Puducherry Assembly election

Puducherry Assembly election: Two fronts, too many problems

Print edition : April 23, 2021

During an election campaign of N. Rangasamy, president of the All India N.R. Congress, in the Rajbhavan constituency in Puducherry on March 31. Photo: T. Singaravelou

Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a rally in Puducherry on March 30. Photo: PTI

A. Johnkumar, the BJP candidate in the Kamaraj Nagar constituency. Photo: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

The main combines in the fray continue to trade charges even as they are plagued by internal issues.

It was past 6 p.m. on March 28 but there was still no sign of N. Rangasamy, president of the N.R. Congress, at Jawahar Nagar in Ozhukarai constituency, where he was to campaign for N.G. Panneer Selvam from 4.30 p.m.

But party leaders and cadres at Jawahar Nagar were not worried. A leader said: “He will come. 4.30 pm to 6 pm is rahu kaalam (an inauspicious period).” Known as ‘Ayya’ to local residents, Rangasamy is deeply pious and visits a local temple on Saturdays, where he sometimes worships for hours. Like many politicians across India, he too believes in astrology.

Around 6.45 p.m., Rangasamy arrived in a convoy with a car and dozens of motorcycles. The motorcycles were in front as per his usual style, announcing the leader’s arrival with blaring horns and flashing headlights. He alighted from the vehicle to fireworks, music, and loud cheers, walked a short distance to his campaign vehicle stationed opposite the Amirthakadeswarar temple, and greeted the crowd that had gathered.

His campaign vehicle sported a coronavirus warning board, but that appeared to be perfunctory. Just as he boarded an open jeep, others followed: the local MP, the MLA hopeful, Rangasamy’s aide, the MP’s aide, the MLA hopeful’s aide, and a few young musclemen, ostensibly for security. There was no standing room in the vehicle. At the end of his 14-minute speech, Rangasamy declared that he would be Chief Minister after the counting of votes on May 2. He said: “Some people keep asking who the Chief Minister will be. Let me make this clear. Our alliance will win this election. We will form the government…. I will surely be the Chief Minister. There need be no doubt on that count.” Just a few hours before Rangasamy’s assertion that he would be Chief Minister, A. Namassivayam, a Congressman who had switched loyalties to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), had said in response to a question that the BJP leadership would decide who the Chief Minister would be.

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

Chief Ministership is among the contentious problems dogging the N.R. Congress-BJP-All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) alliance. The N.R. Congress is contesting 16 seats, the BJP nine and the AIADMK five. In the previous election in 2016, the BJP forfeited the deposit in 29 of the 30 seats it contested, while the AIADMK won four.

Cooperation with Centre

On the campaign trail in the last week of March, Rangasamy spoke about why the Union Territory could not be in an antagonistic relationship with the Central government. Almost everywhere, he asserted that Puducherry could flourish only with the Centre’s support and cooperation.

He said: “If we need to develop, we need funds. For this we need the cooperation of the Central government. We are a small union territory. The Lieutenant-General (L-G) should cooperate. There is no point fighting with them [Lieutenant Governor or the Central Government]. Even the Supreme Court has said that the Centre has the powers.” Faulting former Chief Minister V. Narayanasamy for failing on this front, Rangasamy said that it was laughable that the Congress government kept pointing fingers at the L-G for its inability to deliver results on the ground. He said: “Everyone knows that we [the elected government] do not have much power. When [Virendra] Kataria was L-G, it was Narayanasamy who told everyone publicly that all powers are with the L-G.” (Virendra Kataria was dismissed when the BJP came to power in 2014; he died in 2019.)

Rangasamy added: “Why does he say one thing when I was Chief Minister and another when he becomes Chief Minister. He [Narayanasamy] did not run the administration properly. In the end, the people got affected. These are facts…. Now we have the opportunity to change all that and get back on the path of development.” It was obvious that the BJP, which forced Rangasamy into an alliance, has pressured him to talk about the need for cooperation between the Centre and the Union Territory, so that the path for the BJP’s entry into Puducherry is easier. Rangasamy has been playing his part rather well. He speaks in colloquial Tamil and addresses people in conversational language to push the point that only the BJP at the Centre can ensure Puducherry’s development.

The Narayanasamy camp laughed away Rangaswamy’s allegations. R.K.R. Anantharaman, Congress party whip and the candidate from Manavely, said: “He was the opposition leader for the past five years. He barely did anything for the people.”

