.

This is only a part of the story. The BJP starts with an advantage of three nominated MLAs, six Central agencies and enormous resources under its control. According to the provisions under Article 239A of the Constitution, the Central government can nominate up to three MLAs. The Puducherry Assembly has 30 elected MLAs and three nominated ones. Although traditionally the Union Territory governments suggested the names, the BJP threw that tradition to the winds after it came to power at the Centre.

Kiran Bedi, the former Lieutenant-Governor who was sacked unceremoniously in February this year, nominated two BJP office-bearers as MLAs. Both had forfeited their deposit in the 2016 election. The third nominated person was an educationist. The incorporation of these three nominated MLAs led to the fall of the Congress-led government in February.

MLAs’ opportunism and loss of credibility

Across Puducherry, voters have been asking an embarrassing question to non-BJP candidates who approach them for votes: “Will you remain in this party after the election or shift?”

This is because the Congress government was forced out of office by a series of coordinated resignations from the Congress party. All those who resigned reportedly have a few skeletons in their cupboard; Central investigation agencies could rake up those issues at any time.

A worker at a tea stall in the French part of town said: “What we saw in February [the resignation of five elected representatives of the Congress and one from the DMK] makes us trust these guys [politicians] even less now.”

Also read: V. Narayanasamy on BJP’s twin-track toppling game

A ruling party MLA who did not want to be identified confirmed that people were asking this important question. He said: “Each constituency in Puducherry is very small, and the number of voters is very small too [compared to Tamil Nadu]. I know most of my voters by name. I have access to even their kitchen. That is not preventing them from asking me if I will shift to the BJP after they vote for me.”

In the 2016 election, nearly all the BJP candidates forfeited their deposits. But that is just a matter of detail for the party’s local unit. With Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah taking an unusual interest in Puducherry, Puducherry politicians are resigned to the reality that countering the BJP’s designs is a far greater challenge than winning the elections.

Rangasamy’s woes

A senior politician who is part of the BJP alliance said that it would take a lot of strength of character and muscle power to stay out of harm’s way. He said: “See what happened to Rangasamy. Did he have a choice in doing what he wanted to do for this election?” According to him, Rangasamy wanted to go it alone. “Rangasamy has never fought against the government at the Centre. He wanted to contest 23 seats on his own. As far as I know, he was clear that he did not want to contest all 30 seats, but wanted to contest enough number of seats to win a comfortable majority. But he did not have a choice.”

But Rangasamy was left with no choice. The politician added: “N.R. Congress is a small party, with meagre resources, not much backing or reach beyond Pondy…. The [telephone] calls [to Rangasamy] came right from the top in Delhi. He was not given any option but to go with the BJP. This is practically not a very good idea since the BJP’s image is not great here, like it is in Tamil Nadu.”

Also read: ‘It was our duty to seek a trust vote’

Rangasamy is popular and believes that victory is within the grasp of the party. He told Frontline: “We have no issues. We will win this time. There is no doubt.” Asked what made him so sure, he said: “What has the Congress government done for the people? Is it the job of a government to constantly keep complaining that it was not allowed to function? Then why did they contest elections?”

Until now, the BJP is barely a blip in Puducherry but the fact that it has become an overbearing ally is also a message that has reached the people of the Union Territory.

AIADMK as minor partner

This already untenable situation was worsened by the relegation of the AIADMK to a minor partner in the alliance. Even a few days after the filing of nominations began, the BJP and the AIADMK could not agree on a seat-sharing formula.

Nirmal Kumar Surana, the BJP leader in-charge of Puducherry, who hails from Karnataka and speaks fluent Tamil, did not see this as a problem. He has been camping in Puducherry much before the confidence vote of February 22. At a function to open a party office, he had stated that of the 14 seats allocated to the BJP and the AIADMK, one party would contest in 10 and the other in four. This was interpreted as the BJP contesting in 10 and the AIADMK in four.

Anbalagan, an AIADMK leader, refused to comment on the issue. “The AIADMK leadership in Chennai will decide.” He was not keen on contesting as part of the BJP front because his constituency has a significant number of minority votes. The impasse in seat sharing and the general unhappiness of the AIADMK over the manner in which it has been treated led to speculation that he may walk away and contest as an independent. But he was finally persuaded not to break ranks.

Late on March 16, the BJP allowed the AIADMK to contest five seats (the party had demanded seven) and kept nine seats for itself. The list of candidates of both parties was also released in the evening.

Despite the confusion and the haggling in the alliance every day, the BJP has been reaching out to new and old political faces asking them to join the party.

The latest person they approached was P. Kannan, former Congress leader and Rajya Sabha MP. He joined the BJP on March 15 along with his son. Kannan can reportedly influence about a thousand votes, which could prove crucial in a close fight.

Exodus from the Congress

The exodus from the Congress began with A. Namassivayam, the party’s second-in-command in the Union Territory, who resigned as Minister, along with one of his supporters, Theeppainthan, an MLA. Both later joined the BJP at the party headquarters. On February 15, Malladi Krishna Rao, a senior Minister and the sitting MLA from Yanam since 1996, tweeted his resignation letter: “I hereby tender my resignation of my seat in the House with effect from 15.02. 2021.” The very next day, John Kumar, MLA, claimed that he was “dissatisfied with the performance of the Congress government” and submitted his resignation to the Speaker.

Namassivayam was tipped to be Chief Minister in 2016 but was pipped to the post by Narayanasamy. However, despite joining the BJP, he is unlikely to be made the Chief Minister. Ravikumar said: “Neither Namassivayam nor Rangasamy will be made Chief Minister. The BJP has not even announced the Chief Ministerial candidate. They will bring an RSS chap via the nomination route and make him Chief Minister.”

Congress and allies

The Congress and its allies have finalised their seat-sharing arrangements, with the Congress contesting in 15 seats, the DMK in 13, and the CPI and the VCK in one each. As is the case in any alliance, some Congress leaders are upset that the DMK took far more seats than it deserved, a complaint that DMK leaders in Tamil Nadu voice against the Congress in Tamil Nadu. The DMK has fielded quite a few businessmen in the constituencies allotted to it.

Also read: The Congress and the N.R. Congress remain prime contenders in Puducherry even as the BJP looks to make inroads

In another unusual development, the VCK has been allotted a general constituency even though the party has a Dalit identity. Rangasamy is likely to post a thumping victory in Thattanchavady, which has been allotted to the CPI. Rangasamy filed his nomination from the constituency on March 15 and also filed from Yanam.

The VCK’s growing influence in Puducherry makes it the only political formation standing in the way of the BJP making serious inroads into the Dalit voter base. VCK leader Thol. Thirumavalavan enjoys enormous popularity and his presence anywhere in the Union Territory attracts huge crowds, especially youngsters. A local leader remarked that Thirumavalavan was much bigger than the party he represented.

2016 results

In 2016, the Congress won 15 seats with 30.6 per cent of the votes and its ally, the DMK, won two seats and 8.85 per cent of the votes. The N.R. Congress won eight seats and 28.12 per cent of the votes, while the AIADMK, which contested on its own, won four seats and 16.82 per cent of the votes. An independent candidate won from Mahe.

The BJP contested all the 30 seats and forfeited the deposit in 29. It had a 2.41 per cent vote share. Independent candidates managed to get 7.86 per cent of the votes, according to Election Commission of India website.

In Oussudu (S.C.) constituency, the BJP candidate Sai J. Saravanan Kumar came second, winning 6,323 of the 28,973 votes polled. In Mahe constituency, surrounded by Kerala, the BJP came a distant third, securing just over 1,000 votes. In several constituencies, the party obtained fewer votes than NOTA and in one, Thirunallar, it managed only 50 votes.

Puducherry has an awkward geography, with the Telugu-speaking Yanam on the banks of the Godavari (more than 800 kilometres from Puducherry), and Malayalam-speaking Mahe, a nine-sq.km region on the banks of the Mayyazhi in Kerala (over 600 km away). Both send one representative each to the Assembly. Karaikal, just over 130 km way from Puducherry, sends five members to the House. The rest are elected from Puducherry.

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