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

The Congress has a long list of what Rangasamy allegedly did not do as the opposition leader, which it shared with the voters. Anantharaman said: “He was missing during the lockdown period when Narayanasamy and we were out in the field every single day, helping people. He was the Leader of the Opposition but he was nowhere to be seen.” Former Minister M. Kandasamy said: “He has not spoken up on a single issue that has affected Puducherry. He has also said nothing about major issues such as CAA [Citizenship Amendment Act], NEET [National Eligibility cum Entrance Test], the attempt to extend the Tamil Nadu-style reservation for government school students in medical colleges, the closure of ration shops by [former L-G] Kiran Bedi and many other things.”

However, despite all these charges, Rangasamy remains the most popular leader in the Union Territory.

BJP’s push

The BJP is making a major push in Puducherry because it now sees an opportunity to grab power in the Union Territory and make an entry into the southern tip of India (Frontline, April 9, 2021). A host of BJP Ministers and senior party leaders have visited the Union Territory. They include Prime Minister Narendra Modi (two visits), Home Minister Amit Shah (in Karaikal, two visits), Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, BJP president J.P. Nadda, and Nitin Gadkari, Minister for Road Transport and Highways.

For the BJP, coming to power is not just an option; it is a goal set by the Central leadership. And there are many allies in this process. The main part is played by a reluctant Rangasamy. The others in the drama include Telangana Governor Tamilisai Soundararajan who is holding additional charge as L-G. As of now, it appears that a person chosen by the BJP high command will occupy the Chief Minister’s chair. The BJP believes that regardless of who wins, it can still form the government.

The third set of players is from Karnataka: Nirmal Kumar Surana, the BJP Puducherry in-charge, and a massive team he has imported from Bengaluru.

Also read: BJP aims for back-door entry in Puducherry

Although the stage is set for what the BJP believes will be its government after the May 2 counting of votes, the voters are still reluctant to embrace the saffron party. A leader from the N.R. Congress said: “Support for the BJP is growing in Puducherry. But it is not to the extent that the BJP wants or desires.” He added that the N.R. Congress being part of the BJP alliance and Rangasamy sharing a stage with Prime Minister Modi has not gone down well with the people. (There was also a raid in the residence of an N.R. Congress functionary but the issue did not gain much traction.)

Familiar patterns

As Puducherry inches closer to the polling day (April 6) to elect 30 MLAs, a few clear patterns have already emerged.

First, as in the elections of the recent past, there are only two serious contenders in the fray: the alliance led by the Congress and the front led by the N.R. Congress. The others have disappeared or have been reduced to being extremely marginal players.

Secondly, Puducherry continues to protect and uphold an identity distinct from that of Tamil Nadu. As a result, local leaders continue to call the shots for all intents and purposes and several established and rising parties in the Tamil Nadu landscape do not enjoy traction in the Union Territory. For instance, although a vast majority of the population in Puducherry belongs to the Vanniyar caste, the local residents have little affinity for the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), which has fought for the rights of this caste group to the exclusion of every other caste group. The PMK, which announced that it will contest in at least 11 seats in the upcoming election, withdrew from the contest as it could not find suitable candidates, and decided to support the N.R. Congress-led front. Manivannan of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) said: “There’s only Ayya [Rangasamy] here, no Dr Ayya [S. Ramadoss, PMK founder].” The Scheduled Castes, who form the second largest segment of voters, look up to local leaders, including former Minister M. Kandasamy. Thol. Thirumavalavan, leader of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK), does not enjoy the same level of popularity among them as he does in Tamil Nadu. However, the Scheduled Tribes, a microscopic minority in the Union Territory, identify themselves with the VCK. Ekambaram, a VCK office-bearer who hails from the Irula S.T. community, said: “S.Ts are forgotten during elections, after elections and during all times. Here in Puducherry, most of us do not even have land pattas. Our people are routinely raided and criminal tags are attached to many of our youth. It’s difficult being an S.T. person. We have cast our lot with Thirumavalavan.”

The fishermen community, the third largest segment by population, is mostly Hindu and has its share of local leaders. Kanagasabhai, a former panchayat president and fishermen’s union leader, said that it was the Congress that helped fishermen in times of distress, including recent cyclones. As such, the fishermen, who were being wooed by the BJP, might still prefer to be on the side of the Congress. Kanagasabhai said: “Our people won’t change much merely because you give them a few things or make a few promises. We have heard many promises during our time. Nothing much has happened though.”

The disaffection with Tamil Nadu politicians is the reason why T.T.V. Dinakaran, leader of the Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam (AMMK), found neither support nor crowds when he visited the Union Territory for campaigning. AMMK’s announcement that it would contest the polls in Puducherry too received a cold response. Dinakaran reportedly cut short his Puducherry tour and left before completing his scheduled programme.

As for the Naam Tamilar Katchi (NTK), which is trying to appropriate the Tamil nationalist space, it has few takers in Puducherry although the Union Territory has a number of Tamil nationalists.

Problems plaguing main fronts

Thirdly, there is a distinct discomfort in both fronts, albeit for different reasons. In the Congress-led front, which includes the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the VCK, the Communist Party of India and the CPI (M), the Congress is contesting 15 seats, the DMK 13, and the VCK and the CPI one each.

The sudden departure of two significant second-line Congress leaders from the party in two months rattled the party. The loss of A. Namassivayam, the second in command, and Malladi Krishna Rao, were perhaps the biggest blows to the Congress and the combine. The two leaders, who held important Ministerial portfolios, were expected to bankroll the front’s election campaign. While Namassivayam joined the BJP, Malladi Krishna Rao decided to stay away from the race. The Congress had to scramble to finance its campaign after Namassivayam and S. Theepainthan, an MLA, left in January, and Malladi Krishna Rao in February.

In the midst of his hectic campaign in the Embalam reserved constituency, Congress leader Kandasamy told Frontline: “Everyone keeps asking us why we gave away so many seats to the DMK. Our MLAs quit. A few quit just over a month ago. In a place like Puducherry, where every candidate has to necessarily know each voter in a constituency, how do we find candidates in this short span of time?”

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

But there are many in the party who believe that the Congress had “unnecessarily” given away too many seats to the DMK. A former MLA who did not want to be named said: “What did the DMK do with these seats? Many of its candidates are rich businessmen. Barring a few loyal DMK leaders, all the other seats are now difficult to win.”. Ground reports suggest that this time, the DMK might win more seats than the Congress.

The local unit of the VCK is not very happy that it was forced to contest in a non-reserved constituency because the party believes that the chance of winning the constituency is bleak. An N.R. Congress leader said: “This is literally giving away the constituency to us.” Apart from this, the Congress could not find a candidate for one constituency and is now backing an independent. The CPI appears to be the only party that got a seat and is not complaining.

The N.R. Congress-led front, which includes the BJP and the AIADMK, is also plagued by several problems. For starters, neither the AIADMK nor the N.R. Congress wanted to be associated with the BJP during the campaigning phase. Although BJP flags were present in almost all campaign vehicles, there is no mention of Prime Minister Modi or any other BJP leader in any of the campaign speeches by both the regional parties.

An N.R. Congress supporter said: “This is a very small place where everyone knows everyone else. The people are not happy with the manner in which the BJP has gone about forming this alliance.” The fact that the BJP is contesting as many as nine seats when the larger ally, the AIADMK, is contesting only five, has not gone down well with the AIADMK or the N.R. Congress.

Dynasties and other taxing issues

On March 27, Nirmala Sitharaman, while on a whirlwind tour of Puducherry, found time to canvass votes for just one candidate: J. Vivian Richards, a recent inductee into the BJP , who is contesting from the Nellithope constituency. Nirmala Sitharaman, who also released the BJP’s manifesto earlier, left soon thereafter.

Vivian Richards is the son of A. Johnkumar, a former Congress MLA who joined the BJP in February. Johnkumar, who won from the Nellithope constituency in 2016, vacated it later for Chief Minister V. Narayanasamy. He became the Special Representative of the Puducherry administration in Delhi in 2017. In 2019, after a vacancy arose in Kamaraj Nagar, he contested and won. He was among the trusted lieutenants of Narayanasamy.

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

For the BJP, a party that keeps harping on the Congress dynasty at the drop of a hat, the Johnkumar-Vivian Richards duo represent a glaring compromise of principles. Moreso for Nirmala Sitharaman, who has never missed an opportunity to point out how Rahul Gandhi came to lead the Congress.

Resentment within BJP

The choice of candidates for most of the nine BJP constituencies in Puducherry has caused a lot of consternation among the party’s long-term loyalists. A party insider who did not want to be named said: “Look at those who have been given the party ticket. Could the BJP not field the party’s sincere workers? Namassivayam gets a seat. That is understandable. Saminathan [the BJP Puducherry leader] gets a seat. But I have a problem with the rest of the candidates because the whole of Puducherry knows each one of them and what kind of activities they are involved in.”

In one case, a BJP leader flew from Puducherry to Karaikal where a rich businessmen was based, brought him to Puducherry and gave him the party ticket.

Puducherry is witnessing an election campaign with many intrigues. Given the nature of the problems in the BJP-led camp, the Congress alliance had a lot going for it. But it is still in a disjointed campaign because there is no Chief Ministerial face, as the party high command has directed Narayanasamy to stay away from the race. A leader in the Congress-led front said: “Narayanasamy could have cashed in on the sympathy vote. The Congress specialises in pulling defeat from the jaws of victory. If there is any other result, I will view it as a miracle.”

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